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Airport Security Q&A

If you haven't flown in a while, you may not be up on the latest airport security changes from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Most travelers are aware that the TSA has instituted strict regulations about the amount of toothpaste, bottled water, and other liquid and gel items that travelers are permitted to bring in carry-on luggage. But what exactly are the rules? Just how much of your must-have favorite shampoo can you bring? And are the rules different if you're flying overseas?

We've gathered answers to these and other common questions to help you figure out your packing strategy under the TSA's carry-on rules. With air traffic soaring, it's more important than ever to follow the guidelines -- that way you won't be the fool holding up your entire security line.

airport security checkpoint

Q. Are liquids and gels permitted in my checked baggage?

A. Yes. The liquid/gel restrictions only apply to carry-on baggage.

Q. May I bring liquids and gels in my carry-on?

A. Yes, but only in limited amounts. 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. The TSA emphasizes that containers should fit comfortably into your bag, and that only one bag is permitted per passenger. If you need to bring more than 3.4 ounces of any liquid or gel substance, it should go into your checked luggage or be shipped ahead.

Q. What about prescription medications, baby formula or milk?

A. These substances are exempt from the rules above. As long as you declare them at the security checkpoint, you may carry more than 3.4 ounces, and they do not need to be placed in a plastic bag. The TSA recommends but does not require that prescription medications be in their original labeled containers to expedite the screening process. The TSA also makes exceptions for other medical necessities such as insulin, eye drops or syringes. Just make sure to present these items to the security officer when you reach the checkpoint. (You may even want to consider printing out the TSA's medical notification cards.)

Q. May I pour shampoo and other liquids or gels into unmarked, travel-size containers?

A. Yes.

Q. Do solid vitamins and medications need to be packed in their original containers?

A. While keeping medications and vitamins in their original labeled containers may expedite the screening process, it's fine to transfer them into more convenient smaller containers such as daily pill minders.

Q. What are the rules for makeup?

A. Makeup is subject to the same liquid and gel rules as all other substances -- so if you're bringing liquid mascara, lip gels (such as Blistex) or other liquid- or gel-like items, they will need to be placed in your quart-size plastic bag in 3.4-ounce or smaller containers. Lipstick, powders, solid lip balms (such as ChapStick) and other solid beauty products are not subject to the rules, and may be carried in your hand luggage without restriction.

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Q. What are the rules for food?

A. Even though a TSA representative once told us to "try not to over-think" the guidelines, that can be tricky when it comes to food items. Does a cheesecake count as a gel or a solid? What about pecan pie? And can you bring your holiday leftovers like turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes?

A TSA rep told us that turkey and stuffing should be solid enough to pass muster, but mashed potatoes are a bit too gel-like. As for baked goods, the latest word from the TSA is that travelers can take pies, cakes and other bakery products through security -- but be prepared for additional screening.

You may bring solid snack foods such as pretzels, potato chips or carrot sticks for the plane, but you may want to hold the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Single-serving packages of condiments are permitted as long as they fit within your single zip-top bag, so you can add mustard to your ham sandwich after you get through security. All food must be securely wrapped or in a spill-proof container.

pretzels

Gel packs to refrigerate food are permitted for medication, but otherwise must be completely solid when you go through the checkpoint. If your freezer pack is partially defrosted and there's any water in your container, the TSA will confiscate the item.

Our advice? If you have any doubts about a particular food, either check it or leave it at home. After all, you can always buy food or drinks after you pass through the security checkpoint if you need some munchies for the plane.

Q. If I purchase beverages or other liquids/gels beyond the security checkpoint at the airport, may I bring them on the plane?

A. Yes.

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Q. I'm traveling with children 12 or younger. Are there any special rules?

A. Yes. The TSA has begun to implement new screening policies for children to reduce pat-downs for travelers 12 and under. Children will not have to take their shoes off before going through the security checkpoint. If the metal detector or full body scanner finds anomalies, the screener may choose to let the child go through again and/or swab the child's hands for explosives in lieu of a pat-down.

Q. Are there any special rules for batteries?

A. Loose lithium batteries are not permitted in checked bags. If your batteries are installed in a device (such as a camera), you may pack the device in either a checked bag or a carry-on, but loose lithium batteries may only be transported in your carry-on luggage. Certain quantity limits apply to both loose and installed batteries; for more information, see the Department of Transportation's website.

Q. What are the rules for cigarette lighters?

A. Common lighters without fuel are permitted in carry-on or checked baggage, while torch lighters (which are typically used to light pipes and cigars) are prohibited in either type of baggage. You may only bring one standard lighter per passenger in your carry-on, or two in your checked bag.

