Breakfast in London, Lunch in New York, Baggage in Rio

Bagless in Baltimore -- it's perhaps the most upsetting of all semi-routine airline experiences (with the exception of missing your flight altogether). You've jumped through all the hoops, satisfied Homeland Security that you're not a threat -- even endured being served peanuts-du-jour in place of real food and being sardined into the Screaming Infant Section for five hours.

But just when you think the marathon is about to end with a comfy bed in a nearby hotel (where you can ready yourself for the big meeting tomorrow), you suddenly realize there's no one left worshiping at the rotating baggage altar but you, and your bags are nowhere to be found.

So what does the seasoned traveler do now? Jeans, a pullover, and sneakers are hardly going to cut it in the morning, not to mention the basic need for a few personal grooming aids that have suddenly gone missing.

The first step, of course, is to find the small torture chamber known as the "airline baggage services" office. It's torture, by the way, for both you and the airline personnel within, since few customers enter in a delighted mood. But when your bags are AWOL, you really have no practical choice but to go see the baggage folks immediately and file a formal report.

Whether your luggage is truly lost in a maze of connecting airlines or is merely "delayed" and coming home one flight behind you, the people behind that counter are your only path to salvation.

In other words, even though you'd really like to pound someone, do NOT take it out on them! Be nice, and in most cases they really will try their best to help you. (Yes, there are some airline personnel at baggage service counters who consider customers to be an interference with their day, but they're the exception.)

Be Patient With the System

The process of locating a so-called "lost or delayed" bag is a rather boilerplate procedure in most established, major carriers, and it starts with the possibility that even though the carousel is empty, your duds may at that very moment be sitting in the baggage services office waiting for you to come snarling through the door. Sometimes they're in a large pile of "early" bags the airline has, for reasons no mortal yet understands, flown in via a more direct routing.

And sometimes there's already a message waiting for you that your bags are in the loving arms of the airline and en route on a later flight. In such cases, the airline's obligation will be to have your bags delivered to wherever you are through a privately contracted baggage company, and (maybe) provide you with either a kit of overnight necessities, or compensation for having to make an emergency run to Walgreens -- the latter being negotiable.

If the bags aren't already there or en route, the agent you deal with will inevitably explain that at the end of the flying day all the airlines have their baggage personnel take an inventory of bags left at their station, and that inventory is loaded in their computer system to be matched up (hopefully overnight) with the reports of bags missing.

This sounds very pro forma and simple, but even though very few bags are ever permanently lost, waiting for the "system" to work in matching bags with upset bagless passengers can consume days or even weeks, leaving you to make up for the missing items in those suitcases. This is especially true where there are multiple airlines involved in your trip, and even more so when you've been flying internationally.

Where Did They Go?

Understanding why bags get lost to begin with may help a bit. First, when big weather systems -- such as hurricanes, heavy thunderstorms or blizzards -- jumble flight schedules and cancel flights, bags and people get disconnected. That we can all understand.

Similarly, when your flight arrives late at a mega-hub airport such as Chicago and you barely skid into the connecting flight's departure gate in time to make it, the chances that your bags were treated to a similar level of determination is far less certain. A large number of so-called "misconnected" bags are left behind for just that reason -- a late arrival and not enough time to make the transfer to the connecting flight.

Sometimes the problem is you and the fact that you arrived at the airport too close to flight time. In most cases of late check-in, the airline will make a note on your tag and in the computer of your tardiness, which means that if the bags don't arrive with you at your destination, the airline isn't necessarily responsible for having them delivered.

But, too often, bags just end up in the wrong bin or otherwise placed on the wrong aircraft. Equally frequent are the instances in which bags "override" a station -- in other words, the baggage handlers failed to pull the bags out of the aircraft before it flew on to Mexico, leaving you suitless in San Diego while your bags enjoy Cabo San Lucas, presumably having more fun than you are.

Occasionally, bags are pulled off your airplane at too early a stop, and every now and then one is stolen from the carousel before you can find it. What's largely gone from the panoply of problems, however, is the unreadable baggage tag sending luggage to far-flung locations because the handlers couldn't decipher someone's handwriting.

But WHY do we put up with lost and delayed bags at all in 2005? Don't these carriers own computers? Don't they employ competent people? If FedEx can tell you what truck your box is on and which intersection it's passing through (ok, a bit of an exaggeration), why can't Monster Airlines Inc. use those ubiquitous little bar code tags to do the same thing?

Money. Plain and simple. While there have been great advances in tagging your luggage, there are tens of millions yet to be spent on the equipment necessary to track those tags and your bags as efficiently as cargo carriers track their shipments. And if you hadn't noticed, an industry that has now lost every penny it ever earned since 1928 plus more than $20 billion is not exactly looking for opportunities to add to its investment in baggage equipment anytime soon.

So, the truth is that while the entire industry is getting better and better at delivering your things as promised, bad things still happen to good bags, and your best defense is to adhere to Murphy's Law: If it can go wrong, it will. In other words, plan every time to arrive without your bags by keeping vital medicines with you, and by taking enough essentials in your carry-on items to get by if your Samsonite ends up in Singapore -- while you're in Savannah.