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.

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