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Picture it: You deliberately invest in a really unusual—surely one of a kind!—rose-gold metallic suitcase. Something like that is bound to stand out on the luggage carousel, you think to yourself. Generally, this works great—until you come off an exhausting red-eye flight and sleepily drag that bag into a car and back to your hotel, only to realize it’s filled with someone else’s clothes.

RELATED: 5 smart luggage bags we’re adding to our holiday wish list

An innocent mistake, of course, but people have their luggage lost or stolen (or mistakenly lifted) way more often than you might imagine. In fact, 15% of customer complaints in the airline industry are related to luggage. So what is there to do? Here’s how to avoid becoming part of that staggering percentage, according to the experts.

Young couple arriving at the airport

Pack less and carry on if you can

Of course, you can’t grab the wrong luggage if your luggage never leaves your side. Carry on your bag whenever it’s an option. “Pay to board first if you’re worried about not finding a place to stow your bag or need to have your bag directly above your head,” says flight attendant Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. Remember, you don’t own the bin above your seat—it’s first come first serve.

Pack important items in your carry on

Never pack anything that you may need within the next 24 hours in your checked luggage. “Items like identification, medication, jewelry, laptops/tablets and business presentation materials should be kept in your carry on luggage,” says Matthew Bradley, Regional Security Director at International SOS and Control Risks. “In the event that you have to check your luggage before boarding your flight due to limited overhead space, remove the most valuable or critical items and keep them under your seat,” says Bradley. If you have a suitcase, make sure to lock it before checking it with any valuable items.

Female passengers going through security check. Security staff checking luggage of travelers. They are at airport. (Female passengers going through security check. Security staff checking luggage of travelers. They are at airport., ASCII, 115 componen

Don’t ease up at security 

Create a routine for going through security to ensure that items you send through the x-ray machines are still in your possession on the other side. “Put small items like smartphones, wallets, keys and watches in your carry on bag instead of in the bins,” says Bradley. “Take out your laptop and toiletries and place them together in the same bin. Also, be sure to place your shoes and belt in the same bin and cover the bin with your jacket.” Send the bin with the most valuable items such as a purse through last.

Get TSA Pre✓® or CLEAR

To that end, consider applying for TSA Precheck (its free with your Orbitz Rewards Platinum status!), With TSA Pre✓®, you can avoid having to remove belts, shoes, toiletries and light jackets while passing through security.

Arrive early and board the plane early

Arriving early allows plenty of time for security, which means you are less likely to rush through and forget something. “Boarding the plane early ensures overhead space for your carryon bags,” says Bradley. Frequent flyer status may allow you to board in an earlier group or you may be able to purchase an earlier entry.

Use TSA-recognized locks 

Keep checked luggage secure by using a TSA security padlock. The TSA has worked with several companies to develop locks that can be only opened by you and TSA security officers using universal “master” keys, so they do not have to cut locks when searching through luggage. “TSA officers will have to search luggage as part of the screening process but remember, if an officer does need to open your bag, a Notice of Baggage Inspection should be placed in your bag following the inspection. Always remember to report any alteration, damage to your luggage or missing items with the airline representative at baggage claim before leaving the airport,” says Bradley.

Book a non-stop flight

Tight connection times increase the chances of missing luggage. “Make sure to allow enough time in between flights, especially when traveling internationally,” says Bradley. If your flight is late, the time it takes to move your luggage from one flight to another narrows.

Go for bright, colorful luggage

Despite the true-life, rose-gold bag scenario described above, eye-catching luggage generally is the answer. “Buy luggage that stands out or attach something around the handle like a bag tag or bandana so nobody gets confused and grabs your bag if they’re in a hurry,” says Poole.

Skip the fancy luggage

Trendy or pricey luggage is a major road sign for thieves. “I avoid fancy designer bags because the crooks will know you will have valuable stuff in there,” says Johnny Jet. “Use a beat up bag!”

Take advantage of plastic wrap machines

If you are worried about getting your luggage opened or stolen, some international airports such as Miami and JFK have plastic wrap services that wrap your bag with a tamper-resistant plastic film. Prices run about $15 per bag and usually include a guarantee that will match the airline’s payment up to $5,000 for lost bags and up to $2,000 for damage. “It’s a good idea to use those plastic wrap machines at some international airports where baggage thefts from airline workers run rampant,” says Johnny Jet.

Don’t travel with anything you can’t replace

“Leave the good jewelry and don’t pack grandma’s mink if you don’t need it. [That way] if the airline does lose your luggage, use it as an excuse to go shopping,” says Poole.

Keep an eye on your luggage even in-flight

“There are an increasing number of reports of people having things stolen from their bags on long-haul flights where people can rummage around in overhead bins when the lights are dimmed and others are sleeping,” says freelance travel journalist and expert Ramsey Qubein. It may be wise to either lock your carry-on bag, position it so that the zipper is turned away so it cannot be easily accessed, or at least keep your bags within easy view.

Store your luggage (smartly)

If you happen to have a long layover and want to go exploring, there are safe and secure ways to store your luggage rather than dragging it around with you. “There are services like Luggage Hero that will let you know where you can safely store your luggage in cities for a small fee (usually a dollar or two an hour),” says Jet.

Consider trackable luggage

“Nothing makes me more anxious than putting the airline in control of my luggage,” says Valerie Joy Wilson, blogger at “You never know if your bag is going to end up taking a different trip than you had planned.” Look for smart luggage featuring a built-in tracker, or opt for an add-on tracking device such as GEGO by LugLoc. “The device has a battery life of up to 30 days so you don’t have to worry about getting it back within, say, a week. It just makes life easier knowing that you can ‘see’ where your bag is at all times,” Wilson says.

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Aly Walansky
Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyles writer.

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