Finding Your Luggage in a Sea of Samsonite Mix millions of suitcases with thousands of destinations, and what do you get? A whole lot of lost bags. Here's how to make sure yours isn't among them.
By Jesse Freund

(Business 2.0) – Of course it won't happen to you. Just because U.S. airlines field 200,000 complaints monthly concerning mishandled luggage doesn't mean your valise will end up in Billings instead of Boston. So why, standing over a suitcase packed with clothes, overstuffed file folders, and a one-of-a-kind prototype that's swallowed the last five years of your life, are you suddenly gripped with the fear that you may never see it again?

The airline industry is working to keep that nightmarish vision from ever becoming your reality. Delta, for example, recently completed a pilot project that used baggage tags incorporating radio frequency identification (RFID) chips instead of the standard bar codes. The system worked so well--with RFID readers installed at counters and key sorting locations, nary a duffel was misplaced--that Delta intends to roll it out nationwide in 2007. Until then, however, you can control your garment bag's destiny. Courier services, specially marked luggage, and advanced tracking systems can make misplaced suitcases a worry of your past.

Buy traceable luggage. Baggage-claim stickers and ID tags are flimsy. Metal is not. Which is why many bags from high-end manufacturers like Tumi and Swiss Army Brands now come with permanent metal plates stamped with unique codes. Register your contact information with the maker, and if your luggage is ever misplaced, a collect call to a customer service center is all that's needed to put your suitcase on a trip home. Tumi claims that its system has helped hundreds of passengers.

Make your existing luggage traceable. You don't have to pony up for a premium-brand bag to enjoy the same sort of safety net. Companies like Aerotag, Globalbagtag, and i-Trak sell a similar service that costs about $20 for two pieces of luggage. The best of the bunch is i-Trak: Besides its call center, the company gets word of lost bags through Telex, the computer system at the fingertips of airport workers around the globe. "Every airline is obligated to return a lost bag," says Theo Brandt-Sarif, coauthor of Guerrilla Travel Tactics. "But anything you can do to make the process easier helps."

Pack your itinerary. Even a tagless bag that arrives at the wrong airport has a shot at reaching your hotel. Place a copy of your travel schedule, including detailed flight and hotel information, atop your packed belongings so it's the first thing someone sees when your suitcase is opened.

Buy your bag a ride. Dedicated courier services like Luggage Express, Skycap International, and Virtual Bellhop remove the stress and hassle of having to take it all with you. About 24 hours before your flight, a messenger comes to your door and picks up your luggage--which then arrives, courtesy of FedEx or another dependable delivery company, at the hotel before you do. This service isn't cheap: It'll cost you about $200 for the round trip. But such an outlay might be a small price to pay for the safe passage of a suitcase packed with expensive presentation equipment. And you won't complain as you breeze through check-in and avoid jockeying for space at the luggage carousel.

Prepare to be a victim. Since you can take every precaution and still never see your suitcase again, find comfort in knowing that you do have recourse: Airlines must reimburse you as much as $2,500 for each bag lost. Predictably, though, they won't cough up any money until you meet their demands for a full inventory of the suitcase and receipts for everything from ties to toothpaste. Brandt-Sarif thinks a digital snapshot or three of what's inside the bag will help argue your case. And there's always retail therapy: At www.unclaimedbaggage.com, you can bid on the contents of fellow travelers' lost goods. Get great deals on PDAs, cameras, iPods, or even a misplaced 41-carat emerald.