(CNN) -- Lost luggage -- one of the most dreaded fears of air travelers. Standing around the baggage carousel, watching your fellow passengers pick up bag after bag -- and yours never surfaces....
Most lost luggage hopped a different airplane than you, heading for Los Angeles instead of London, Brisbane instead of Boise. Errant luggage is usually back in the hands of waiting owners within 24 hours, but that isn't much help when everything you intended to bring with you is a thousand miles away.
Should you find yourself standing forlornly by a baggage carousel, report the missing bags to the airline. They'll start a computerized trace, and eventually be able to tell you just where your clothes are vacationing -- or that they truly are lost.
Once found, your bags will be brought back to your location. While you wait, the airline may compensate you for emergency, out-of-pocket expenses for toiletries or some clothing, depending on the situation. Generally, you'll be offered more money if you're away from home, and most likely more money the longer the delay in returning your bags.
Keep in contact with the airline while they're searching for your bags -- in most cases, they're quick to contact you once your bags are located, and in most cases, they'll even deliver the found luggage to you.
Truly lost luggage
If your bags are genuinely lost, you must file a claim. It's best to do so before leaving the airport, although you'll generally have 21 to 45 days to file (depending on the airline). The claim process isn't fun, and it's not easy. You'll have to provide a list of what items were in your bags, when and where they were purchased, and the cost.
Keep a copy of your claim, along with your baggage checks and tickets. The wait to be reimbursed for such a claim could be long -- keep in contact with the airline.
Keep in mind also that there is a limit to how much you can claim for lost luggage -- in the United States, it's $1,250 PER PERSON. In Canada it's $750 (US$540). The Warsaw Convention limits the airlines' luggage liability on international flights to about US$9.07 per pound.
And -- electronic equipment, cameras, jewelry, business documents, money and fragile or perishable goods fall outside airlines' liability.
Additional insurance can be purchased, and may well be a very good idea, particularly for more expensive items.
The best way to avoid lost luggage is not to check any at all, but that's not always possible. The air travel industry says that very few bags are lost each year -- here are some tips that may keep you from becoming one of the few: