Since few of us can afford personal sherpas, here are time- and road-tested tips for travelling without checking a bag and getting compensated when things go wrong.

Ah luggage — the ball and chain of travel.

We love having all of our stuff with us, but we hate the stress that comes with checking a big bag. You have to arrive at the airport early to wait in line and pay dearly for the honour of checking it. Then you worry about it getting lost, damaged or pilfered. Then you wait… and wait… and wait for it at the luggage carousel. Then you do it all again.

Since few of us can afford personal sherpas, here are my seven time- and road-tested tips for travelling with luggage:

Investigate your airline’s baggage fees
Checked bag fees, which are in a constant state of flux, vary by airline, route and class of service. Economy passengers on most intra-European flights are allowed one free checked bag, but in the US all airlines except JetBlue and Southwest charge a $25 fee for the first checked bag. In May, most US-based airlines began charging transatlantic economy passengers $60 to $75 for the second checked bag. Though the first bag is still free, several airlines decreased the maximum weight for checked luggage from 70 lbs to 50 lbs each, with fees in the $75- to $90-range for exceeding that limit. Business, first class and elite members of airline loyalty programs are generally allowed to check two bags without charge. Also, some baggage fees are waived or reimbursed when buying airline tickets on certain credit cards. Since there is little uniformity around baggage fees, check your airline’s policy before you pack.

Learn to live out of a carry-on
You don’t have to bring everything you own with you. Pack enough neutral, mix-and-match clothing for two or three days. There will most likely be laundry services at your destination, which cost less than the $25 to $35 you often pay to check a bag. And you can also buy extra clothing or accessories when you arrive. Keep in mind, allowable carry-on sizes vary from airline to airline. For example, European low cost carrier Ryanair allows each passenger a single carry-on no larger than 55cm by 40cm by 20cm, which is smaller than the standard 56cm by 45cm by 25cm suggested by the International Air Transport Association. Follow some of these other tips for travelling with only a carry-on.

Consider shipping your bag
Shipping baggage in the US can reduce the hassle and cost of checking it with an airline. Rates are based on weight and distance, which means it might be cheaper to ship than check if you are travelling from Los Angeles to Denver. But if you are travelling from Los Angeles to New York, checking a bag might be the least expensive option. For the best rates, ship your bag at least five days before your trip (to get ground vs air rates) and be sure that there’s a safe place for it to wait for you at your destination.

Assume your bag will be lost or delayed   
Sometimes there’s no getting around the need to check a bag. When doing so, always assume that your checked bag will be delayed or lost. That means never pack anything in checked luggage that you cannot live without for at least 24 to 48 hours (your toilet kit, prescription drugs, glasses, clothing for your first day). Luckily when bags do go astray, airlines are doing a better job of tracking them. Delta Air Lines now allows passenger to track luggage online in the same way that shipping companies let customers know where packages are every step of the way.

Don’t check valuables
Never pack valuable items in checked luggage since airline contracts specifically state that they assume no liability for the loss, damage or theft of items like jewellery, electronics, cameras, computers or cash. If it’s valuable, put it in your carry-on bag, or leave it at home.

Know the rules
Rules around mishandled, lost or damaged bags vary around the world. New US passenger rights laws going into effect in August require airlines to refund checked baggage fees only if the airline loses your bag forever, which is rare and each airline has a different definition for how long “forever” is. If it’s just delayed and the bag is eventually returned to you, airlines are currently not required to refund the fee. If your bag is lost forever, in Europe or the US you’ll be compensated based on the depreciated value of the declared contents. Outside of the US and Europe, lost bags are governed by the Montreal convention, which offers compensation based on the weight, not the stated value, of the bag.

Consider insurance
If losing baggage scares you, consider buying supplemental lost baggage insurance from the airline, travel agent or your credit card. This differs from the several other types of insurance you might buy before travelling. These policies typically cover the cost of replacing the contents of lost luggage, and they will also reimburse expenses related to delays. If you check something of great value (for example a wedding dress or tuxedo), airlines offer “excess valuation” coverage at the ticket counter for $2 to $3 for each $100 in declared value.

Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel