The Transportation Security Administration exists to keep air travel safe. The organization, created after September 11, 2001, manages airport security in the United States. While the TSA attempts to make air travel as smooth and efficient as possible, travelers frequently associate it with baggage inspection and hold-ups. The strict standards that the TSA keeps can lead to last-minute travel woes…unless you know the do’s and don’ts beforehand. If you want to cut down on your travel anxiety, you need to study the latest TSA regulations before boarding.
Check It or Leave It: Item Prohibitions
Food and Drink: Remember the general rule: Food and liquids pose problems. When flying, always try to limit how much you carry onto the plane. Check it with the rest of your luggage if possible. If not, keep in mind the 3-1-1 carry-on guide. Limit bottles to 3.4 ounces in size, just enough for travel-sized toothpaste and perfume. Limit these bottles and other small personal items to one, 1-quart clear plastic bag for easy checking. Limit carry-on bags to one per person. If you need extra liquids, such as medications or baby formula, you can declare them – the TSA will then search through the items and allow you to bring liquids on as special exceptions. Remember that random liquids like bug sprays, cosmetic gels, and liquid soaps raise red flags. Leave them at home if possible, or put them in checked luggage for long trips.
Weapons: When in doubt, the TSA has the final word in allowing any item on the plane, and some items are permanently on the no-fly list. As you can imagine, these prohibited items all fall into the weapons category. Firearms are out of the question. Sharp objects of any sort, even tools or scissors, are banned. In general, sports equipment like pool cues and ski poles are often prohibited.
Explosives and Chemicals: Fortunately, most banned items, from martial arts gear to cattle prods, can still be checked in regular luggage. However, any type of explosive material or dangerous chemical compound is banned from both carry-on and checked luggage. This includes gas torches and gasoline, as well as any form of aerosol spray. The TSA cannot tell what is in an aerosol canister (hair spray? explosive liquid? nerve gas?) so there is a blanket banning just to be safe. Certain Department of Transportation-approved handheld lighters are the lone exception to the “explosives” rule. The compressed gas sometimes found in life vests is the lone exception to the “disabling chemicals” rules. Again, if there is any doubt, the TSA has the authority to ban or confiscate items.
Speciality Items: A final note about outlawed goods: Holiday travel is especially complicated, many gifts cannot be taken on flights because of their potential danger during the spike in travel. Snow globes, for example, are not allowed for their suspiciously vague amount of liquid. Common gift items include sauces, jams, gravy, cologne, dips, oils, dressings, and food gift baskets – all of which present travel security problems and should be left in checked luggage or at home. Other items that will get the booy include gel-lit candles and replica “toy” guns.
If you want to wrap a gift, wait until after air travel is over. Wrapped gifts frequently alert suspicion, and TSA agents are likely to unwrap these items and inspect them. To avoid the annoyance, wait or buy gifts that do not need to be wrapped.
What About Electronics?
If you need more than your smartphone on a trip, you can include one extra item in addition to your carry-on bag. Many use this extra item to tote along their laptops. You can carry a laptop or tablet computer with you, but make sure it is by itself and has an approved laptop bag that makes it easy to check when you are boarding. On the other hand, you may want your extra item to be a purse, a DVD player, or something else you can’t bear to part with.
Making It Through Screening
It is the TSA’s job to properly screen everyone who is boarding U.S. flights: If you are going to the airport then checkpoints are a fact of life. You can make passing through checkpoints far easier by keeping your carry-on luggage and clothes as simple as possible. When you pass through the TSA scanners, the imaging technology scans for “irregularities.” Anything that might look like an irregularity will lead to further, time-consuming searches – keep this in mind when emptying your pockets. Body piercings and religious garments might also lead to further searching, so pack additional items away if possible. All passengers are also required to take off their shoes (which will be scanned to make sure they are not hiding illegal substances), so wearing slip-on shoes can save time.
While the TSA can electronically scan luggage, sometimes physical inspections are still needed. These can take extra time, but you can help make the process more efficient by keeping your luggage accessible. If you want to secure any baggage, never use an ordinary commercial lock. Instead, find a TSA-approved lock that can be opened with a universal key that TSA officials carry. Safe Skies and Travel Sentry brand locks are designed specifically for this type of baggage protection.
In addition to the security scan, you will also need to display your boarding pass and acceptable identification such as a passport at the checkpoint. Keep these documents close at hand. If you have children or pets, try to arrive early so you have extra time to pass the checkpoints. You can travel with pets, but the TSA insists they be removed from carrying cases so the cases can be scanned, so be prepared to hold and secure your pet for a minute or two.
If you are traveling with children under the age of 12, they can keep their shoes on: The TSA tries to make its screening easier and less invasive for children, but their items and carry-ons must also be screened properly. This includes any infant accessories like strollers and baby carriers, so prepare to hold infants for a brief time, too. Many airports have family lanes that allow families to pass checkpoints quickly even if they have medically necessary liquids for infants or children.
The TSA understands many travelers have disabilities and both temporary and permanent medical conditions that can make screening difficult. The TSA Cares initiative links you with customer service management so you can arrange for extra help at the airport and learn how to make it past checkpoints with any necessary equipment. You can follow the link and find a list of links that can help you find specific information on issues like portable oxygen, external medical devices, service dogs, and much more.
Traveling Abroad: The International Luggage Scene
TSA rules for international travel are the same as domestic travel. However, hopping from country to country can still get complicated, since airline rules are subject to change. The bottle that you bought in the UK may not survive through the airport checks in Germany, and so on. Keep TSA rules in mind when entering the U.S., and try to learn the general rules of other countries before you travel. Preparation will always be the key!
Extra Services: MyTSA and Expedited Screening
MyTSA is an app for mobile devices that you can download and use to improve your travel experience. It connects you with the latest TSA news and regulation changes, and gives you reports on the status of nearby airports so you can see if they are experiencing delays. The app also includes a general guide for carry-on luggage and videos on the imaging technology the TSA uses. It also has sections on airport statistics, weather forecasts, and security wait times based on other traveler opinions.
If you frequently travel because of work, especially government work, look into the TSA PreCheck Expedited Screening program, too. This is a new project designed for members of the U.S. Customers and Border Protection organization, among others, which makes travel much easier. Essentially, you agree to voluntarily participate in a security screening before arriving at the checkpoint. Once at the checkpoint you can waive the screening process and pass through immediately. Explore the program to see if you qualify. Airlines also offer elite status and premium benefits for frequent travelers or those willing to pay extra, which can speed up screening with priority lanes and biometric cards.