updated 8/31/2009 1:00:41 AM ET 2009-08-31T05:00:41

You're standing at a baggage carousel for what seems like forever when the steady flow of bags onto the conveyor belt slows to a trickle, then stops. Your bags are nowhere in sight. Or your bags do show up, but look like an angry gorilla has been throwing them around his cage for sport. Who's responsible?

Delays

If your bags are delayed, try not to panic. The airlines typically have ways to track them, and about 98 percent of all misplaced luggage is returned eventually. If your bags are on the next flight, you could have them within a few hours. If they've been sent to the wrong airport, it could take a couple of days. Make sure to file your claim immediately at the airport and to give the attendant a hotel or home phone number and address.

The airlines will typically bring you your luggage when it is found; you will rarely need to return to the airport to pick it up. Additionally, many airlines will reimburse any unexpected expenses caused by the loss or delay (keep your receipts!). But be careful here — the airline sometimes has the option to deduct any reimbursement or stipend from any subsequent awards.

Before you leave the airport, be sure you know how to check on your bag's status; some airlines have an online system while others will provide you with a phone number to call for updates.

Lost baggage

If the airline loses your bags, make sure you get a written claim for damages. This may require a different form than the original "missing luggage" form. This can be done at the airport or by mail.

On domestic flights, the airline baggage liability is capped at $3,300 per person. On international trips, the liability limit may vary, as it is governed by various international treaties, including the Montreal and Warsaw Conventions. Check your carrier's Web site for specifics.

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You may need to produce receipts to prove the value of items you had in your suitcase. If you have them, include copies in any documentation you send to the airline. (Keep in mind that you will be reimbursed for the depreciated value of your items — so the airline won't give you the full $1,000 you paid for that suit you purchased two years ago.) You can purchase "excess valuation" protection if your checked baggage is worth more than these limits (but before doing so, make sure the items aren't already covered by your homeowner's or travel insurance policy).

The airlines typically have a long list of items for which they will not be held responsible; these include jewelry, money, heirlooms and other valuables. These sorts of items should always be packed in your carry-on bag.

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Stolen baggage

Head directly to the baggage carousel when you get off your flight. Many airlines scan bags when they're loaded into the baggage claim area and keep records, especially at larger airports. Once you've left the baggage claim area, your claim is no longer with the airline, but with the police.

Damaged baggage

Once you've gotten your bags off the carousel, immediately check them for damage or other signs of tampering or mishandling. Report any damage before leaving the airport; airline customer service will often want to inspect the bag. Keep in mind that most airlines won't cover minor wear and tear.

You will most likely need to produce a receipt for any repairs, or be required to use airline-sanctioned luggage repair vendors. Ask the baggage claim attendant for specific information. You don't want to find out that you have paid for a repair that it isn't covered.

An ounce of prevention

Put your name on the outside and inside of your bags. Even better, put a copy of your itinerary in each checked bag so the airline can locate you.

The most common causes of lost and delayed bags are late check-ins and tight connections. Avoid both when you can.

Pack all valuables in your carry-on bags. Cameras, computers, medication, wallets, heirlooms, jewelry, passports, as well as confirmation numbers, itineraries, contact information and other documents necessary to your travel should not be in your checked baggage.

Itemize. It sounds tedious, but when an airline asks what was in your bag, you don't want to forget anything of value.

Make sure the person who checks your baggage attaches the correct destination ticket to every bag, and get a claim ticket for each.

Pack a change of clothes in your carry-on bag so that you'll have something to wear if your checked bag is delayed.

Travel insurance is the best guarantee that you'll recoup any losses. See our guide to travel insurancefor more information.

If all else fails

Be sure to file a complaint immediately. If you still can't get satisfaction, or feel the need to report the airline, contact the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

Finally, if you're wondering where lost bags go after they die, here's your answer: UnclaimedBaggage.com!

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