Travel: Excellent holiday. That's the one your suitcase had ...

When your luggage gets lost, what does an airline do? Heap indignity on inconvenience
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The Independent Online
Have you heard the one about the bloke from Leicester who saved all his supermarket tokens for a dream ticket to New York? Well, the holiday was great but on the way back he was just dozing off when a steward accidentally chucked a glass of red wine into his lap. Our man was reassured that if he removed all his clothes and temporarily donned a First Class sleep- suit, the cabin crew would have his trousers dry in time for touchdown. But it was bad news for breakfast. The steward came to confess that the slacks were dry but extensively stained, so he was welcome to leave the aircraft in his complimentary pyjamas.

Past the fixed grins at the plane door, past the puzzled looks on the long walk to immigration, forced to re-enter Britain in bedwear, all that kept him going was the thought of slipping into something more suitable when he was eventually reunited with his luggage. But guess what? His bag wasn't there. He was forced to stride casually through customs in night attire, with nothing to declare but his embarrassment.

The airline reluctantly suggested he went shopping in London. He could claim back what he spent. Sorry, but his ordeal through Heathrow had convinced him that he wasn't up to a stroll down Oxford Street. He pleaded for a taxi home but that was refused, and so, with only what he stood up in - white lightweight polycotton with the airline's logo embroidered across his chest - he set out by Tube to catch the train to the Midlands. It was raining at Leicester station, and as he tried to get a taxi his corporate casuals became disturbingly clingy and transparent.

Imagine his surprise when he finally shut his front door behind him and saw that his suitcase had beaten him to it. Located while he was making his case in Terminal 3, it had been whisked home in a nice warm car.

Up to last year I had never fully appreciated the horror of lost luggage. It was something that happened to other people. A bit of a giggle. Made a good story.

Until the day I spent shuffling around the poshest hotel I'd ever been to in my life. I was a paying guest, and should have been enjoying the sparkling pool or a pristine sun lounger. Instead I looked like a bag lady without a bag, because Caymanair had managed to get me to Grand Cayman, but not my clothes.

Then, in Dublin last spring, I spent two days without the bare essentials while Aer Lingus tried to track down my artist's portfolio. I've never been known to put paint to paper; in fact I was missing a bright red vanity case. It took a few phone calls to sort that out, but I had plenty of time while skulking in my hotel room wishing I'd held on to one of those emergency tooth brushes they give you on planes.

Last November, on a trip to Orkney, my bag full of thermals and sturdy outerwear stayed put at Heathrow while I arrived in Kirkwall in a fancy suit and handbag. It was very windy and very cold. They were not my favourite airline. Next morning, crumpled and smelly, I went shopping.

Recently, as I inched my way bleary-eyed off a flight from Miami, I was invited to make myself known on leaving the aircraft. I was quite excited to be greeted by a grinning guy with a golden tan and easy smile set off by his red and gold regalia, looking every inch the game show host. He greeted me enthusiastically. I was enthralled. Was I the lucky winner of a holiday? No. The game was Spot Your Luggage and their answer to Bob Monkhouse had come to tell me that on that great carousel of fortune in the sky I'd landed on "Lose everything again". All my bags were still in the States. Go direct to baggage reclaim. Do not pass through. Do not collect anything. Do not expect anything. Go straight home and we'll be in touch.

After a stand-off with a freshly groomed duty manager, with two small, sleepy children clinging to my shorts, and just the bags under my eyes, we went home in a taxi. A couple of calls to customer services, and our cases arrived 31 hours later. The following day came an apology and travel vouchers for pounds 200. Our man in Leicester was eventually offered a trip to New York. Nice - but all we really wanted was a bit of sympathy and practical help at the time of need.

Meanwhile I'm working out where in the world I can go with pounds 200 and one piece of hand baggage.

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