At the airport, things can get a little complicated. It's difficult to generalize about the procedures for claiming lost items, because each airport is governed by state and local laws.
"At one airport, they may be required to hold an unclaimed item for six months," says Deborah McElroy, a spokeswoman for the Airports Council International-North America. "At another, they may have to hold it for a year. At another, 30 days. Three to six months is most common."
Found items are normally cataloged in a database and held at the airport for about two weeks. The process is fairly structured, with the airline noting which flight the item came off, the time, the date and a detailed description. Then the item is sent to a warehouse at the airline's headquarters. So if you're flying on Delta Air Lines, your missing iPad will be taken to Atlanta.
All along, employees are supposed to make an effort to reunite you with your property. That's why it helps for you to include your name, phone number and address on items such as cameras, cellphones and laptop computers. If an item isn't claimed after six months, it's sold or discarded, according to a Delta spokesman. Most other major airlines share that policy.
A common thread or two runs through the entire lost-and-found travel experience. The sooner you say something about your loss, the better the chances that you'll get it back. Every hour something stays lost can count, because hotel rooms, rental cars and planes are cleaned regularly, or "turned" in industry parlance, which makes it more difficult to connect you with your missing object.
Attaching your name to a valuable item significantly increases the chance of recovery. Let's just say that you don't find a lot of name tags on merchandise at that legendary Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala., which every travel columnist I know has written about at least once.
I've been both impressed and disappointed by the travel industry's lost-and-found procedures in my own travels. I was impressed with the Waterfront Hotel in Oakland, Calif., for instance, when it sent our electric toothbrushes to our next hotel in Sacramento a few years ago without charging us. And with Delta, which found a copy of a Bill Cosby book I'd left in my seat pocket on a flight to Salt Lake City. It had been a Christmas present.
But I'm still waiting for that electric razor I left in my Breckenridge, Colo., hotel in March and for that fuzzy pillow my daughter abandoned on her flight to Atlanta last year. I'm not holding my breath.
Bottom line: If a travel "expert" can lose something on a trip, then it can happen to anyone. So this summer, keep a close eye on your stuff. And tag it.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)