How do I pack for air travel these days?
June 23, 2007 9:53 PM   Subscribe

Dear seasoned travelers of MeFi, help me plan for my trip to PDX. I haven't flown in a while and am a bit nervous about the whole airport security thing. I want to avoid issues with the TSA and airline workers, so if you would, please give me suggestions on packing.

I am bringing my DSLR in its travel bag with neck strap, my laptop, blank CD's, mini-tool kit and software CD's to work on my parents' computers, plus my purse.

I have a large laptop bag that I can fit all that stuff in, and I'd like to keep the camera with me, as well as my purse, of course. I will also check a bag with enough clothing for my stay. Does that sound like a good plan? If not, how do you manage carrying on laptop, camera, and purse?

(further details: SFO to PDX, then PDX to SFO, both on United non-stop)
posted by Lynsey to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would actually put the mini-tool kit in my checked baggage, as well as any CD-Rs and software CDs that I didn't need on the plane. (I've never had a CD break if I packed it well enough.) Although tools shorter than 7 inches are now allowed on planes, I can't see why you'd need it on hand. says:

Carry-on baggage is limited to one carry-on bag plus one personal item. Personal items include laptops, purses, small backpacks, briefcases, or camera cases. Remember, 1+1.

However, I've never had a problem with a small SLR camera bag (body + 1 lens) + medium sized shoulder bag + laptop bag (for a 12" laptop).

Just to be safe, can you distribute your purse's contents into your camera bag and/or laptop bag? Then you can put the purse into your checked luggage if it flattens well.
posted by kathryn at 10:05 PM on June 23, 2007

A laptop bag is acceptable as your smaller personal item. Throw the camera and the purse in a backpack or duffel as your main carryon, along with anything else you need handy on the plane.

As kathryn says, check the mini-kit. You don't need to do repairs on the plane, and you don't want an extra frisk and one less mini-kit after your trip through security, regardless.
posted by cortex at 10:13 PM on June 23, 2007

When packing your laptop bag be sure to keep your laptop easily accessible. You'll have to pull it out for screening, and things go much faster if it's easy to pull out and put back.
posted by cabingirl at 10:14 PM on June 23, 2007

I don't have any specific recommendations about your camera, but I fly a lot on business with valuable equipment, so I hope I have some insight to offer.

Probably the biggest rule, one obvious enough it gets overlooked a lot:

Don't be confrontational with the TSA.

I hear stories about people win their minor battles (getting water past security, wearing shirts with politically charged slogans on them, etc) with the TSA and then complain that they are being singled out. I don't want to say that doing these things is wrong, but you don't want to give yourself a reason to be singled out. You want to get where you're going without problems.

I fly about twenty to thirty times a year and the last time I had a problem with the TSA was in 2003, when I forgot to take my belt off. I got the full pat-down, and that was it. No problems since, and I chalk that up to attitude and preparation.

So make extra sure you're not trying to take water or other liquids through, or your nail file, or anything else like that. Check all that stuff.

When you go to go through security, take your laptop out of your bag and put it in a try by itself. Take your shoes, watch and belt off, and remove any metal items from your person: coins, cell phone, ipods, etc, and put that all in another tray. Remove your hat or jacket and put that in yet another one (if needed).

But again, most importantly: be polite, and don't give them a reason to single you out.

One final piece of advice I can offer: If carrying more than a few hundred dollars cash, keep it on your person as you go through security. There are regulations about carrying more than either five or ten thousand dollars in cash through the airport, but I've seen them get all excited and call supervisors over a few hundred. Le Sigh.
posted by mattly at 10:16 PM on June 23, 2007

I fly pretty regularly. I was on 6 planes last week and I will be on 6 different planes again this week. Here are my suggestions:


1. Plan to be at the airport like 2 hours early if you are departing from an international airport and about 1 hour and 15mins early if you are departing from a smaller, regional airport.

2. Go to the e-check in station for your airline and have a major credit card and your photo ID ready. The credit card will be used to look up your record (no charges will be made) and the ID will be required for them to put a tag on your checked luggage.

3. Put your credit card away and head over to the TSA luggage screening area. Keep your ID out because you will need it in a moment. When you give them your luggage, they will ask you if your luggage is locked, if you have any film, or any firearms to declare.

4. Head over to the TSA security checkpoint with both your boarding pass and photo ID in hand.

5. Here's where the jacket comes in. As you are zig-zagging your way through the line, take anything metal (change, watch, jewelery, cell phone, keys) and put them in your jacket pocket and zip it up. Keep your wallet in your pocket (nothing in there will set off the metal detector) and keep your boarding pass in your back pocket.

6. As you approach the x-ray, take your shoes and jacket off and take your laptop out of its case. You can put your shoes in the same bin as your laptop, but your shoes cannot overlap your laptop. Place your jacket and carry ons in a separate bin. Put the jacket/carry-on bin through first. Most belts don't register enough to set off the metal detector, so I wouldn't bother unless you have some serious heavy metal wear going on.

7. When you are ready to go through the metal detector, wait for the TSA guy on the other side to ask you to come through and have your boarding pass ready for him to look at.

8. Since your jacket and laptop case went through first, you can quickly put your jacket on and throw your laptop case over your shoulder and by the time your laptop and shoes come out, you can grab those and walk (sock-footed) out of the way and sit down to put your shoes on and you laptop away.

9) Flights begin boarding 30mins prior to departure and stop boarding 10mins prior to departure.

Doing this, I have made it through TSA security in under 5 minutes in regional airports and under 10 minutes in some international.


Carry nothing on that isn't either:
a) needed during flight (cell phone, wallet, watch)
b) expensive/breakable (camera, laptop)

Finally, dress to be comfortable for the flight. I get so annoyed when I see people wearing suits for no reason on flights. Who are they dressing up for?
posted by ThFullEffect at 11:08 PM on June 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

There are regulations about carrying more than either five or ten thousand dollars in cash through the airport, but I've seen them get all excited and call supervisors over a few hundred.

The regulations prevent you from bringing more than $10,000 into or out of the country without declaring it. There's nothing requiring you to declare moving large amounts of cash within the U.S.

But you shouldn't be bringing amounts of cash that large with you anywhere, really.
posted by oaf at 3:36 AM on June 24, 2007

Here are some tips I don't think have been covered yet.

Pick your seat assignment now, if it's not already done. Closer to the day of the flight, check in online if possible, as early as possible. This will put you higher on the airline's priority list if there is an overbooking situation.

The best thing to do is avoid checked baggage if possible, since it frequently ends up getting lost, delayed, or stolen from. When going to visit my parents, it is easy to pack light since I can easily wash my clothes again every four days or so. So pack less clothes, and you should be able to fit it all in a rollaboard.

Follow the liquid rules. I assume you already know of these. Look them up on the TSA's web site.

Use packing cubes to organize your clothes. Makes packing, rearranging (especially if your bag is manually searched) and living out of a suitcase a breeze.

Leave your toolkit at home—don't your parents have some tools? If it is nice and you check it, it might get stolen. Take as little as you can get away with.

You can use a daypack as your personal item, and it will hold more than a laptop bag.

Seconding ThFullEffect's advice on putting your metallic stuff in jacket pockets in advance of the screening point. This will speed things up for everyone, and your fellow travelers should thank you. Putting it in one of your backpack's small pockets works just as well in my experience.

Don't go through the walk-through metal detector until all of your carry-on items are on the x-ray belt and proceeding forward. Sometimes the belt goes backwards before going forward. Watch out for this.

I used a decorative silver pen to mark my name really big on the front of my laptop so that it doesn't look like everyone else's. This makes it less likely that someone will run off with it at the security checkpoint (by accident or on purpose) while I am standing around getting patted down.

Board as early as possible to get overhead space for your rollaboard, but please don't hover around the gate before your group is called. People who do this are referred to as "gate lice."

oaf: You are right, there is no specific regulation against carrying large amounts of cash with you inside the U.S. But if the TSA finds $10,000 on you, they might report it to the checkpoint law enforcement officer, who might decide to seize it under drug crime asset forfeiture laws. They only need probable cause to do so, and don't need any specific proof of it being related to drug crimes. See the wonderfully named case U.S. v. $124,000. Anyway, don't carry thousands of dollars of cash around with you.
posted by grouse at 4:25 AM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's really simple. You figure out the length of your trip (San Francisco to Portland isn't very long) and pack in your carry-on everything that you really need during those few hours. Here's my list:

Purse: Money, cards (credit, ID), cell phone (turned off), and documents (printed stuff from the airline, boarding pass).

Laptop bag: Address tag, laptop, power cord, camera (plus the accessories you really need--charger, lenses, cards), two books (or a suduko book and a pencil). Optional: MP3 player, headphones.

On the body: Comfortable and easy to put on shoes. No fuss/no wrinkle clothes. Light to medium jacket (polar fleece is nice).

That's it. That's all you need. Turn your purse and bag upside down and shake everything else out, it'll all survive checked luggage or can be left at home. Especially make sure you clear out your makeup, nail file, and any food/drinks (you can buy food behind security if you get there really early, but make sure you can eat it or throw it out before time to board the plane).

Oh, and remember that everything has to fit underneath the seat in front of you. (Why not underneath your seat? Damned if I know.) So don't sit in the very front or any other location without a seat in front of you, or they can make you gate check your stuff...extra leg room isn't worth it.
posted by anaelith at 7:34 AM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

everything has to fit underneath the seat in front of you. (Why not underneath your seat? Damned if I know.)

Because you get to decide how much of your legroom space is for your legs, and how much is for your baggage, not somebody else. If it weren't like this, it would suck to sit behind someone who decided to fill up all the space with their luggage—you'd be cramped for hours through no fault of your own. What's more, this would encourage people to bring more luggage, knowing that the consequences would be paid by someone else. That would be unfair.

So don't sit in the very front or any other location without a seat in front of you, or they can make you gate check your stuff...extra leg room isn't worth it.

That's the reason that airlines usually put people in such spaces in an earlier boarding group, so that they can find overhead space for their items.
posted by grouse at 7:44 AM on June 24, 2007

Huh, now I know.
That's the reason that airlines usually put people in such spaces in an earlier boarding group, so that they can find overhead space for their items.
If only this were true on United... they board strictly back to front in blocks, the people right up against the front bulkhead are some of the last allowed on. And they were low on overhead space for some reason I've forgotten. And anyway, my laptop ended up in the hold which really pissed me off. I also can't believe I forgot to mention, United is the devil.
posted by anaelith at 8:14 AM on June 24, 2007

I disagree with 'make your carryons light.' Airlines have been known to lose luggage (and if you fly a lot, it will happen). I generally bring my messenger bag and a very small sports duffle with me carryon. The messenger bag has all the stuff I'll need for the flight itself, and goes under the seat. The sports bag has a change or two of clothes, a sweatshirt, anything I really don't want to lose, and anything I might need within a day or two of getting to wherever I'm going. I've never had a problem with being over the limit for size/weight, and I fly on the cheap cheap airlines, usually on overbooked flights.

It used to be that you could get away with not checking any bags at all, so you didn't have to get there as early or wait around at baggage claim. The liquid rules make this difficult, although not impossible; it juts requires a bit more planning, but it makes life much easier.
posted by devilsbrigade at 8:26 AM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

they board strictly back to front in blocks

I thought UA did Window, Middle, Aisle now. But yeah, that doesn't leave any priority for non-elites at the bulkhead.
posted by grouse at 8:41 AM on June 24, 2007

the liquid rules are a pain in the neck. Grab a ziplock bag and go through your kit.

Any liquid or gel needs to go into your ziplock bag. If it's more than 3 ounces, leave it at home or check it into your luggage- TSA will make you chuck it at the line.

When you get to the xray machine, make sure you remember to take your ziplock full of liquids and gels and put it into the tray with your shoes, cellphone, and belt; if the TSA guys need to check through your stuff, they get grumpy and prone to giving you a hard time.

Try to check whatever you can; it's easier to deal with the airport when you aren't schlepping tons of stuff around.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:30 AM on June 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Nthing the suggestion for easy-on shoes. If you like to wear slippers (er, flip-flops), like I do, then put a pair of teeny socks in your jacket pocket or the top of your purse. Barefoot through airport screening -- yuck!

I usually trade slippers for socks when I'm a few people away from the tables where you get all your stuff into bins. Just in general, being ready when you finally get to the table is a big help. Jacket off, all your little bits appropriately stowed, shoes ready to be dropped in a bin. Then all you have to do at that station is fill up bins, and whip out your laptop.

Oh, and there is almost never a good place to sit down and put your shoes back on/get yourself together, so I usually just hike about in my socks until I get far away from the checkpoint. Don't forget any of your bits!
posted by janell at 10:56 AM on June 24, 2007

here's another tip: As long as your tools are under 7 inches, you can carry them on with you. In that case, why not just take everything as if it were carry-on and then gate check your luggage. This will save you time getting out of the airport because you will not have to wait by the carousel like everyone else because they will hand you your luggage as you are getting off the plane.
posted by ThFullEffect at 11:13 PM on June 24, 2007

As long as your tools are under 7 inches, you can carry them on with you.

I wouldn't necessarily expect every TSA screener to understand that. I still think the best thing is to leave the tools behind.
posted by grouse at 3:21 AM on June 25, 2007

Another frequent flyer weighing in...

