Maybe you do most of your travels by car, or you’ve just never had the chance to fly before. As much as I’ve flown, I still get little baby butterflies (hmm… caterpillars?) in my stomach right as we take off. I know it’s all physics and engineering, and that it’s safer to fly than it is for me to drive, but there’s always that bit of nervous excitement when we take off.
But before you can get to that seat for your flight, you need to “go through security.” If you’ve had to walk through metal detectors for school or music concerts, then airport security won’t be completely alien to you. But what can you expect, and how can you make the process as smooth as possible?
TSA-friendly packing tips
If you fly to or within the US, you will be screened by the federal Transportation Security Administration, established after the airplane attacks of September 11, 2001. What you pack for your flight should fall into these four categories:
Carry-on bags – these are the smaller bags you keep at your side and bring with you to your seat in the airplane. There are numerous restrictions associated with carry-ons, such as how large they can be, how much they can weigh, and what items are not allowed in them. Most of the tips at my Travelite site are designed to help you travel with just your carry-on bag. It’s perfectly doable, with a little planning. For the purposes of making it easier to get through your security screening, consider these:
- Avoid placing loose items in your main carry-on – the easiest way to organize these is with reclosable ziplock baggies. Go ahead, use them to pack your underwear and socks. Bring extras to store your dirty laundry a well. You can even find 2-gallon ziplock baggies, and they can fit a lot! Make sure to squish out excess air.
- Keep all your paperwork in one place – a manila folder works, although a stiff Priority Mail or FedEx envelope may be a better option if you have smaller slips of paper. Slip these into a big front pocket on your carry-on for easy access
- Even if you plan to stay with your carry-on, use a luggage tag to identify its owner. Consider including the same info inside the bag as well.
Check-in luggage – these are typically those bags and suitcases that are too big to bring with you to your seat on the plane. the TSA allows you to put things in your check-in luggage that are forbidden in your carry-on. For the purposes of a security screening, you don’t need to worry about your check-ins. However:
- If you choose to put a lock on your luggage, use the newer TSA-approved travel locks. These are clearly marked on the packaging, and allow TSA agents to open your lock with a master key should they need to.
- Use a luggage tag on the outside (it is fine if you used one with a cover that makes that requires lifting to see the info; the idea is that the information is there), as well as your personal info inside the luggage.
- Use a check-in bag if you need to carry items that are prohibited in your carry-on (such as knives and large scissors) or you have too many things to fit in your carry-on. Do not assume that you should always check in your luggage, or pack your check-in luggage to the hilt just because you can. Most airlines now charge a fee for even the first piece of check-in luggage, making it an expensive choice if you don’t need to take that much with you.
Toiletry bag – TSA has instituted a new “3-1-1” policy whereby you can only take one quart-sized transparent resealable bag with you for your liquid and gel toiletries per person, and each individual container holding liquids and gels cannot weigh more than 3 ounces. Of the various things the TSA can nitpick about at the security screening, toiletries (believe it or not) is one of them:
- Most important: Your 3-1-1 bag must be within easy reach when you approach the security screening area, as you are required to place the bag in a tray for independent scanning through the X-ray machine. Don’t pack this in the bottom of your carry-on.
- Be mindful when purchasing souvenirs. That bottle of Caribbean hot sauce? If it’s bigger than 3 ounces and isn’t in your 3-1-1 bag, it needs to go into your check-in or it’s spicy condiment time for the TSA agents!
- Be careful when packing during your trip. It’s easy to accidentally toss in a bottle of shampoo or shaving cream in your carry-on at the last minute while you’re packing up from your hotel, but those will be confiscated.
- Although a quart-sized baggie is not very spacious, you don’t need to carry your entire set of regular toiletries with you. Think carefully about what exactly you want to take. Do you really need your body wash when you know the hotels you’re staying at provide bars of hotel soap?
- Limit the 3-1-1 bag just to liquid and gel toiletries. This may sound silly, but a lot of women are used to packing their make-up together with their toiletries. The thing is, your powder eye shadow, compact, and hair brush don’t neeed to go in the 3-1-1 bag. Once you completely isolate just the liquids and gels, you’ll likely be pleased to see that you can fit everything in the baggie.
Laptop case – you can pack your laptop in your main carry-on, or you can carry it in its own case separately. The airlines allow “one carry-on and one personal item,” and the personal item includes a laptop case (as well as other small totables like purses and camera bags):
- Make sure your laptop is charged enough to turn on if a TSA agent asks you to.
- Be prepared to remove your laptop from its case so it can be screened by itself in the X-ray machine. Some bag manufacturers make special laptop cases with a transparent pocket for your laptop; these must be approved by the TSA (the labeling will indicate this). Such bags let you lay the laptop sleeve open but keep your laptop in the bag through the X-ray machine, providing a little more security from laptop thefts.
- If you expect to be flying with your laptop frequently, consider purchasing travel-friendly cords that retract into a spool, minimizing cable clutter.
Look at your boarding pass. There is a corner of the ticket that can sometimes include a notation that looks like “S S S S S S S”—this is the dreaded “secondary screening” code, and it can be added to your ticket for a number of seemingly random purposes. Perhaps you purchased your ticket with cash, at the last minute, just for a one-way trip, or some other behavior that caused the trigger. It’s also altogether possible that during your routine screening, you set off the metal detector, or the X-ray inspector found something unidentifiable in your carry-on. If you do get pulled aside for a secondary screening, relax, breathe, and be polite. The TSA agents are just going through their normal tasks, and your goal is to make the process as smooth as possible so you can get out of there and off to your gate. A TSA agent will pass a handheld detector wand over your body, and they may need to inspect every item in your carry-on (and this is where having everything organized will come in handy).
