On the way to his study abroad assignment in London, my father got snowed in at the Paris Airport. A day later, he made it to the UK...only his luggage had gone missing. Luckily for him, he'd packed all his valuable (and essential to teaching) books and papers in his carry on. Unluckily for him, he'd packed all his valuable (but not wearable) books and papers in his carry on. So now, he's making do with the OxFam thrift store and the promise that, if necessary (if his bag never shows up), my mother will bring him another suitcase full of clothes when she comes. In 10 days.
I've arrived at my destination enough times sans luggage that I have become a travel/packing Nazi of sorts.
Rule #1: Only check if you absolutely must (sadly for my father, he had no other choice). As the French official said to my father in one of his many phone calls with the airline, "But Monseiur, there are over 5000 missing bags at the Paris Airport." Indeed!
Rule #2: Whether you check or not, always carry a COMPLETE change of clothes in your carry on. In the beginning of our marriage, the husband would try to get by with just an extra t-shirt, but I would never let that fly. What good is an extra t-shirt going to do you if you have to be in the same underwear for 3 or 4 days before your luggage finally materializes or you break down and buy new clothes?! The last time this happened to me, I was in Boston for a conference. I had packed a full change of clothes but not something in which I would have felt comfortable presenting a paper. Luckily for me, the husband was going to join me the next day, so I called home and had him throw a skirt in his carry on (and ran around like a crazy person in the Gap below the hotel looking for a suitable shirt to buy, just in case I had to, which I didn't, which is good because there was very little suitable that season). My bags did arrive the next day, so I was fine, but it taught me that at times I needed to be even more strategic about my carry on outfit selection.
Rule #3 leads us to our next big adventure, our own jaunt to London. We are flying direct, the third rule for travel, the one I break most often, finances and hubs being what they are. Thank goodness, but now I am packing a complete change of clothes for me and for Baby J, along with the essentials to save us if we do have the misfortune of losing our luggage. Of course, as my mother pointed out, the UK is not the third world, but I really don't want to have to spend my barely first world money on pricey replacements for our things if I don't have to.
Rule #4 is really a corollary to the second rule: if you do end up checking, carry a detailed list of the contents of your checked bag in your carry on. The key here is DETAIL. You will never be able to get reimbursed for the full value of the contents of your luggage, but a detailed list helps and shames them into being more forthcoming with the cash should the need arise. This list is also useful for myriad reasons, actually: for customs, it helps remind you if you need to declare something you may have forgotten; for security checks, it helps you see if anything is missing after your friendly TSA agents have rifled through your things; and, in the case of damaged luggage, it helps you figure out if everything made it. Not once but three times have I found my luggage on the carousel with a broken zipper or an outright hole, shoes or toiletries trailing along forlornly behind my bag (this was the result of an ill-fated luggage set my parents bought me for graduation, which then spent the next few years studiously self-destructing on trip after trip until I finally threw away the last remaining piece (whose zipper had long since been replaced by self-installed snaps anyway).
Rule #5, therefore, tells you to buy the best luggage you can afford and make it as distinctive as possible. In grad school, I lived near the L.L. Bean outlet and bought for pennies a fluorescent green medium duffle that someone had monogramed with the letters "ZK" and then returned. That bag is still in great shape, it being made expensively, even after having flown all over the world with me, and it has the added bonus of being utterly unforgettable, totally easy to spot in a sea of bags, and completely simple to describe when lost. (I do often have to explain why ZK, but that's a small price to pay for found luggage.)