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christmas crackersThe trend-happy team at AAA expects some 5.4 million leisure travelers to fly this holiday season. We won’t speculate on how many will be schlepping their Christmas cacti, fruitcakes and eggnog through the security checkpoint, but we will offer a stern warning: season of merriment or not, the TSA has strict rules about what you can and cannot carry onto a plane.

Blogger Bob, lead blogger for the TSA, offered a few holiday do’s and dont’s on a recent post, and we filled in some of his key omissions, including snowman-shaped dry ice and Christmas-themed fauna.

Do bring your fruitcake. As a solid (sometimes too much of a solid), fruitcakes of all manner are permitted through the checkpoint. Fruitcakes doubling as weapons caches are not allowed.

Don’t bring Christmas crackers. These noise-making apparatuses (pictured above), often designed to look like candy or wooden soldiers, are prohibited on aircraft. The chemical that triggers the cap-gun pop and mental breakdown of a least favorite in-law when the crackers are torn is silver fulminate, which is highly explosive.

Do bring 3.4 ounces or less of eggnog. As a liquid, eggnog is allowed only within the limits set forth by the TSA’s always confounding 3-1-1 guidelines.

Don’t bring Yule logs. We’re actually a little confused about this one, but Blogger Bob says they should be placed in your checked baggage; perhaps this is because Yule logs are traditionally extremely large, so they probably won’t fit within the carry-on baggage size limits outlined by your airline.

Do bring your mini Christmas cactus. As long as you’re traveling between U.S. gateways, it’s fine to bring along a Christmas cactus or any other holiday-related plant. However, if you’re traveling internationally, you may have issues with customs, as many countries have restrictions on bringing agricultural products across international borders.

Maybe bring wrapped gifts. Blogger Bob confirms that wrapped gifts are allowed in carry-on luggage, but not encouraged. He explains: “If there’s something in the gift that needs to be inspected, we may have to open it. Our officers try their best not to mangle the gift wrap, but it’s not a guarantee and it also slows down the line for everybody else when we have to do this.”

Do bring a dry-ice snowman to keep your medications cool … if it’s not too heavy. The U.S. government has strict regulations regarding dry ice on airplanes. Passengers may bring 2 kilograms of the substance in carry-on luggage as long as it’s stored in a package that allows the venting of carbon dioxide gas. Still, a DOT spokesperson suggested to us at one point that travelers avoid packing dry ice in carry-on luggage. Individual TSA agents unfamiliar with DOT regulations may confiscate the substance and foil your plans to add a festive touch to your medical needs.

For more on what you can and can’t bring through airport checkpoints, peruse Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Dan Askin

airport securityIt’s now possible to skip those snaking security lines at the airport. Earlier this month, the TSA introduced a pilot program called “PreCheck,” which permits pre-screened passengers to go through an expedited security lane at select airports. Travelers who’ve joined the program can speed through airport security if they’re flying on Delta Air Lines out of Atlanta or Detroit, or flying on American Airlines out of Miami or Dallas.

Right now, PreCheck’s reach is pretty limited. But if you’re departing from an eligible airport sometime soon and you’re not a fan of shuffling languidly through security lines for the better part of an hour, you might want to think about signing up. This week, the TSA Blog published a post featuring detailed instructions on joining PreCheck. Here’s how it works:

First, if you are a “United States citizen and are currently a member of CBP’s eligible Trusted Traveler programs (Global Entry, SENTRI, NEXUS), you are automatically qualified to participate in the TSA PreCheck pilot as long as you are flying on a participating airline at a participating airport,” reports the TSA Blog. If you’re a member of a frequent flier program with Delta or American, you’re also eligible, and you should have received an e-mail with instructions on how to sign up for the program. Check your spam folder or call your airline’s customer service number if you can’t find the note — you need that e-mail to join.

For more information on how to sign up for the TSA’s PreCheck program, visit the TSA Blog.

Travelers who don’t meet the requirements for PreCheck (I’m right there with you) can still achieve an expeditious airport experience. Read 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster for tips on zooming through your hub.

— written by Caroline Costello

A decade after 9/11, the travel industry has undergone immeasurable changes, from an airport security system overhaul to airline bankruptcies to soaring gas prices. To put it all in perspective, our friends at TravelPod (our sister site) created this infographic, which charts major changes in travel that have taken place since that tragic September day. Click on the image below to see a larger graphic, and read more about the state of travel after 9/11 in 10 Years Later: The Lessons and Promises of 9/11.

How have your travel experiences changed since 9/11? Share your stories in the comments.

Osama vs Travel

— written by Caroline Costello

In Airport Security Q&A, we provide a basic breakdown of TSA carry-on rules and security checkpoint do’s and don’ts. Still, we continue to receive scores of e-mails from justifiably confused travelers whose specific questions about all manner of packed possessions fall into the gray areas of TSA rules.

Here’s a medley of our latest reader e-mails, with answers provided by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter. Got your own burning airport security question? E-mail us or post your question in the comments, and we’ll do our best to solve your problem.

jalapenosQ: May I bring a 3-ounce can of jalapenos? I would take it in my carry-on.