Things to avoid having on your body when walking through a metal detector
- Keychains and keyrings with keys – it’s easiest to stash this in your carry-on or purse. Many bags have keyfobs so you can snap your keyring in place and forget it until you get back and need to get to your own car.
- Belt buckles – OK so you won a rodeo and you wear your winning buckle proudly! Except through the metal detector. It’s easiest to remove these and stuff them in your carry-on, place in the tray with your shoes (more on that later), or loop around the strap of your carry-on. Don’t worry; your pants won’t fall down in the 10 steps you’ll take through security.
- A pocketful of change
- Big pieces of metallic jewelry
- Your watch – it might not set off the metal detector, but you might as well stash it.
- Your metal sunglasses/glasses
- If you have metal rods and such in your body, consider traveling with your doctor’s note indicating this. Chances are you will still be wanded, but the process is made a little smoother with a doctor’s note.
How to go through security
- Before you enter the queue:
- Remove all large metal objects from your body and place them in your carry-on (see the list above).
- Make sure you can easily get to your 3-1-1 toiletry bag and laptop computer.
- From your wallet, remove your official government-issued picture ID card, and keep it with your boarding pass in your hand.
- As you approach the security screening area, you might see different signs for queues for business travelers, or for travelers with children. There are no strict laws regarding which queue to enter, although if you are new to the process, you should probably avoid the queue for the business traveler. They tend to be veterans at the process, and may be impatient should it take you a while to get yourself oriented.
- Near the entrance to the queue will be a uniformed agent – hand your ID card and boarding pass to this agent. The agent will scan both the ID and boarding pass, making sure the names match, and that you match the photo on the ID card. Most of the time, the agent will also mark a notation on the boarding pass.
- Once you get into the queue area, there may be several queues. Unless you are directed into a specific one by an agent, you can choose which queue to stand in. The multiple queues are there to expedite the screening process.
- The actual processing area usually holds about four or five people at a time. The first thing you will be able to do is to grab a large plastic tub from a stack near the counter. You will need at least one, maybe two:
- Remove your shoes and place them flat in the plastic tub.
- Remove your 3-1-1 toiletry baggie from your carry-on bag and place it next to your shoes in your plastic tub.
- Place any small electronics like your cell phone in the tub.
- If you are carrying an empty refillable water bottle, place it in the tub to show them that it’s empty.
- If you are wearing a light jacket, you can also remove it and place it in the tub if it still has room. If it’s already full, or you are wearing a thicker coat, use a second tub.
- Use a second tub if you have a laptop. Place the laptop flat in the plastic tub, with nothing on top of the laptop. If you have a TSA-approved laptop case, unzip the case so that the portion containing the laptop can be laid flat on the X-ray conveyor belt.
- By this time, you should be about ready to pass your articles through the X-ray machine:
- Lay your main carry-on bag flat and have it be the first item that goes through the machine.
- Place your “personal bag” (purse, camera bag, laptop case) laid flat as your second item through the machine.
- Your plastic bin(s) should be the last item to go on the conveyor belt.
- Do not take your eyes off of your belongings until you have ensured that the last of your plastic bins has successfully moved into the closed X-ray machine mechanism, even if it takes an extra moment. Sometimes a TSA agent will pause the X-ray machine and even back up the conveyor belt for a closer inspection, so the belt may be momentarily paused. The idea here is to minimize the chances of anyone in the queue sniping your valuables, so take the moment to make sure your tubs have moved into the mechanism.
- Do not place your ID and boarding pass in the tub! Hold onto these.
- Now, it is your turn to walk through the metal detector, which is parallel to the X-ray machine. Stand on your side of the metal detector and look to the other side. There should be a TSA agent standing there facing you. If there is no agent there, or the agent is busy with someone else, wait your turn. Only when the agent is ready and acknowledges you, should you walk through the metal detector. Walk through calmly and continue walking.
- Assuming you do not set off the metal detector, you are now clear to retrieve your belongings. A few more steps, and you are at the exit end of the X-ray machine conveyor belt.
- You will see your main carry-on and your personal bag come through first. Let these continue to roll; your goal is to retrieve the items in your tub first:
- Put your keys, cell phone, etc. away in your pockets
- Grab your shoes, place them on the floor and quickly stick your feet in them. Don’t bother lacing them or strapping them completely for now.
- Grab your 3-1-1 toiletry bag.
- Check that your first tub is completely empty.
- From your second tub, grab your laptop.
- Now grab your main carry-on bag and your personal item bag. At this point you are probably carrying your main bag, your smaller purse/case, your 3-1-1 bag, your laptop, and your ID card and boarding pass. And your shoes are flopping on your feet.
- Optionally, place your now-empty tubs in the stack at the end of the counter.
- You’re now done with the security screening. Most screening areas provide benches in the exit area; spend a moment to put all your items in order here, making sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
You’ve now successfully gone through an airport security screening! Now let’s go have fun on your trip!
The TSA has some helpful Web pages: