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Among the many annoyances accompanying air travel today, lost baggage can frustrate even the most relaxed traveler. There’s nothing quite like that sinking feeling when the luggage carousel goes around and around and your bag is nowhere to be seen. Arriving at your destination and realizing your baggage didn’t find its way along with you can really start that long-awaited vacation or important business trip on the wrong foot.

The good news is there is legal recourse to recoup your losses if your luggage never turns up. The bad news? It’s not easy.

File a report

Some airlines offer baggage tracking, which can help the airline’s chances of rounding up your bags up if they’ve gone astray, but it’s not foolproof. Travelers often have immediate concerns when a bag is lost or delayed. While savvy travelers keep toiletries, medication, and a change of clothes in their carry-on luggage, not everyone does, and if your luggage disappears, it can lead to serious inconvenience.

The first step to getting your luggage back—or getting reimbursement, should your luggage be permanently lost—is to file a report with the airline as soon as you realize your bags didn’t show up. Be sure to do this before you leave the airport—the US Department of Transportation (DOT) suggests that even if the airline says your luggage should be on the next flight (which is definitely possible), insist on filing a report. When doing so, airline staff should give you a report number, and you should keep that information handy, along with the agent’s name and a telephone number you can call for updates.

Be prepared for reimbursement runaround

While each airline has its own rules and regulations regarding lost baggage, the DOT has overarching stipulations in place for travelers who have to deal with lost luggage. Namely, travelers are entitled to reimbursement for immediate expenses incurred while waiting for the bag to be found, although exact policies vary from airline to airline.

American Airlines, for example, requires the report reference number, a copy of your ticket receipt and baggage claim checks, and the original dated itemized receipts for the purchased replacement items before it will provide reimbursement. Delta has similar policies, but they cap expenses at $50 a day for the first five days the bag is delayed (in addition, they offer the possibility of a bag fee rebate in the form of vouchers if the bag doesn’t show up within 12 hours).

Getting payment for permanently lost bags

If the luggage doesn’t show up after a certain amount of time (again, this varies from airline to airline, but can be anywhere from five days to a couple of weeks), then the airline will officially declare the bag missing and you’ll have more forms to fill out. The airline will view your claim and decide whether or not to pay for your missing items. Be sure to not exaggerate your claimed dollar amount—airlines may reject outright if they can show the claim has been exaggerated. Payouts are maxed out at around $3,400 for domestic flights, and passengers must provide proof of value to have any hope of reimbursement. Also, consumers have the option of filing a complaint directly with the DOT, or even heading to court.

Plan ahead

Prepare for the worst and you may spare yourself a lot of aggravation. Photograph the contents of your packed luggage prior to departure, and have receipts on hand if you’re traveling with items of value, such as electronic equipment or expensive clothing. You can also purchase excess valuation for your checked luggage, which will increase the potential payout if the need arises, but you’ll have to ask for it. United, for example, allows the purchase of excess valuation at the rate of $1 per $100 of declared higher value.

Nobody wants to lose their carefully packed luggage while traveling, but it’s good to know there are a few avenues to explore in case the unthinkable happens. Bottom line? Don’t give up on your fight to be reimbursed, and make sure you report the missing luggage and fill out all forms ASAP. Your claim may depend on it.