In these days of "underwear bombers," flying is stressful. Airport security doesn't make it any less stressful. To their credit, though, that's not their job; It's their job to prevent exploding underwear from making it onto the plane. TSA checkpoint staff aren't your friends, but they aren't your enemies either, and life goes more smoothly if you make things easy for them.
TSA procedures are pretty similar around the world. While the agency is now doing additional pre-screening for folks coming into the U.S. on international flights, that just means more bag searches and pat-downs -- not a different set of approved items.
In 19 U.S. airports, the TSA is currently using "whole body imaging" scanners for either primary or secondary screening. These scanners are controversial because some people think they create pictures of them naked. You'll know one of these scanners because they look like a box you step into, rather than the usual metal-detecting door frame. If you want to see the images for yourself, check them out here. If that freaks you out, you can always ask for a pat-down instead.
How To Speed Through The Security Checkpoint
Pack to be searched. Ziploc bags are your friend -- and not just for liquids. If you overpack in a cluttered manner and your bag is searched, you're going to have a tough time recombobulating yourself. But if you pack neatly, putting socks in one bag, books in another, et al, you'll be able to put yourself right back together where you left off. The TSA has a guide for packing here:
Be aware of liquids. According to the TSA's Andrea Macauley, liquids cause lots of grief at checkpoints. Remember the TSA's rule -- you can only have one quart-sized Ziploc bag full of liquids, and each container inside it must hold three ounces or less. Medications and stuff for babies are exceptions to the rule.
Prepare before you get there. Stop before you get on line and do a personal inventory. Take off your belt. Untie your shoes. Remove jewelry and put it in your bag or in a zipped coat pocket. Remove the entire contents of your pockets, except for your ID and boarding pass, and do the same.
Pick the right line. Typically nowadays, security checkpoints have three lines: a "family and medical liquids" line, a regular-folk line, and an expert traveler line. Only join the expert-traveler line if you travel several times a month and pass through security checkpoints in your sleep. Most people go into the "regular" line. The third line is for folks with kids, or folks toting medications that may have to be examined by TSA staff.
Lay things down. When you get to the checkpoint, put your shoes directly on the belt. Then, put your coat in a bin, along with any personal items you might have. Remove your laptop from your bag, if you have one. Put your bag down on the belt, then your laptop in a bin. Make sure you see all your things go into the machine Now walk through the magnetometer. By putting down valuable items last, you prevent thieves from snatching them from the belt before you get to the other end.
The Top 5 Carry-On Mistakes
People make lots of mistakes at security checkpoints, but some are more common than others. I worked with TSA agent Andrea Macauley to pinpoint five common errors people make trying to carry things through.
5. Is It Snowing Where You Are? Snow globes are a no-go at checkpoints. Yes, that's sad and rather pointless. But that's just the world we live in. We don't live in a sweet, peaceful snow-globe world, like the people on St. Elsewhere.
4. Mysterious Souvenirs. Macauley told me about tourists from the Caribbean who bought home ornamental canes, not knowing they had knives concealed inside. Good thing they didn't have, say, six ounces of cocaine concealed inside. Take a good look at your souvenirs before you bring them home.
3. Mmm --- Delicious. Food is a problem, even (especially) if it's homemade. If you can make a handprint in it (or it's a liquid), there's a chance it won't get through. Peanut butter? Banned. Pies? Well, there's a tough call. McCauley says that during the holidays, they let pies through, but give them a pat-down.
2. A Day In The Sun. By all means wear sunscreen. But most sunscreen bottles are too big to be allowed through a security checkpoint. Buy your sunscreen at your sunny destination. (I tend to not want to check it because I've had sunscreen explosions in my bag.)
1. Liquor? I Hardly Know 'Er! This is at #1 because I've done it. You can't put bottles of liquor or wine in your carry-ons, even if you just got them at the duty free and you're changing planes. A bottle of liquid means an automatic checked bag.
Here are two more rules to live by:
If it can hurt somebody, check it. There are a few categories of pointy items that are OK to go in your carry-ons. Scissors with blades shorter then four inches, knitting needles, and small screwdrivers are OK. But think like one of the characters on CSI; if someone could conceivably be hurt in a fit of rage by something you have, it'll probably be banned. Golf clubs? Banned. Dinner knives? Banned. Pool cues? Banned. You'll find the full list of prohibited "dangerous" items here.
If it's valuable, keep it or ship it. Computers, cameras, film, jewelry, heirlooms -- if it's worth a lot of money or sentimental value, the TSA says to try to carry it with you. Now, if you're carrying a jewel-encrusted sword or a ceremonial dagger, this may be a problem. In that situation, just encase Stormbringer in bubble wrap and send it FedEx. There's no way out of that catch-22. If you're trying to carry on a large and valuable musical instrument, the TSA has tips here.
Secure Flight, Redress Numbers, and That "No-Fly List"
There are no small children on government no-fly lists. But there are people with the same name as small children on government no-fly lists, which is why you end up with stories of little Billy being pulled aside at checkpoints.
The good news is, the TSA's new Secure Flight plan will greatly reduce problems like that once it's fully implemented by the end of 2010. Secure Flight (www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/layers/secureflight/) forces you to give your airline your gender and date of birth, which gets added to the information checked against watch lists.
Of course, that doesn't help if your name is Sean Kelly and you were unfortunately born on the same day as the terrorist thug Sean Kelly. In that case, you can apply to the TSA for a "redress number," (www.tsa.gov/travelers/customer/redress/index.shtm) which you can add to your Secure Flight information to prevent you from being mistaken for ex-mad-bombers.
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.
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