A: I assume that your can of jalapenos would have some liquid in it, so as long as it’s smaller than 3.4 ounces and you put it in your single clear, quart-size, zip-top plastic bag with your other liquids and gels, you should be fine.

saucepanQ: Can I carry a 1.5-quart saucepan in my carry-on luggage?

A: As long as the sauce pan is empty, it’s no problem to bring it in your carry-on.

trail mixQ: I would like to carry chips, a 12-ounce bag of trail mix and a 12-ounce bag of chocolate bars. Will I be able to pass through security? I’m going to Barcelona.

A: Since those foods are solid items, you shouldn’t have a problem at security. But many countries have restrictions on nuts, seeds, fruits and other similar items, so you may want to contact the Spanish embassy before your trip to see whether your foods will be acceptable to bring into the country.

bug sprayQ: Can I take cockroach insecticide in my carry-on or in my checked luggage?

A: The TSA doesn’t permit aerosol insecticides in carry-on or checked bags. If the insecticide is in non-aerosol form, it should be okay to bring it in your checked luggage; however, if you want to bring it in your carry-on, it must adhere to the TSA’s liquid and gel rules. You may bring a non-aerosol container no larger than 3.4 ounces, and it must be in a quart-size plastic bag with other liquids and gels.

yogurtQ: Can you bring a container of yogurt through security?

A: Because yogurt is a gel-like substance, it is subject to the TSA’s 3.4-ounce limit; if your container is that size or smaller, you may put it in your single clear, quart-size, zip-top plastic bag with your other liquid/gel items to get it through the checkpoint. Otherwise, you’ll need to wait to purchase yogurt once you get into the secure part of the airport.

tiger lilyQ: I am traveling to California next week and want to bring flowers with me. Are they permissible (tiger lilies)?

A: Assuming you’re traveling from another location within the United States, it’s fine to bring along the flowers. If you’re coming into the U.S. from another country, you will most likely have issues at Customs, as there are restrictions on plants and other agricultural products when crossing international borders. You can contact the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol if you have further questions.

— written by Caroline Costello and Sarah Schlichter

tsa peanut butter“It’s not every day that a passenger tries to walk through a checkpoint with over a dozen knives in their carry-on,” reads the TSA’s latest “Good Catch” post.

Hidden within the TSA Web site like marijuana in a jar of Skippy is “Good Catch,” a series of press releases brimming with obvious statements (“currency cannot bring down an airplane”) and tales of security screenings gone awry.

In March, illegal items “artfully concealed in peanut butter” proved no match for checked baggage screeners at Los Angeles International Airport. The peanut butter is an approved item. The marijuana, which was stashed in three prescription pill bottles, is not. (Unless you’re talking about a modern art exhibit or an inside-out Reese’s cup, “artfully” and “concealed in peanut butter” probably don’t belong in the same sentence.) According to the post, a TSA officer noticed something suspicious in the jar and alerted management.

Kudos to the TSA. You can’t pull the old “drugs in peanut butter” trick on a TSA forensic bag-ologist equipped with a spoon, a dull knife, a red plastic cup and paper towels.

The TSA appears to use “Good Catch” as an opportunity to defend screening protocols that fliers find invasive (controversial imaging technology) or irksome (remove your shoes, place large electronic devices in the bin). Knife concealed in a shoe? We found that. Knife, again, “artfully concealed” in a DVD player? That too.

And any good TSA press agent knows: When security finds $55,000 in cash strategically concealed in a woman’s undergarments, as a TSA officer did in San Juan, there’s an opportunity to tout the benefit of the millimeter-wave imaging. The TSA explains: “While currency cannot bring down an airplane, the fact that our officers are able to use technology to spot artfully concealed cash shows our ability to pick-up on other non-metallic items like the explosives we saw in the Christmas day plot in 2009.”

Learn about the TSA’s latest rules in Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Dan Askin

tuna sandwichA reader recently wrote to us concerning TSA carry-on rules and a fishy snack. His note was short and savory: “Can I bring three cans of tuna fish through security? Thanks.”

We receive this kind of e-mail all the time. Questions about carrying food on planes appear in our in-box about as often as Google Alerts on TSA pat-downs gone awry. We pondered whether mashed potatoes would make it through the security line in our first blog post ever, and now we’re ready to take on the tuna enigma.

So, are those water-packed cans clear to bring on the plane? Sarah Schlichter, editor of IndependentTraveler.com, explains:

“Because the tuna cans have liquid in them, they may be subject to the TSA’s liquid/gel rules. I’d recommend making sure your tins of tuna are no larger than 3.4 ounces, and putting them into your single clear, quart-size, zip-top plastic bag along with your other liquid and gel items. If all three cans won’t fit into the single bag, you’ll need to divvy them up among your travel companions or put them in your checked bag.”

To fly with the fish, you’ll have to buy a small can of tuna and stick it in the bag with your travel toothpaste and mini-hand sanitizer. But there’s another option. Drain the tuna, dice some celery or water chestnuts, and mash it all together with mayonnaise and some salt and pepper to taste (do this at home, as the airport bathroom might be low on celery). Place the salad between two slices of bread. Give your cat any leftovers. Proceed through security.

