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You can pack to avoid problems. Some items should never be put into a bag you plan to check into the cargo compartment:
Small valuables: cash, credit cards, jewelry, cameras.
Critical items: medicine, keys, passport, tour vouchers, business papers.
Irreplaceable items: manuscripts, heirlooms.
Fragile items: eyeglasses, glass containers, liquids.
Things like this should be carried on your person or packed in a carry-on bag that will fit under the seat. Remember, the only way to be sure your valuables are not damaged or lost is to keep them with you.
Even if your bag is not lost, it could be delayed for a day or two. Don't put perishables in a checked bag; they may spoil if it is delayed. It is wise to put items that you will need during the first 24 hours in a carry-on bag (e.g. toiletries, a change of underwear).
Check with the airline for its limits on the size, weight, or number of carry-on pieces. (There is no single federal standard.) If you are using more than one airline, check on all of them. Inquire about your flight: different airplanes can have different limits. Don't assume that the flight will have unlimited closet space for carry-on garment bags: some may have to be checked.
If you plan to go shopping at your destination and bring your purchases aboard as carry-on, keep the limits in mind. If you check these purchases, however, carry the receipts separately; they may be necessary for a claim if the merchandise is lost or damaged. Don't put anything into a carry-on bag that could be considered a weapon (e.g. scissors, pen knife).
Checked baggage is also subject to limits. On most domestic and international flights, it's two checked bags (three if you don't have any carry-on luggage). There can be an extra charge if you bring more, or if you exceed the airline's limits on the size of the bags.
On some flights between two foreign cities, your allowance may be based on the weight of the bags rather than the number of pieces. The same two bags that cost you nothing to check when you started your trip could result in expensive excess-baggage charges under a weight system. Ask the airlines about the limit for every segment of your international trip before you leave home, especially if you have a stopover of a day or two or if you are changing carriers.
The bags you check should be labeled - inside and out - with your name, address and phone number. Add the name and address of a person to contact at your destination if it's practical to do so. Almost all of the bags that are misplaced by airlines do turn up sooner or later. With proper labeling, the bag and its owner can usually be reunited within a few hours.
Don't over pack a bag. This puts pressure on the latches, making it easier for them to pop open. Also, lock your bags. The locks aren't very effective against pilferage, but they help to keep the latches from springing.
If you plan to check any electrical equipment, glassware, small appliances, pottery, typewriters, musical instruments or other fragile items, they should be packed in a container specifically designed to survive rough handling - preferably a factory-sealed carton or a padded hardshell carrying case.
Excerpted from:U. S. Department of Transportation. ISBN 0-16-045193-0. September , 1994. pgs 21-23. Note: As of July, 1997 this was the latest non-internet-published U.S. State Department document pertaining to this topic.
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