Effect: Even though the bag goes to the wrong city, it is properly tagged. So when it is the last piece of luggage on the carousel, an attendant will most likely see it, realize the mistake, and notify an attendant at your destination. The airline will then re-route your bag to where you are (hopefully without further incident), usually delivering it to your destination or, if you've reached the end of your trip, to your home.
How NOT to lose your luggage:
Over two million bags were lost, damaged, delayed, or pilfered in 2010, according to "mishandled baggage" reports made by the largest U.S. airlines to the Department of Transportation. (That's about 3.57 reports per 1,000 passengers.) Here's how you can prevent becoming part of this statistic:
Double-check: Ask the flight attendant handling your bag if you can see the routing information placed on the handle to verify its accuracy before she sends your suitcase down the conveyor belt. This is especially important if you have a connecting flight, because bags are not always routed directly to the final destination—on occasion, it may be your responsibility to pick up your bag from the first leg of your journey and re-check it, and the best way to confirm this is to see what's written on the label.
Make yourself known: The key is to ID your bag in multiple places—outside as well as inside—by placing ID cards in various pockets and pouches. And then add another, using the paper tags provided by the airline carrier. Be sure to include your name, address, and phone number (preferably a mobile number).
Share your plans: Pack a copy of your itinerary (in a place that's not too hard to find) so that airline workers will know where to route your bag in the case they find it and cannot get in touch with you.
Document the evidence: Photograph or video the contents of your bag as you pack. "I just lay everything out on the bed and take a few photos with my phone," said Kate Hanni, of FlyersRights.org. Not only will that help to identify your bag if it goes missing, it will also help with claims forms if your suitcase is never found.
Remove extras: Before checking your bag, take off any removable straps; this will decrease the likelihood of it getting snagged along the way.
Arrive early: If you check a bag within 30 minutes of your departure time, it may not actually make it onto the plane.
Stick to tradition: Finally, don't check your bag with the curbside baggage checker; go inside to the main counter to decrease the chances of a mix-up.
Embellish your bag: Whether you buy a colorful handle wrap or just add a few stripes of bright duct tape, making yours different from the others could draw the attention of a not-so-motivated airline employee. Another option is to purchase a bag that's not black or navy (like the overwhelming majority), making it easier to spot in a roomful of luggage.
Finally, what are your rights if your bag is lost for good?
In the event that your bag is lost for good, US airlines can be held liable for up to $3,300 for domestic flights. The airlines will not, however, simply pay you to replace your missing items. Instead, they'll decide the compensation amount based on original purchase prices, minus depreciation (this is according to the "contract of carriage," which you automatically agree to when you buy a plane ticket). Here is a ray of sunshine: As of August 2011, a new law requires airlines to reimburse passengers for checked baggage fees (typically $25 and up) when said baggage is lost.
What happens when you and your suitcase get separated? At what point should you give up hope? Find out what your bag is doing once it joins the ranks of the missing.
Week 1: The first week your bag is separated from you, it's most likely going to just hang out in its arrival airport, biding its time in the airline's local lost-baggage holding area. In most cases, you'll be dealing with an airline agent based at the airport of your destination, who will ask you to fill out a form describing your suitcase and provide you with a file reference number. Still feeling quite hopeful, you'll tell yourself that your bag was just delayed for some reason.
Week 2 to week 12: After five to seven days, bags without identified owners are moved to a large warehouse, usually in the same city as the airline carrier's major hub. Bags are organized by physical characteristics (color, size, shape, type), rather than by date of travel. During this period it is imperative that you file a lost-baggage claim form (available to download on most airlines' websites) if you ever want to see your belongings again. Be sure to give the most detailed description of the bag and its contents to the airport representative assisting you on your case and work with personnel at the warehouse to try to locate your bag (and no—you cannot go to the warehouse to conduct your own search). Now for the bad news: "If your bag is lost for more than seven days, your chance of ever seeing it again grows very slim," said Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, a consumer advocate group based in Napa, California and Washington, D.C.
Week 13: After 90 days, you can kiss your bag (well, air-kiss it, at least) good-bye. By this time, your lost-luggage claim will have most likely been settled, and legally, the airlines can get can get rid of your belongings. So what does that mean? Some airlines (including Southwest and Virgin America) donate the lost items to charity. But most sell them off for a few dollars a pound to the aforementioned Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, where employees prepare new acquisitions for resale by unpacking bags, laundering clothes, polishing up jewelry and electronics, and tossing half-used deodorant and toothpaste. Items are divided up into sales departments, including clothing (men's, women's and children's), electronics, books, "jewelry & collectibles," and, of course, luggage—mountains of it. A steady river of goods flows into this place, with upwards of 7,000 newly arrived items placed onto the floor each day.
Sure, the Rockies are cold in winter, and the gondola ride to the summit made me feel like a city slicker way out of my league. But the experience of learning to ski with my family proved much warmer than I ever could have imagined.