Now, there’s a chance your tuna salad sandwich will be confiscated by the TSA, as it’s up to the officer at the checkpoint to determine whether such a snack falls into the liquid or gel category. But, with the water drained away and your tuna in solid sandwich form, you’ll probably be okay.

A final note: I implore you not to crank open a can of tuna at 30,000 feet. Not everyone will enjoy being confined in a plane seat as someone aerates a container of fish.

For more information about TSA rules, see Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Caroline Costello

passport boarding pass money travelForget what you learned in high school English. A rose by any other name would not smell as sweet — at least when it comes to air travel, as an IndependentTraveler.com reader recently learned. She wrote to us with the following flight-booking conundrum:

“I recently renewed my driver’s license. I only use my middle and last name, and my former license was issued with the middle and last name only. When I renewed, they said I had to use my first, middle and last name but I could sign it using my middle and last name. Confusing, isn’t it? I am now wondering if I can use just my middle and last name on my airline ticket as I always have since that is the way I signed my license, or do I have to put the full name as it appears on my license?”

A few years ago, it might not have mattered which name our reader used to book her ticket — but times have changed. Last year the TSA launched its Secure Flight Program, which requires travelers to book airline tickets using the exact same name that appears on the ID they’ll use when they fly. Travelers must also provide their birthdate and gender when booking. By combining all of this information, the TSA hopes to minimize the number of people who are mistaken for travelers with similar names on the no-fly list.

What this means for our reader, of course, is that she must purchase her ticket under her full name — first name included — to match what’s on her driver’s license, assuming that her license is the ID she’ll be using at the airport. If she’s flying internationally, she should book with the name that appears on her passport.

If you have a driver’s license showing your middle initial and a passport showing your full middle name, book your domestic and international flights accordingly. The TSA has promised some flexibility with small discrepancies like these, but really, who wants to take the chance?

For more information, see TSA’s Secure Flight Program: What It Means for You.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

tsaWhen it comes to the TSA’s complicated carry-on rules, it’s often difficult to remember which items are permitted on the plane and which are subject to confiscation. It’s especially perplexing to determine what, exactly, constitutes a liquid or a gel. Consider those substances that hover between solid and liquid forms, like gooey mashed potatoes or lip gloss — where do they fall on the spectrum of solidity? Think you know the answer? Take our TSA carry-on quiz and find out if you have the know-how to make it through the airport security line.

How did you do? Share your results in the comments! To learn more about TSA rules, read Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Caroline Costello

toiletriesEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

Size matters. Or, at least, it matters to the TSA.

We’re regularly hit with all kinds of questions about the TSA’s complicated carry-on rules. But many travelers seem puzzled by one problem in particular: when it comes to containers packed in carry-on bags, does size matter?

Asked one reader, “I have a 4-ounce tube of sunscreen that is only partially full (I’ve used some of it). Can I bring that in my carry-on? Is it the size of the container that is most important or the weight/amount of the material in the container?”

In Airport Security Q&A, we clear things up. “Liquids and gels must be in individual containers of 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less and placed inside one clear, quart-size, plastic, zip-top bag.” This means the containers may be no larger than 3.4 ounces, whether they’re full, half full or carrying the dregs of your dried-up shampoo.

We know. This security regulation is especially exasperating when you’re toting a 4-ounce bottle that’s practically empty. But unlike most rules, the TSA guidelines weren’t meant to be broken, and you risk having your containers confiscated by a security agent if they’re larger than 3.4 ounces by volume. Our advice? Purchase a set of empty carry-on bottles at your local Rite Aid (this useful item made our list of top 10 travel essentials you can find at your drug store), and fill ’em up every time you travel.

— written by Caroline Costello

calculator errorJust when you thought it was safe to stop worrying about the TSA’s new full body scanners, our favorite PR-challenged government agency now finds itself in the midst of another controversy. Turns out that a variety of mistakes were made when the full body scanners were tested for radiation, including basic mathematical errors such as failing to divide by 10. (And here I thought it was just wordsmith types like me that found math hard!)

The errors made it appear that some machines were giving off 10 times as much radiation as they actually were … and that wasn’t the only problem with the reports. Other anomalies noted by the TSA included missing data and inconsistent responses to survey questions. (The tests were carried out by the machines’ manufacturers and third-party maintenance providers, not by the TSA itself.)

The good news, according to the TSA’s blog (which features several posts on the issue), is that the errors did not affect the safety of the machines — and that even the falsely inflated radiation levels were well within safe operating parameters. But as a precaution, the TSA is having all of its full body scanners retested and will post the results on its Web site, www.TSA.gov.

To learn more about the machines, see From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm.

While I’m glad the TSA will be making future reports publicly available, I can’t help seeing this as yet another black eye for an agency that’s repeatedly proven difficult for travelers to trust. Can we really rely on other data about the safety of the full body scanners, given the problems with these reports? Is the agency a victim of bad press, or is it really as inept as it appears?

Weigh in with your opinion below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter