Over the past several years, reports of mishandled or lost luggage has been on the decline. However, that is no reason to ease up on your preparedness when traveling. Get the skinny on how often airlines lose baggage and how to avoid being left without your swim trunks during your beach vacation.

Lost Luggage Statistics

Since the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) started keeping statistics on mishandled baggage reports, 2011 marked the lowest total at 3.39 reports per 1,000 U.S. domestic passengers. That is nearly 40,000 less mishandled baggage reports filed than in 2010, when the average was 3.51 reports per 1,000 passengers.

Here are some quick winter domestic stats courtesy of the D.O.T.’s Air Travel Consumer Reports (displayed as reports per 1,000 passengers):

January 2012 – 3.30 vs. January 2011 – 4.29

December 2011 – 3.37 vs. December 2010 – 4.72

These reports are a few months behind, but the statistics clearly indicate that airlines are improving their ability to track and protect luggage. Though the progress has been gradual, improvements are being made even on the record-setting year in 2011.

Top 5 Airlines Least Likely to Lose Luggage

In 2011, AirTran was by far the best when it came to keeping their passengers’ bags accounted for and safe. AirTran averaged just 1.63 reports per 1,000 passengers. No other airline was below 2 reports per 1,000 passengers.

Interestingly enough, JetBlue was the next best, despite not charging extra for checking baggage. It just goes to show that with airlines, paying for bags or another extra product does not always equate to better service. Rounding out the top five, are Frontier, Hawaiian and Delta. It is no surprise to see Hawaiian Airlines on the list, as they are well-known for their top-notch service and being the #1 airline for on-time departures in North America. Delta is by far the most improved among the top five, having improved from nearly 3.5 reports per 1,000 passengers in 2010 to just 2.66 in 2011.

Tips to Avoid Lost Luggage

No matter what the numbers say, being one of those unfortunate 3-4 people out of 1,000 travelers to deal with a lost luggage situation is a complete nightmare. Taking some simple steps before departing could be your ticket to avoiding staring endlessly at a carousel that will never produce your luggage:

  • Buy a suitcase with a slide-in window to place your contact information. Attached luggage tags can easily be removed or torn off.  American Airlines suggests putting your name and address on the inside of the bag as well just in case any damage occurs to the exterior of the luggage during handling.
  • Because of stricter bag limits, the carry-on bag you’ve previously managed to get on board may no longer be allowed — even if it meets the size requirements. Ensure your name is on all bags in case you are required to gate-check at the last minute while boarding your flight.
  • Choose distinct or brightly colored luggage that is easily identifiable to avoid the ‘sea of black’ bags. Putting a ribbon on the handle of the suitcase may not be enough as a large percentage of passengers are using similar small, rolling bags to avoid paying a baggage fee.
  • Fly direct. Changing flights will increase the chances of lost luggage.

Airlines Efforts to Help to Avoid Lost Luggage

No matter how prepared you are, your bags may still end up in the land of lost luggage. The airlines do have your back (in this situation), as they should if you are paying a fee for the privilege of checking a bag.

Last spring, Delta introduced a program that allows travelers to track the exact location of their luggage using Delta’s Baggage Track Status website. Users can find their bags by typing in their last name and baggage ID number or reference number.

For anyone familiar with the excruciating amount of time it takes to receive checked luggage at JFK, then this is for you: Alaska Airlines introduced a program that offers passengers a $20 discount on future flights or 2,000 frequent flyer miles if your bag does not arrive at the carousel within 20 minutes of the plane being parked at the gate.

This program is great as it shows the airline taking accountability for the service they provide. Nothing says you are sorry like some free miles or a $20 discount toward future flights. In a world with almost infinite ancillary fees, it would be nice to see more consumer-friendly services like this. Nobody likes being required to pay $20 (or more) to check luggage, but if airlines are held responsible for providing said service then it seems fair for them to offer travelers the same compensation in return if a problem arises.

For more information visit Travelzoo’s Baggage Fees page or consult our exclusive Baggage Fee icons located on each itinerary when conducting a search on Fly.com

Share your worst “Meet the Parents” baggage mishap. Are mishandled luggage issues coming up less often these days? Let us know your thoughts.

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Matt is an airfare deal hunter, whose amazing finds have been published in AM New York and NYTimes.com. He currently calls New York City home, but frequents Europe and the Middle East. His travels last year took him to Stockholm for $150 and Barcelona for $250 roundtrip, including taxes.

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