13 Things Most Likely to Get You Flagged by the TSA
Even if you follow all the rules—removing your shoes, belt, and heavy jewelry—you might still worry about getting flagged by the TSA. We got travel pros to reveal how you can avoid making yourself a target when you reach the front of the security line.
First up, why do we have the TSA?
You already know that TSA stands for Transportation Security Administration (or if you didn’t, now you do), but apart from the obvious—checking for off-limits items—do you know what role they play in the travel industry? Philip Farina, CPP a safety and security advisor at Farina and Associates, Ltd., explains, “While transportation systems are vast, the bulk of TSA’s efforts are focused on aviation. They accomplish their mission using a combination of well-trained technicians who are skilled in customer service, communications, and document fraud, access-control devices such as scanners, signage, metal detectors, CCTV, X-ray machines and chemical/vapor sensing devices, and finally a set of processes and procedures that allows engagement with customers while providing increased levels of security.” In other words, they’re always on the lookout to make sure you get from point A to point B without a scratch or in any danger. By the way, the results are in: These are the best and worst domestic airlines.
Red Flag #1: Talking about weapons
You might think it’s A-okay to be chatty with an officer, or you think you’re just being friendly, but asking any questions related to weapons, firearms, explosives, or other dangerous, prohibited items puts you on the TSA’s radar. “While we do have freedom of speech in the United States, any mention of these items while in the airport or security lines can you you pulled and questioned,” Farina says. These “rude” American habits are actually fine in other countries.
Red Flag #2: Traveling with coffee
Some people lug back shot glasses, others magnets or keychains, but if your token souvenir from your travels is a lot of java, travel editor and associate manager at hotwire.com, Geena Marcelia says your coffee addiction could make you a target for TSA. “Apparently, the strong smell of coffee is also used to mask the smell of some illegal substances. I’ve almost always had my bags searched, both checked and carry-on, when bringing back coffee,” she says. (Here are the airport mistakes we’re all still making.)
Red Flag #3: Not taking out all liquids
By now you know the 3.4 ounce (or 100 milliliters) rule for bringing liquids on airplanes post 9/11. And most liquids are obvious—shampoo, lotion, mouthwash, but there may be random items buried at the bottom of your purse that you forget about until TSA is holding them up, demanding an answer. Travel journalist Maggie Espinosa says this happened to her on the way back from a trip to Guatemala; she forgot antibacterial gel she purchased at the Antigua Choco Museum. Though the TSA agent let her pour out a bit to get it under the limit, others may ask you to discard your toiletry completely. If that happens, just go with it and follow the rules. These popular travel tips are actually no longer true.
Red Flag #4: Trying to game the system
There are some parts of getting on an airplane that seems ridiculous: Why are they worried about your gold earrings? Or does it really matter if your laptop is out of your bag? Even if you don’t understand why the rules are in place, just follow them, says Stephen Lloyd, former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Organization (ATO) Director of Safety and current president of SJL and Associates. “People will try to push the limits of what is allowed and actually game the system,” he says. “There are travelers who will see what they can get away with. If you are trying to see what you can get away with, the penalties can be severe, including imprisonment.” This is what happened when one airline refused to let a woman fly because of her weight.
Red Flag #5: Not checking your kid’s baggage
Though you might be trying to encourage your budding jet-setter to pack his or her own carry-on full of crayons and snacks before boarding a flight with you to grandma’s, Corinne McDermott, world traveler and founder of havebabywilltravel.com, suggests giving a quick inspection to the backpack before the TSA has a look. “Things like craft scissors and toy guns, no matter how harmless, might get flagged and confiscated,” she adds. These are the things airlines won’t tell you—but you’ll definitely want to know.
