luggage security traveling to the US
April 4, 2005 3:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm flying to New York in the summer and have heard from recent visitors that they have had any padlocks or other security devices attached to their luggage removed/broken and replaced when going through security checks. How common is this and should I bother to lock up my luggage when I travel to/from the U.S.?
posted by floanna to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total)
Oh and any other tips about flying to the America that's different to other countries would be helpful too. eg general security, how long it takes to be able to grab a well needed first puff of a cigarette etc. Flying London to JFK for reference. Thanks in advance!
posted by floanna at 3:44 PM on April 4, 2005

When you're departing the US, the TSA asks you to remove the locks or they will snip them. If they snip them, they sometimes will put a blue cable tie where the cable used to be. I don't remember how it works inbound internationally, but if there is a transfer, that would probably happen there too. You can now buy "TSA-safe" locks which have a special code and which are easily recognized at the gate. Happy travels.
posted by michaelkuznet at 3:48 PM on April 4, 2005

you have to get a special TSA-approved lock, or take your lock off when you hand the bag over. I don't bother with locks.

No smoking til you're out of the terminal--sorry. : <
posted by amberglow at 3:49 PM on April 4, 2005

Screeners will open and inspect your checked baggage. They will cut off locks, if necessary, to do this. The most common advice is to simply not lock your luggage. Alternately, according to a page on the Transportation Security Administration website, you can use an Accepted and Recognized Lock, which screeners apparently have the tools to open without destroying the lock. (No personal experience with trying to use one of these locks, so I won't guarantee that they won't cut open one of those as well.)

More generally, you'll want to peruse the TSA's various pages on air travel in the U.S.

On preview: beat to it.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:52 PM on April 4, 2005

my hubby and his mom and I flew from Los Angeles to Heathrow last July. Mom-in-law had one of those "TSA approved" locks on her luggage - of course, nobody in the whole f*cking place had a key when we arrived for our pre-flight screening. I don't even bother to lock luggage anymore, as anyone who wants in bad enough will do it no matter what. just pack anything valuable in your carry-on. US screening is inconsistent from airport to airport, and employee to employee, and the rules seem to change all the time. common sense, patience, and slip-on shoes are the only things I can recommend with certainty. cheers!
posted by killy willy at 4:00 PM on April 4, 2005

I've used the TSA approved locks without incident on many domestic flights.
Mine have an indicator to tell you if they have been opened by the TSA, about 50% of the time they've been opened(however, only about 2/3rds of those times has the TSA left a note inside).

I've not had one cut open, or had any hassle from the screeners. Not locking your luggage seems foolish.
posted by madajb at 4:01 PM on April 4, 2005

Kiss your locks goodbye!

You won't find physical security to be any more menacing than in most European countries (I was taken aback in '98 when I saw a German policeman in Frankfurt-Main Flughafen casually toting a submachinegun). You will have to submit to an electronic fingerprint scan, a photograph, and potentially annoying questioning by an unfriendly border control agent, however.

Once you make it past customs it's a quick walk to the cab rank outside the terminal, where you can get your nic fix.
posted by nyterrant at 4:10 PM on April 4, 2005

Oooh not good! I have a ranting housemate now (who I'm travelling with) who can't believe he can't secure his property. I think that at most I might carry some cable ties with me but think he's looking at getting one of those wire security nets to cover the whole of his rucksack. We'll also be flying internally to Reno for a first time visit to Burning Man so I guess the screening is the same. Thanks for the answers so far, but anymore tips would be fab too.
posted by floanna at 4:13 PM on April 4, 2005

What about a Halliburton attache? Will customs bust those durable locks open?
posted by geoff. at 4:16 PM on April 4, 2005

you've got machine readable passports (with the <<s printed on the outside edge of the back page)? if not, you need a new passport or a visa (new passport is easier and cheaper, or so i was told at the us embassy after pissing around trying to meet all their requirements).

also, be careful about queue etiquette. i offended a lot of people by going to an empty space at the "undressing table" where you take off shoes etc and put them in a tray. but no! that was not an empty space - that was the front of the queue! and so i got a condescending lecture from an american about how they do things in their country.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:26 PM on April 4, 2005

When a big plane arrives at JFK, a huge slow queue can build up at immigration (especially if it's a busy time and there are other planes arriving). Rush as much as possible as soon as you get off the plane, and you might save yourself half an hour or more of waiting for your cigarette.
posted by cillit bang at 5:00 PM on April 4, 2005

Zip Ties. Not as good as a lock, obviously, but way better than nothing for deterring the casual unzipper or accidental opening. Put a couple of them on there if it makes you feel better. TSA will just cut them off, but will often replace them, too.
posted by Aquaman at 5:05 PM on April 4, 2005

