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13 Things That Are Getting Your Luggage Flagged by the TSA

Logging too much time in the TSA line? Try these tricks so your luggage will fly through the security checks.

Anonymous man at checkpoint in airport exploring luggage on screen with x-ray.EvgeniyShkolenko/Getty Images

To play by the rules you have to know the rules

On a recent trip from New York to Chicago, my daughter and I lugged a carry-on suitcase filled with slime through security. As any parent of a tween knows, this was essential baggage. Unbeknownst to us, however, slime is technically a gel, which technically counts as a liquid, which technically needs to be in a 3.4-ounce container, according to the TSA. So, our precious slime had to be ditched, triggering a major meltdown. Don’t let this happen to you. We rounded up the items, substances, and packing strategies (or lack thereof) that are getting your luggage flagged by the TSA, causing your things to be tossed at security checkpoints or simply adding time to this not-so-fun part of your travel experience. Before your next trip, make sure you also know these 13 ways air travel will change in 2020.

Assortment of toiletries and travel kitJupiterimages/Getty Images

Forgetting the 3-1-1 rule

Liquids, gels, and paste (including toothpaste) can’t exceed one 3.4-ounce per container, per the TSA. Consumables, like peanut butter, must also comply with the rule if you’re carrying your luggage on board; however, they can be packed in any quantities in checked luggage. All of these must fit into a 1-quart bag (again, this is only for carry-ons). Only one bag is allowed per traveler. Exceptions include baby formula, medications, and other items for special-needs travelers. Here are 12 things your TSA security agent isn’t telling you.

Bottles of prescription medicine in a pile.smartstock/Getty Images

Neglecting to speak up about your meds

You’re allowed to bring clearly labeled prescriptions in your carry-on, per the TSA, and this is something you should always do, just in case your other luggage gets lost or delayed. If you’re worried that your meds exceed the TSA’s liquid limit, don’t be. You can bring medication in liquid form that’s more than 3.4 ounces—and you don’t even need to put it into a ziplock bag. But you must tell the TSA officer that you have these medically necessary liquids before your search. They will require additional screening. Don’t miss these other 14 smart things travelers always do before a flight.

Christmas background with many decorative homemade gift boxes wrapped in brown kraft paper and red white twine. Flat lay.Julia Manga/Getty Images

Bringing wrapped gifts

This is the worst: You spent hours perfectly wrapping presents only for TSA officers to rip through them at security. But they are totally allowed to do this—and, in fact, they need to do this if your wrapped gift triggers an alarm. To avoid this miserable situation, they recommend simply popping your gifts into gift bags or gift boxes so they can be easily checked, or keeping them unwrapped for now and bringing the wrapping paper with you. While we’re on the subject, check out these 11 ways to wrap a gift without wrapping paper once you get to your destination.

overhead view of a computer in an airport security bin ready to go through the x-ray machinegchutka/Getty Images

Not choosing a laptop-friendly computer bag

Ever wonder why some people don’t have to take their computer or electronics out of their bags? The TSA allows some laptop bags and backpacks because they have unobstructed views of the computer. Translation: If you bring one of these bags, you don’t have to take your computer out when you go through the TSA checkpoint. We especially like this TSA-friendly, anti-theft laptop backpack by VSNOON and the Everki Titan Checkpoint Friendly Laptop Backpack. Here are more of the best laptop bags at every price point (though you may have to remove your computer for some of them).

novelty star wars galaxy's edge soda bottles. coke and sprite.Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

Getting fancy with your Coke bottle

The TSA temporarily banned the Coke bottles sold this summer at Disney’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attractions, as they said the bottles looked like explosives (they sorta do). But in August, the TSA issued a new statement, saying, “We have completed our review, and instructed our officers to treat these as an oversized liquid.” Traveling with the special souvenir bottle without any liquid inside? It may still get flagged, though it’s totally legit for carry-on luggage today. Check out these crazy things plane passengers have done to cheat the system.

hundred dollars billsOlyaSolodenko/Getty Images

Carrying a ton of cash

We’re not talking about a wallet stuffed with cash (although well done!). But if you’re entering the United States, you’re required to declare any amount of money that’s more than $10,000, according to Medium. Flying domestically? You can bring as much money as you want, but the TSA is allowed to ask you to account for it. If they suspect that it’s related to criminal activity, they could refer the matter to a law enforcement agency at the airport and your money could be confiscated.