Just by asking here, I guarantee you're more prepared than 75% of your fellow travelers in line at security. Sadly, summer in the U.S. means amateur hour at the airports. Still, at any given time for any particular traveler, there are people nearby who are both more and less experienced. So if you start to feel overwhelmed, remember that you know more than the guy next to you who is going on his very first flight.

The very best way to get through the whole airport/TSA folderol is to have The Zen: accepting that things can and will go wrong. Air travel is a big messy imperfect process relying on thousands of people to execute precisely, and stuff just happens. And if it does, they'll just get you on the next plane, or you might have to spend an extra few minutes getting screened, or you might have to ask the attendant to gate-check your bag... but whatever might go awry, it's likely to be minimal. Even lost luggage usually turns up.

The first thing I'd say is relax. Once you've done it a bit you realize that the TSA checkpoint process is a hassle, to be sure, but not scary. In fact, I find that when I'm relaxed and friendly, the TSA guys are equally relaxed and friendly. Most of the people they see all day are grumpy and rushed; a smile and a "hello" and "thank you" will work wonders.

For your particular carry-on situation, I'd recommend the following:

- Heartily second these tips from upthread: go for 1 piece = laptop bag, to go in overhead, and 1 piece = a tote or duffel or backpack you designate as your carry-on, which then holds your camera bag and purse contents, ID, reading material, etc. and can go at your feet for easy access later... having your laptop easy to get to for TSA is a must... plan ahead for the mandatory shoe removal...

- Sounds like you're going to visit your folks: leave at home as many toiletries as you possibly can. Any makeup or beauty product that you would normally carry in your purse, pack in the bag you'll be checking. Only take through TSA the stuff you really need during the flight (shouldn't be much for a relatively short trip like SFO -> PDX)...

- ...and it all needs to go in your quart-sized Ziploc bag with your < 3-ounce items, which you've already prepared before you get to the TSA line. Don't forget that it's not just liquids: lipstick, lip gloss, lip balm, mascara, toothpaste, deodorant, hair gel, anything sticky or semi-solid needs to go in the Ziploc or under the plane. And choosing a bigger-than-quart-sized bag and trying to pass it off is a surefire way to earn additional screening and the hatred of everyone in line behind you.

- In addition to selecting your seats before if possible, check in online the day before your flight. Even if you don't have a way to print out the boarding pass, you are still checked in for the flight. Then you can go directly to the e-ticket kiosk instead of having to wait in the live-person-ticket-agent line to check in. Just tell the kiosk you need to reprint your boarding pass.

- When the person who eventually takes your luggage goes through the auctioneer-speed litany of questions ("did you pack your own luggage has it been in your possession the entire time has anyone given you anything to carry for them are there any dangerous materials in your bag" etc.), take your time. Better to thoughtfully answer correctly, then to hurriedly spit out a "No. I mean, Yes! I mean, what was the question? omg where am I?" (don't laugh! I have truly seen people get just that flustered. But remember this: you aren't there to commit a crime, so you have nothing to worry about.)

- ThFullEffect has the TSA process down. This is just about my exact routine at least twice a week. I disagree that you need a jacket; it might be the best solution for someone with only a laptop bag, but I just zip small metal bits into a pocket of my carry-on tote (helps to not wear much metal to begin with -- most wedding rings don't set off the scanner, and I wear a plastic watch in airports, and no other jewelry or belt).

- A wearable ID case like this one can really help. It keeps your driver card and boarding pass right where you need them until you get on the plane. And, it demonstrates to TSA that you are a team player and smart traveler (purely unofficial data but I really believe that people wearing these neck things move through TSA faster). Bag n' Baggage carries them.

- Check the average wait times for your particular airport, gate and time of day. Whenever you can, pick a slower gate with less traffic (and at SFO you probably can't, IIRC, but maybe on the way home? Still, can't hurt to look.).

One caveat emptor when soliciting advice from travelers: there are two camps of us -- Hates Checking Baggage and Doesn't Mind Checking Baggage. The former will encourage you to carry on anything at all costs, so reviled is the idea of waiting at the carousel. Personally, I think that carrying on your tools is a really bad idea, and I would check them. But, I'm in the Doesn't Mind Checking group. So take us all with a grain of salt regarding how much you should attempt to carry on versus check; if you want to check a bag, go for it.

Bon voyage! You'll do just fine.
posted by pineapple at 10:43 PM on June 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thank you, one and all, for your invaluable tips. I feel more confident already. Happy traveling, everyone!
posted by Lynsey at 4:35 PM on July 8, 2007

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