I flew from Canada to Newark NJ (just outside of NYC) and used a small combination lock on my suitcase. I had no idea that there were TSA approved and disapproved locks, I only locked my suitcase with what I had. The suitcase and I made it to NYC without incident, and returned home without incident as well. The things you learn on Ask!
posted by seawallrunner at 5:32 PM on April 4, 2005

Personally, I'd either get a cheapo lock I didn't mind getting cut open, one of the TSA ones, or do basically _anything_ to seal the bag before it left my care, and which would show any tampering. Zip ties might be a good bet - no way to open those without destroying them (that I know of).
I figure, that way at least you have a plausible "didn't know it was there officer", instead of being summarilythreatened with the death penalty.
posted by coriolisdave at 5:49 PM on April 4, 2005

The TSA locks can be easily opened (see here, but I wouldn't bother with buying the report; I'm sure there are other websites to corroborate this). Carry all of your valuables on the plane with you (triple-check to make sure you have your passport); happily give your bag to the TSA screener and assume you'll never see it again; be overjoyed when it comes tumbling down the ramp. Since you can no longer lock bags in the America, one can imagine the grab-n-stash element of criminal-minded baggage handlers is now performed with a delightful ease.
posted by user92371 at 7:22 PM on April 4, 2005

I flew from Canada to Venezuela via Dallas-Ft Worth last November. I was about to unlock my bag just before checking it in when, strangely, the TSA dude told me that they don't open bags anymore. I'm confused.
posted by randomstriker at 7:39 PM on April 4, 2005

When my mom flew in from India late last year, one of the locks on her bag was broken, along with the zipper handle. On her return trip, I came up with the idea of using Nylon Cable Ties. They're the nylon thingies that go around cables that once looped need to be cut since they won't open. I figure it doesn't add security from theives as such, but atleast she'll know if her luggage was searched or broken into, and it's easier for the customs people to snip the ties and search the luggage if needed without doing any damage.
posted by riffola at 8:25 PM on April 4, 2005

I've had my locks snipped off of my checked duffel bag twice. Since then I have stopped using locks.

Bags are screened by various means at airports. Boston's Logan Airport has one of the most advanced "behind-the-scenes" screening system for "checked bags," having spent $146 million post 9/11.

Having traveled out of other airports, I have found on a few occasions a note left inside my bag, indicating that it was hand inspected by the TSA.

Recently, someone swiped the duffel's shoulder-strap (which I take off and store in a side pocket before checking it). It ended up costing $60 (it's a Tumi) to replace. Be sure to not pack valuable items in checked bags. There have been numerous press reports about missing items from checked luggage. The TSA website has a FAQ for filing claims about missing items.
posted by ericb at 8:27 PM on April 4, 2005

Also use funky fluorescent ties, that way if someone cuts 'em and tries replacing them, chances of them having the same colour ties are slimmer. We used fluorescent pink ties on all her luggage. On her next trip back, she is gonna use fluorescent yellow.
posted by riffola at 8:30 PM on April 4, 2005

It will take a long time to get to your smoke. Isn't that rude? I've never flown back to the States myself, I'm reporting what my partner says. He also claims they don't search bags flying into the States, only out.
posted by Goofyy at 9:20 PM on April 4, 2005

The BEST thing is not to have any bags to check. It can easily be done with a good rollie and a medium backpack. Then your stuff is never out of your possession and you dash through the airport without having to wait for your bags. I fly at the last minute quite a bit, and that gets the attention of the inspectors. I get searched about 50% of the time or more, so I can tell you what to prepare for-

Pack your bag believing that it is going to be searched right down to the lining. Be very organized. Pack undies and socks and accessories and electrical stuff in clear plastic bags. It saves the inspector work, which gets you out faster. Pack anything that might read as funky on the scanner on the top layer of your luggage to save the inspector going through everything you've got in order to find out what that whatsit is. They'll go through it all anyway, but maybe won't take the time to flip through and shake out books and such. Got all of my makeup jars opened and checked, once. The funky thing turned out to be a twisted earring buried in a side pocket of my case. Do bring locks, though, and use them in hotels and such places.

Be prepared to be patted down- new rules lately, apparently. Be quiet and polite with the inspectors. The less you engage them in conversation, the faster you'll be out of there.

It's true about Americans and queuing up. No matter how slow we are, we won't take it well if you step ahead of us (unless you smile big and ask if we mind).

Mostly, welcome! I hope that my country people will treat you as well as yours have treated me. I hope that you have a great time while you are here.
posted by puddinghead at 10:46 PM on April 4, 2005

Don't lock your luggage. I use a samsonite strap that threads through the suitcase handle; in case the latches pop open owing to not beng locked, the suitcase won't spill open completely.

