By Joe Brancatelli
April 19, 2007 -- The hardest lessons to learn are the ones that we all already know, the ones that we discard because time or expedience or simple exhaustion convinced us to ignore.

So, once again, fellow travelers, it's time to learn the lesson: Never, ever check a bag. And if you think that you have a good reason to check a bag "just this once" or "just this trip," let me say this: Never, ever check a bag.

Ever since last summer's lotions-and-potions scare and the revised liquids rules for carry-ons, more average travelers than ever before--and even some of us--have decided to check a bag. What the hell, we say, it's a real pain squeezing our toiletries into one of those annoying zippered plastic bags. It's a concession too far, an annoyance too great. So let's just check a damn bag.

Yeah, well, we know now that the airlines just can't handle it. Even while some of them are beginning to charge to check a bag, they are now losing our luggage with truly alarming regularity.

According to the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, the 20 largest U.S. carriers racked up more than 366,000 reports of "mishandled" luggage during the month of February. That's 110,000 more reports than in February, 2006. Or, to express it the way the Transportation Department does, that is 8.23 reports per 1,000 flyers. It represents an astonishing 35 percent jump in lost or misplaced luggage compared to the February, 2006, rate of 6.10 reports per 1,000 flyers.

Want even more dreary news? As the major carriers turn more and more of their flying over to their commuter airlines, the regionals are collapsing under the weight of the bags that they are being asked to handle. In February, American Eagle racked up a mind-boggling 16.27 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. At that rate, American and its wholly owned commuter carrier is losing the bag of about one person on each and every one of the regional jets its flies. Comair, the Delta Connection commuter carrier, is almost as bad at 16.03 reports per 1,000. Skywest, which flies for United, Delta and Midwest, is racking up 15.06 reports per 1,000 passengers.

Numbers like that should be motivation enough to never check a bag. And if you need a refresher course in how to stay in carry-on trim, I'm happy to provide one. Here are some of my best tips for packing it all into one bag.

Make a list of the items you'll need to take on your trip. Concentrate on mix-and-match clothes, shoes and accessories. Emphasize neutral shades and complementary colors and clothing that may be hand washed and drip-dried. Work especially hard to make sure that each item of clothing you pack works with more than one outfit. Then check the list and eliminate anything that you can't justify the second time around.

Yeah, I know it sounds like advice for first-timers, but do it: Lay out all the clothes you plan to pack on a sofa or table. Then, one more time, weed out what isn't essential. A good strategy: Eliminate what you can buy at good prices at your destination. For example, if you're headed to Ireland, buy sweaters there. Purchase beachwear at sun resorts in Florida, Hawaii and other warm-weather destinations.

For a quick trip, pack bags from bottom to top: heaviest items at the bottom of a bag, lightest items on top. For extended trips, however, pack according to itinerary: clothing for the last stop at the bottom, garments for each earlier stop layered on top. Underwear and socks can be stuffed inside your shoes and around the edges of the luggage. Another way to lighten your load: Wear your heaviest shoes and bulkiest clothes on the day of departure so you won't have to pack them.

Items like slacks and ties can be loosely rolled to keep wrinkles away. For other garments, minimize wrinkles by wrapping them in tissue paper or the plastic bags used by dry cleaners. And be sure to unpack as soon as you reach your destination. By the way, accept the fact that some wrinkles are inevitable no matter how carefully you pack. Hotels will usually lend you an iron and an ironing board and most major chain properties put an iron and ironing board in each guestroom. Worst case, fall back on a time-tested trick: Hang your wrinkled clothes on the shower rod in the bathroom, close the bathroom door and run the hot water. The steam will eliminate many wrinkles.

There isn't a real solution to this situation. You simply have to make a choice: Get your toiletries down to the 3-ounce/one-quart-bag limit; ship them to your destination; or buy along the way. Women business travelers have had good luck using the shipping method for their favored toiletries: the Postal Service offers fairly reliable 2-day Priority Mail service for a flat rate of $8.10. Men seem to be gravitating to the buy-it-when-you-get-there solution. Major pharmacy chains and Wal-Mart stores now have racks where you can pick up travel-sized containers of toothpaste, deodorant and other supplies. Use them and dispose of them before you fly again.

This latest crisis began in Great Britain and it still disproportionately afflicts flyers using British airports. The British airports have adopted a draconian rule that allows you to carry on just one bag total. To be honest, I don't know any business traveler who can pack enough clothing, a laptop and necessary business paperwork in just one carry-on bag. Especially the size of the carry-on bag allowed by British authorities: just 22 inches x 17.5 inches x 10 inches. If you are flying from or through Great Britain, accept reality and check a bag. It is, quite literally, the exception that proves the "never check a bag" rule.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.