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Question submitted by Amanda Ebner, Los Angeles, Calif.

Trip Doctor’s Answer

There’s nothing quite so forlorn as being the last person left at the baggage carousel, craning to spot a suitcase that’s just not coming. It’s like being picked last for dodgeball. I’ve been there—just last summer, in fact. I flew to Denver for a weeklong trip and left the airport with no clothes for myself or my infant daughter.

But I did learn a few things about lost—and delayed—luggage from the experience. First, a lost bag is rare. According to the Department of Transportation, domestic airlines recorded an average of just three bags mishandled for every 1,000 passengers in the first half of 2012 (the latest figures available). And that includes luggage that’s lost, stolen, damaged, or delayed. So even if your bag doesn’t show up, chances are it’s not gone for good.

A delayed bag, though, is still a major inconvenience. On my Colorado trip, my suitcase materialized a day later—after I had replaced hiking gear, a swimsuit, and baby clothes, among other items. (Imagine the shopping list if I had been skiing.) According to George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, in the past, most domestic carriers offered fliers whose bags were delayed either travel vouchers or compensation capped at $50 a day, which doesn’t get you very far. But a 2009 directive from the DOT ordered domestic airlines not to place arbitrary limits on compensation; instead, they were to cover “all reasonable, actual and verifiable expenses related to baggage loss, damage or delay,” up to $3,300. In other words, if you need more than $50 a day, you can probably get more. You just have to know to ask. And if the airline doesn’t comply, file a complaint with the DOT. Also, be sure to ask your airline about getting your checked-bag fee reimbursed. Some carriers, such as Delta, will compensate you.

Bear in mind that your airline’s definition of “reasonable expenses” may be different from yours. Discuss your situation with the baggage agent before replacing your Paul Smith suit for that business meeting. Below, a few tips for keeping your bags in check.

Fly direct, and choose an airline with a good track record. The best last year was Virgin America, with 0.9 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. The worst: ExpressJet Airlines, with 6.2.

Put an ID both outside and inside your bag. That way, if your luggage tag falls off, there’s still a way to track you down.

Make your bag distinctive. Prevent someone from taking it home accidentally by tying something bright and colorful—a ribbon, say—around the handle.

Buy baggage insurance, either through a vendor such as Travel Guard or Allianz or with your credit card provider. Passengers with an American Express Platinum Card (from Travel + Leisure’s former parent company) can get up to $500 for a delay as short as three hours.

Send your dilemmas to news editor Amy Farley at @afarles on Twitter.