Single yellow battery on a yellow pastel backgroundSavusia Konstantin/Getty Images

Ahem *not safe for work*

So, you want to BYO fun on your trip and you packed an electronic sex toy. It’s totally OK, but it will probably get you flagged, according to Travel & Leisure. For this item, the smaller, the better (in terms of not getting you flagged, that is). Also, make sure to remove the battery before going through security so you don’t have something buzzing in your luggage. Finally, don’t act weird. Anyone who seems stressed or suspicious is more likely to get searched, so just go for it. Here are another 13 things you should never do at the airport.

coffee beansWatson_images/Getty Images

Schlepping coffee beans

You love the coffee in Costa Rica or in Africa or in Seattle or in [insert your favorite coffee spot here]. Now you want to bring it back home. No biggie, right? You can do it…but it’ll cost you time at the TSA. That’s because it’s sometimes used to mask the smell of some not-so-TSA-friendly items like drugs. So, it’ll most likely be flagged and tested. Officers will swab the outside of the bag to see if it tests positive for anything illegal, but don’t worry—they don’t actually have to open your coffee. Want to avoid the hassle? Ship your coffee home or pack it in your suitcase, where it’s less likely to get any attention. By the way, these are the best cities in America for coffee.

pocket knifeandydidyk/Getty Images

Traveling with a knife

This is the most common item to get flagged, according to the TSA. While you’re totally allowed to pack a knife in your checked back, you can’t bring one onto the plane. The only exception, according to USA Today, is a butter knife or a plastic knife. While the TSA temporarily allowed small knives on airplanes in 2013, they changed their minds when the public and the Association of Flight Attendants voiced some serious objections. If you accidentally forgot to remove your pocketknife and are in the TSA line, you can either leave the line and pop it into a checked bag or mail it to your destination. While this one is kind of a no-brainer, here are the reasons behind some of the weirder airplane safety rules.

hand holding new york city snowglobeDigital Vision/Getty Images

Packing a snow globe in your carry-on

So, technically, snow globes are allowed. But they’re frequently flagged because they often look like explosives. Also, the snow globe has to appear to contain less than 3.4 ounces of water (this should look like the size of a tennis ball), and it needs to fit into your quart-sized, resealable bag, according to the TSA. Due to all of these snow-globe regulations, they’re often flagged and usually removed.

peanut butter textureMagone/Getty Images

Indulging in your peanut butter craving

It doesn’t look like a liquid, but it counts as one. That’s why peanut butter is often flagged and ditched at TSA checkpoints. Like all other liquids, peanut butter needs to be in a container that’s less than 3.4 ounces, as well as in one of those quart-sized bags. Even chunky peanut butter counts as a liquid, so don’t even try fighting that one.

A little red combination padlock locking zippers on luggagegiuliano2022/Getty Images

Using the wrong luggage lock

Sure, you want to lock your luggage, and that’s your right. But your lock has to be TSA-approved. The TSA developed locks with specific companies so they can be opened using master keys. Otherwise, they will cut the lock. Find one of the approved locks at a travel store or at the airport. Here are more luggage secrets baggage handlers want you to know.

dry ice carbon dioxide cloudgyro/Getty Images

Keeping contents cold with dry ice

Want to pack something in dry ice to keep it nice and cold? The FAA allows up to five pounds of the good stuff as long as it’s in a package that’s properly marked and vented. But…individual airlines have the final say with this one, so call yours ahead of time to see if you’ll need to check your bag or if it’s OK to bring on board. Some airlines have particularly strict rules. For example, Alaska Airlines requires that the dry-ice packaging allows for the release of carbon dioxide; that it is marked with the weight; and that you label it with the contents. And even after all that, it’s still only allowed on specific Alaska Airline flights. Once you finally get on the plane, make sure you know these 22 things your flight attendant won’t tell you.

Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff regularly covers travel, health and lifestyle for Reader's Digest. Her articles have also been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe and other publications. She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a master's degree in musicology from Oxford University in England. Danielle is based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two children. See her recent articles at www.Daniellebraff.com. You can follow her on Facebook @Danielle.Karpinos, Twitter @daniellebraff, and Instagram at danikarp.