Red Flag #6: Having any type of unusual item
So you bought a handmade harmonica for your nephew or a candle holder made out of a gourd. Though totally fine to bring home, managing partner and editor at Airline Weekly, Seth Kaplan, says to be prepared to answer for your possession. “Unusual items, even if they’re perfectly legal and safe, can get their attention,” he says. “For example, I used to travel with a long-arm stapler to staple newsletters on the road. That’s just not something the agents see every day, so it would almost always get flagged. After a while,” he adds, “I learned that when I saw the agent squinting at the screen and trying to figure out what it was, if I would tell them what it was, about half the time they were comfortable confirming it without opening my bag. Other times, they did want to open the bag, which I understood.”
Red Flag #7: Getting out of line
Once you pull out your boarding pass and your identification, it takes you a hot second to navigate where you’re supposed to go: the shortest line? The closest one? If a TSA agent directs you to an area, Farina advises going there and staying put, no matter what. “Do not attempt to switch your line, which may include a full-body scanner to a pre-check line with only metal detectors,” he adds. These are the things you should never do once you’re on an airplane.
Red Flag #8: Carrying a lot of cash
Before you go on a trip, especially one that cruises over international waters, it’s not unusual to want to exchange your dollars for the new currency before leaving U.S. land for the best rate. Though a travel agent would recommend that, so you can save some hard-earned moolah, Farina warns that carrying anything in bulk, from cash to precious metals, can make you a target. “Be prepared to explain where these items came from and why you have it and/or are traveling with it,” he advises.
Red Flag #9: Letting your stress show
We’ve all been there: You woke up late, got stuck in traffic, forgot to check-in the night before, and now you’re scrambling to make it to your gate before they close the cabin door. While undeniably a stressful process, Farina says keeping your calm is important for the TSA to trust that you’re a, well, sane human. This means never taking your frustration out on other travelers, and especially not airport personnel. “No matter the reason, always be courteous and respective to the TSA. Being rude, pushy, or loud, not only to the TSA but also other passengers, may get you plucked from the security lines and questioned or searched,” he says. “Realize that the TSA has a very difficult role to perform. In the end, they are there to prevent, to the best of their ability, terrorists and other criminals from entering secure transportation areas so you can have a safe travel experience.” Follow these golden rules for stress-free air travel.
Red Flag #10: Not having proper identification
Think of the last time you visited Europe or went to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico: Between the night before and the commute to the airport, how many times did you double (and triple) check that you had your passport? While it might be a bit of an OCD behavior, Lloyd says making sure you have proof of who you are long before you ever get in line is a solid idea. “TSA is not there to make sure you get on the plane, they are there to make sure you are there to travel safely and not there to harm others,” Lloyd says.
Red Flag #11: Not having proof for your medicine
Are you allowed to travel with medicine in your carry-on bag? Yep. But for some medications, do you need a note from your doctor? You could. That’s why McDermott says it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to prescriptions that you need to stay healthy while you’re on your trip. (After all, who wants to be Samantha in Sex & the City 2 when she can’t bring her much-needed menopausal regimen to Abu Dhabi?) Here are the secrets flight attendants won’t tell you.
Red Flag #12: Not complying with rules that vary by country
If you’re going to have a bucket list of dream destinations, you’ll also need to become pretty flexible, not only with flight delays and language barriers, but with following the varying rules of those respective countries. “Regulations vary around the world, and sometimes something that’s allowed here will be confiscated elsewhere. A good example is small cosmetic scissors. TSA allows those, but don’t be surprised if screeners in a foreign country confiscate them before your flight back to the U.S.,” Kaplan notes. Don’t be that person: Follow this airplane etiquette next time you fly.
Red Flag #13: Packing certain types of toothbrushes
If you have a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, then you will need to opt for a new phone before boarding a flight. It’s been known to explode —yep!—so airlines have banned it from the friendly skies, for safety reasons. But did you know that your Sonicare toothbrush could be taken too? According to Marcelia, the spare lithium batteries that come with it have—wait for it—also exploded, so the FAA doesn’t allow you to take them into the cabin. Don’t miss these secrets airlines don’t want you to know.