I checked a laptop through once, and TSA broke its latch with a screwdriver. They're serious - closed latches are terrorist machinery and will not be tolerated aboard the airplane.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:22 AM on April 5, 2005

Thanks for all your answers! I am so just using the cable ties (zip locks) to save wasting any money and just use my existing locks for the time camping out on the playa for the burn. The idea of fluorescent ties is a brilliant idea and will start looking out for them.

I'm going to be an absolute wreck on the plane without any ciggies and I'll be first at the queue on entry!! My friends know how bad I'll be without nicotine and one has offered to provide me with valium. Think I'll just stick to the patches, gum, blowy stick and LOTS OF SLEEP to get me through it tho ;)
posted by floanna at 4:50 AM on April 5, 2005

The cigarette situation at JFK is appalling. You land and think - ah, just a few moments now but then you hit terrible lines at baggage claim, then another at Immigration and then again at Customs. If you do bring everything with you on the plane, you can skip the baggage claim and get a jump on the other lines, but I would submit that it's worth the extra 40 minutes not to have to arrive with only small bags and having to lug everything on the plane.
As to locks, I would bring them but only use them once in the states to protect your stuff while at hotels etc.

Also, since those two Chechen women were accused of blowing up a plane with bombs stuffed in their bras, the TSA - a wonderfully reactive organization that can't see beyond its nose - may insist that a lady agent grope you to make sure you don't have any bombs in there. This only happens if you get flagged for the extra screening though. (Look for the dreaded SSSS on the corner of your boarding pass.) Just grin and bear it. I keep fighting with them over it and in retrospect, always realize it wasn't worth it.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:11 AM on April 5, 2005

Oh, the one good thing about having to wait for your luggage is that you beat all the people rushing thru--i find that they're the ones getting pulled over for futher checking more often and if you're in the middle of the pack you'll more likely get thru without being pulled aside. The one time i really rushed thru (after an 8-hour flight, dying for a cigarette) was the one time they totally pulled me aside and pawed thru my luggage and delayed me.

Bring tons of gum, sleep on the flight, and try the nicotine patch, too--the nicotine gum tastes like poison i find.
posted by amberglow at 6:13 AM on April 5, 2005

I have a ranting housemate now (who I'm travelling with) who can't believe he can't secure his property....he's looking at getting one of those wire security nets to cover the whole of his rucksack.

He should keep in mind that the TSA will remove it, and will likely break it if they can't remove it easily.

I just carry all my valuables on with me. If they want to steal my clothing and shampoo, fine.
posted by oaf at 11:42 AM on April 5, 2005

I'm a convert to packing light, also. No bag to check means no bag to get lost/stolen/manhandled behind my back.

I've been pretty groped even just by setting off the metal detector. And believe me, I don't have a big enough bra to be of much use for smugging. Security is a little more "personal" on the inner thigh area than they used to be, also. Bit of a shock. This isn't limited to the US, though.

As for securing your luggage in transit, I don't think that you'd really be protecting anything. There are sneaky thieves that talk their way into baggage areas, of course, but the a lot of the people with access to your luggage are the ones already authorized to snip your ties/break your locks anyway. Human nature being what it is, it's a better-than-average set-up for petty theft. Airlines do not claim responsibility for items stolen while your luggage is in their custody.
posted by desuetude at 11:45 AM on April 5, 2005

As someone who flies into the US all the time, here are a few key things:

1. Don't lock checked baggage, period. They do, and will, crack the lock. Tie the zipper if it's likely to come loose.

2. If possible, try to avoid checking luggage at all. They're tight on hand luggage restrictions but I often get away with it. Some airlines are more relaxed than others on this. BA tend to be more relaxed than Virgin, I've found. Expert travellers travel light. Always.

3. Fill your customs and immigration cards in carefully and legibly. If you're British, put 'UK', not "Britain'. Don't forget to sign it. US Immigration can be complete asses and they often send people right out of the queue for getting the cards wrong.

4. Don't dis US Immigration or make jokes. No matter how tempting it is. And by God, it's tempting.

5. Don't use your cellphone until you're through customs. I've seen people bawled out in the Immigration queue so often for this.

6. Get a seat as near the front of the plane as possible and LEG IT to immigration, for the reason someone else mentioned. The queue can be a bitch. This is also why you fill your cards out on the plane. Don't, for Christ's sake, leave it until you arrive at the queue.

7. Once outside the terminal, don't use a taxi tout (they'll be there as soon as you step outside the door. Sometimes sooner). Find the yellow cab line. It moves faster than you might think, usually. Be aware that there's a fixed fare from JFK to anywhere in Manhattan. 45 bucks plus tip, plus tolls.

8. And do get a cab from JFK unless you're really on a budget. The train transfer options are poor, and slow.

9. Absolutely no smoking until you're outside the terminal. Smoking is banned in all bars and restaurants in New York too. Yes, you read that right. However, I know some places which break that law consistently, so look around.
posted by Decani at 12:31 PM on April 5, 2005

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