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posted: 2/7/2010 12:01 AM

Tips to keep your bags from taking flight

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Last week when Kelly Cline traveled with her 9-month-old baby to the Bahamas, she lost it. It wasn't that she became so violent that flight attendants had to handcuff her to a seat and call the men in white. In fact, it wasn't on the aircraft. It was at baggage claim. And it wasn't her temper she lost. It was her luggage.

"It wouldn't have been so bad if it had been my bag," Kelly said. "But it was my baby Devin's bag. And it contained all of her clothes and a week's worth of formula and food. I figured if we couldn't find it soon, we'd have to go back home."

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It turned out it wasn't the airline's fault, which is a nice change from the norm. Some man in a hurry to hit the beach or a golf ball picked up the wrong bag. Apparently, when he opened it he realized he would look pretty silly hitting the fairways in a toddler-sized romper. So he returned it to the airport.

Not everyone is as lucky as Kelly. Last month, Doug Wood flew to Los Angeles on business. Like most frequent fliers, he planned to carry his bag onboard. But because the overhead bins were full, he had to gate check it at the last minute. Because he was rushed, he forgot to remove his computer. When he got to baggage claim, his bag wasn't doing laps. Doug never saw his computer again.

The problem is the airlines rarely check baggage-claim numbers. And it's easy for someone in a hurry to grab the wrong bag and go. A few years back in Los Angeles, a man dressed in a pilot's uniform made a cottage industry out of quickly grabbing bags and heading for the door. His business really took off even though he didn't. When the police nabbed him, they found all kinds of stolen goods in his apartment, as well as a list of sales he had made on the Internet of stolen property.

While there's never a guarantee your luggage won't be fickle and leave with another pretty face, you can increase your odds by taking a few precautions:

Don't dally. Doug admits he stopped to chat with a colleague who was just waiting at the gate. Had he gone directly to baggage claim, his bag might have waited for him. Thieves know this and watch for luggage that had made several round trips on the carousel without being claimed.

Dress your bag for success. Basic black blends. Make your bag unique. One flight attendant plasters pictures of her children on the outside of her bag.

Another has a picture of herself glued to her suitcase with a sign that says, "If you don't look like this, you've got the wrong bag."

Grace Walker bought the ugliest, plaid bag she could find. Nobody with any self-respect wants to claim her luggage.

Plan ahead. Put contact numbers in each bag on the off chance your luggage does get lost. If the person who took it is honest, you'll get a call.

Finally, if you're traveling alone, put any necessities in your carry-on bag and include a change of clothes. And if you're traveling with another, mix your checked items with your partner's luggage. That way, if one bag does decide to leave with some stranger, you'll still be left with more than the shirt on your back.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached at gailtodd@aol.com.

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