Once your luggage hits the airport conveyor belt, it enters a world of mystery.
Although more than 99 percent of bags make it safely to their destinations, there were over 224,000 reports of mishandled bags in the United States last December alone. That includes damage, delay, loss, even larceny.
"The culture of bag handlers I work with, they don't care," William Henry, author of "The American-Made Baggage Handler," told ABC News' "20/20." "If you ask a guy not to sit on the bag, he looks at you like you're the enemy."
According to Henry, who has worked for more than a decade as a "rampie," an airline employee who loads and unloads airplanes, some baggage handlers are in no rush. "Bags can fall ... out of the cart onto the ground," he said. "Some of these passengers might not get their bag because the bag is lying ... on the tarmac."
And don't think that a first class passenger's bag will be treated any differently. Tim Cigelske, who worked as a baggage handler for two years, told "20/20," "You can have, you know, priority on there or fragile on there, but that's, again, really hard to see. And pretty much, a bag is a bag is a bag."
A first class priority tag on a luxury bag might make it a target for baggage handlers looking to steal. "They lift it up and may feel that there's something in there of value," Henry said. "As long as they got that bag in [an] area that's undisclosed, unmonitored, unsupervised, they can do what they want with that bag."
Fortunately for travelers, there are some clever ways you can brace your beloved bag for impact.
|Buy a four-wheeled bag.|
With a four-wheeled bag, the only time your luggage will be airborne is after takeoff.
"When we load a plane, we have to slide that bag along ... the cargo floor," Henry said.
"With four wheels, they can just roll that bag," he continued. "Now if it doesn't have the wheels, they'll throw it, kick it, toss it."
|Pack your items in a sturdy bag.|
Make sure your bag won't crumble under pressure.
When shopping for luggage, look for bags made out of strong material. There are even bags available for purchase made out of the same material that the NFL uses for its shoulder pads.
"You should assume that this bag is going to be handled in the worst way," Henry said.
|Don't check in for your flight too early.|
Ironically, to ensure your bag's on-time arrival, don't check in too early.
"If you do it more than two hours early, they don't even have things set up for your flight yet," Cigelske said.
Your bag could get lost in the shuffle if it's set aside.
|Skip the curbside check-in.|
Even if you're rushing to catch your flight, avoid checking in at the curb.
"It does add one more layer to the process, more people to the equation," Cigelske said. "More hands, more things, means more things could go wrong."
Instead, head to the ticket counter, especially if you're past the cutoff time to check your bag in.
"You can ask the ticket-taker to have the baggage handlers come and make one more run," Cigelske said.
|Buy traveler's insurance.|
Airlines are only liable for $3,400 for loss, delay or damage to luggage. Some airlines don't even cover certain items, such as electronics or jewelry.
Travelers agree to this contract automatically when they purchase their flight ticket. Purchasing traveler's insurance can protect the contents of your bag in the event it is lost, stolen or damaged.
|Buy a bag with anti-theft technology.|
Even if your bag is locked, a person can still get into your luggage by cutting the zipper open.
Luggage without zippers can help deter would-be thieves immediately, as people will be unable to easily use scissors or knives to cut it open.
|Invest in a tracking device.|
Be sure to remove old routing stickers from your luggage. In case your bag goes astray, add a tag to the outside with your information, and pack an itinerary inside.
If your bag does indeed get lost, it might help if you have a tracking device. Certain devices can message you the location of your bag once it's landed.
|Use a carry-on bag.|
Both Henry and Cigelske, recommend not checking any bags.
And if you are forced to check your carry-on at the boarding gate, remember to remove your valuables before handing it over.