Q. May I bring tweezers, razors or scissors on the plane?

A. Tweezers are permitted, as are disposable razors and their cartridges. Straight razors are only permitted in checked baggage. Scissors are permitted as long as the blades do not exceed four inches.

Q. May I bring needlepoint or knitting needles on the plane?

A. Yes. However, circular thread cutters, scissors longer than four inches and other needlepoint tools with blades must be packed in checked luggage.

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Q. Are the rules different for international travel?

A. The European Union (E.U.) as well as other countries such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, Iceland and Norway have adopted similar security restrictions to those in the U.S. You are permitted 100-milliliter containers of liquid and gel substances, packed within a clear, resealable, one-liter plastic bag.

If you're not sure what airport security rules will apply in the country you're visiting, we recommend contacting your airline or the local tourist board for advice.

european union eu flag

Q. Am I permitted to bring duty-free liquids in my carry-on bags?

A. Duty-free liquids, such as perfume or alcohol, are permitted in excess of 3.4 ounces as long as they were purchased at a duty-free shop and placed in special tamper-evident bags. Liquids not in these bags must be stowed in your checked suitcase if you have more than 3.4 ounces.

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Q. May I bring dry ice in my carry-on? What about my checked bags?

A. Passengers may bring five pounds of dry ice in either their carry-on or checked bag as long as it's stored in a package that allows the venting of carbon dioxide gas. That said, a DOT spokesperson suggests that travelers avoid packing dry ice in carry-on luggage, as individual TSA agents unfamiliar with the regulations may confiscate the substance.

Q. I have a hearing aid, C-PAP machine, pacemaker or other medical device. How will this be handled during my security screening?

A. Although there have been some horror stories about the TSA's treatment of fliers with disabilities and medical conditions, most security officers are discreet and professional. As soon as you approach the TSA agent, you should notify him or her of your medical issue so that he or she can determine the best way to screen you and any equipment you may be carrying. The TSA does not require travelers to carry a doctor's note describing their condition, but having this written description may help expedite the screening process. Again, consider carrying the TSA's medication notification cards.

Q. How early should I arrive at the airport?

A. We recommend arriving at the airport two hours before a domestic flight, especially if you're traveling during the summer, the holidays or another particularly busy time of year. If you're flying internationally, you should allow yourself even more time.

Q. What should I expect at the security checkpoint?

A. You will have to put your shoes, clear plastic bag of liquids, jacket, jewelry, cell phone, keys and metal items into a bin for screening before you step through the metal detector or the full body scanning machine. (If you opt out of the full body scan, you will face an "enhanced" pat-down, which is performed by a security officer of your gender and covers all areas of the body, including the groin, buttocks and breasts.) You may also need to remove your belt. Laptops and video cameras must be removed from their cases and screened individually. Smaller electronics such as iPads or e-readers do not need to be removed from your bag for separate screening.

laptop computer carry-on airport woman

Save time by putting metal items into your carry-on before you get to the checkpoint, taking your electronic items out of their cases and wearing easily removable footwear.

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Q. If I go through the full-body scanner once and it brings up an alert, can I request to go through again before having a pat-down?

A. According to a TSA representative, you may request to be rescanned before submitting to a pat-down, but it's up to the individual TSA officer to decide whether to grant that request, based on whether the situation meets security protocols.

Q. I'm bringing birthday or holiday gifts. What's the best way to pack them?

A. Do not pack wrapped gifts in either your carry-on or checked baggage, as the TSA may unwrap them for inspection. Your best bet is to wrap your gifts once you arrive at your destination, or ship them ahead of time.

Q. May I bring electronic items on the plane or in my checked luggage? If so, how should I pack them?

A Laptops, video cameras, iPods, hand-held video game consoles, e-readers and most other standard electronic devices are permitted in both checked and carry-on luggage. As noted above, you should be prepared to remove laptops or video cameras from their cases at the security checkpoint. Because electronic items tend to be frequent targets for security screening, you may want to pack these near the top of your bag so that inspectors don't need to unpack your whole suitcase to get to them.

Q. Can I lock any suitcases that I'm checking?

A. Yes, but you'll need to use a TSA-approved lock so that screeners can open it if your bag is selected for inspection. TSA screeners will simply cut off non-approved locks if they need to get into your bag.

Q. Where can I find more information about airport security?

A. Check TSA.gov for packing tips, a searchable list of permitted and prohibited items, and information for travelers with special needs.

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--written by Sarah Schlichter

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