Waiting at the luggage carousel is never the most enjoyable experience, and the longer you're standing there, the less fun it gets. If you're lucky, your bag will be one of the first into the public area; you can snatch it up and be on your way with a minimum of fuss.
Normally, you'll be stuck wondering just when yours will drop into view, watching as everybody else's suitcases cycle around and around. You can play an interesting game of I Spy while you're waiting or perhaps count how many identical, black-wheeled cases you can see or just hang around, growing increasingly impatient until your bag arrives.
In some cases, though, it simply won't appear. After the last piece of luggage has disappeared — even that lurid, pink Hello Kitty case that nobody seemed to want to claim — you should head to either the baggage services area or to the nearest airline employee, who will be able to assist you further.
If you're "lucky," sometimes the airline will pre-empt the whole waiting period and just call you over the PA, telling you to head to baggage services for more information.
Know what you want
When you get to baggage services, you'll be asked to identify yourself, your flight, and your baggage. Make sure you have your baggage tags handy (you'd have received them when you checked in, maybe attached to your boarding pass), because they contain information about your bags.
You'll also need to answer a few descriptive questions about your luggage covering color, brand, and type (there'll be a list for you to choose from). If your bag has any other distinguishing features — a brightly colored strap, ribbons, key rings, tags, labels, and so on — you should mention these also. Try to give the airline as much information as you can, so that it can help you further.
The airline employee will put all of your information into a central database and give you a reference number. He'll also give you some handy contact details — a phone number for the airline and a global baggage tracking website that will keep tabs on your bag once it is found. (As great as it sounds, the tracker website is traditionally fairly inefficient, and you can usually find out far more by just calling the airline directly.)
...and then you wait.
Are you covered?
While you're waiting, take the time to check your travel insurance (you do have some, right?). Check your airline's baggage policy while you're at it. Certain airlines might give you an amount of money to cover essentials (so you're not stuck on vacation without clean underwear), but not all do. Most will not offer this to you unless you ask, so it's a good idea to keep on top of what you're eligible to receive.
If your luggage hasn't turned up within a reasonable amount of time, then it becomes an insurance issue. The airline will likely only have a limited liability cover for this sort of situation. It might cover you for your loss, but it will be a very small amount if anything at all.
This might also be a good time to put on your nicest shoes, because you might just start kicking yourself for never bothering to get travel insurance. It's included with some credit cards (gold cards, usually) and through many travel agents, so next time before you book a flight, have a look around and see if you can get any deals. You know what they say — if it only saves you once, it's worth it.
Some handy tips
In the unfortunate event that you find yourself in an airport without your bag, there are some ways you can make things easier (besides always taking a change of clothes in your carry-on — you never know when a clean pair of socks will come in handy!).
Make sure you don't lose your baggage tags; they're your proof that you did actually check your suitcase in before you boarded the plane. Baggage tags typically have a barcode or other identifying characteristic that will make it easier to locate your bag.
It's also handy to make sure there's something identifiable and unique about your bag. A tag with your airline membership number or frequent flier details can serve a double purpose — showing you're a regular customer might help things to happen more quickly. Otherwise, slipping a business card into a clear pocket or adding a tag with your (cell) phone number is a good idea if you don't feel comfortable putting your home address.
Always have your destination address handy — in your carry-on! — in case you need it. Remember, the airline will want to know where to send your stuff when it turns up.
If you do find your luggage has gone off without you, stay on top of the things at the airline. It has a lot of jobs to do, and believe it or not, you're not their highest priority (small solace when you're stuck in a strange city with only the clothes on your back and a dead laptop).
Harried airport staff are quick to reassure you that they will make sure your luggage is put on the next flight — and they often don't actually follow through. Sometimes, they need a gentle nudge to make sure that your bag does get on the plane.
Once you've been sent on your way empty-handed, don't stop there. Make sure you check the tracking website and call the airline once a day (or more if you have to) to find out what's going on. Your bag may well be sitting there in the airport waiting for you, and nobody bothered to call.
... and if you do end up with a little cash from the airlines, try to look on the bright side. You're in a new town, on vacation, and your first day of shopping's already been subsidized!
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