The bags from your flight start making their way around the luggage carousel, and one by one they’re picked up by passengers. When the last black suitcase finds its owner, reality sets in: The airline lost your luggage. No one wants to be stuck on the other side of the country without their toothbrush or clean pants.

So, how do you reclaim your belongings or, better yet, avoid this situation entirely?

It starts with packing. The only way to be sure your valuables are not damaged or lost is to keep them with you. After all, you will never be recouped the full price for your iPad or new beach wardrobe. Airlines consider the depreciated value of your possessions, not their original price or the replacement costs.

While traveling with a carry-on is your best bet, that’s not always practical. If you do check luggage, don’t overstuff your suitcase, and remove straps or hooks that might get caught in baggage-processing machinery. Stick a business card or contact card inside the suitcase for easy identification, and snap a picture before boarding. It’ll boost your memory if you later have to recount every little detail about the bag.

Airlines have sophisticated baggage-handling systems that are getting better all the time. As soon as you give your bag to the airline’s check-in clerk, it’s sent up and down miles of high-speed conveyor belts until it reaches a warehouse-like facility. There, it’s scanned by Transportation Security Administration staff and may undergo a series of checks before being loaded onto a wagon and driven to the tarmac to meet your planeThis process takes time, and some travel experts recommend arriving at the airport at least two hours early for a domestic flight and three hours early for international flights.

See more tips to avoid lost luggage here.

If you have the misfortune of having your luggage lost, report it to the airline before leaving the airport. Keep thorough records and make note of the time and date that you spoke to the airline representative, as well as their name and telephone number. Many carriers are moving toward automated systems for tracking baggage. If you have your original bag claim check or a reference number associated with the missing bag claim you submitted, you might be able to stay updated online. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines all offer special pages on their websites.

If you need to purchase items to hold you over, discuss the airline’s reimbursement policy. Most won’t cover expenses if your luggage is delayed and you are already home. Finally, don’t assume the airline will fork over the cost of delivering your luggage to your hotel room or home. Negotiate the delivery before you leave the airport, too.

In the event your luggage is not found, you must submit a more detailed claim for the airline to estimate the value of your lost goods. Don’t exaggerate your claim, as it could get denied. It can take weeks or months for an airline to pay passengers for lost luggage; you don’t want to delay the process.

Losing your luggage stinks, but take comfort in knowing your stuff could go to a good cause. The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, is the only store in the U.S. that buys and sells unclaimed baggage from airlines. Through an exclusive agreement, thousands of items arrive to the store every day. More than half of the merchandise is donated to dozens of charity organizations locally, nationally and around the globe. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by to check out the organization’s retail side. Customers have walked away with finds including a 5.8-carat diamond set, a full Scottish kilt and an ancient Egyptian burial mask.