How about that TSA?
March 4, 2008 2:03 AM   Subscribe

So just how bad is the TSA these days?

I'm American and I've lived in London for the past eleven years. During that time I've been back to the United States many times, but always Business Class travel solely into New York, Chicago, Washington, and Vegas. I can't recall the last time I've taken an internal flight in the United States.

In April I'm taking the lovely Mrs Mutant back home to The Farm to meet Maw and the rest of the kin. We got married in Vegas last September, and as Maw simply will not travel (a lethargy inducing combination of being widowed, 30 plus cats and dawgs, suspicion about anybody who ain't "from here", fear of "those people" and a healthy dose of "why anyone wanna go there?") this will be the first time she's met her Daughter in Law. Mrs Mutant is Dutch, but has spoken to Maw often on the telephone, who has allowed privately to me that her Daughter in Law "seems all right". High regards indeed.

We're flying into JFK and have to get to Western New York, Lake Ontario area. I'm inclined to take Amtrak (note only the train is so so European, the trip would allow my wife to see the scale of America) even though its roughly eight hours on the Lake Shore Limited, but before I booked wanted to query about recent TSA experiences, particularly traveling between New York and Buffalo.

I've read some of the negative stories about the TSA, realise those folks have a tough job, but still thought it worth asking. There may be differences when traveling into destinations such as Buffalo. Also when I travel my single carry on is a pilots case similar to this one, the largest IATA approved bag. Will I have any problems with this if we take a domestic flight? I routinely take this to Amsterdam, flying on a very small, Fokker 50 and it fits into the overhead just fine.

Typically I've got it packed with two Apple PowerBooks, an external hard drive, power supplies, USB & iPod cables, and a large collection of finance books & research papers.

Bonus points if anyone's got any tips or information on Amtrak, particularly how it compares to European train travel.

Many thanks for your help!
posted by Mutant to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I flew to Vegas last summer and the TSA thing wasn't as bad as it was in 2002.

As for Amtrak, just imagine a train service run by the USPS.
posted by panamax at 2:07 AM on March 4, 2008

Bonus points if anyone's got any tips or information on Amtrak, particularly how it compares to European train travel.

Not well. Count on track delays and broken toilets. Nonetheless, it sounds like you'll be hopping a train from JFK to Penn Station, and probably be taking the Empire Service from Penn Station. I haven't taken the Empire Service, but have taken the Adirondack, both of which go up to Albany.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:13 AM on March 4, 2008

Domestic travel is really not that bad. We Americans bitch not because it's so bad, but because the TSA bullshit is absurd and undignified; it makes travel worse than it needs to be with little benefit.

Your carry-on should be fine. I think carry-on restrictions are actually enforced more rigidly in Europe than in the USA.

Amtrak is great, it compares favorably with European train travel. I've used it to go from DC to NY and back, and it's much nicer than the stress and discomfort of air travel. However, in the NE corridor, tickets are usually about the same price as air-travel, or even higher. I really don't understand why.
posted by bluejayk at 2:17 AM on March 4, 2008

Yeah carry-on restrictions are much tougher flying from Europe than flying from the US. I have a small case that works perfectly for short trips like the one I'm currently on, and I've been able to put it in the overheads when flying from EWR. On the way back on the same airline I was told that I had to check the bag, and when I asked I was told "Yeah, but that's America. They'll let you take anything on the plane in America" So there you have it.

As far as the TSA is concerned (I take internal flights in the US every few months) they're pretty strict but nothing like the way it is here in the UK. I fly a few times a year from the East Coast to either London or Amsterdam, as well as internal flights in Europe from London to Amsterdam/ various places in Spain, and I've never seen security like I have at Heathrow. Amsterdam is tight when flying to the US, but Heathrow has the strictest security that I've ever seen at an airport. So you should be fine on an internal flight, but you might have to deal with the security issues on this side of the pond...
posted by ob at 2:31 AM on March 4, 2008

Honestly, I generally have less trouble flying nowadays than I did before 2001. The TSA people are usually not that big of an obstacle. The biggest problem used to be that people didn't know how to prepare for the security check, but now, like well-trained sheep, we just march right through.

I don't see you having any trouble with the pilots' case. You will have to remove your laptops from the bag for the security check.

Amtrak is not so bad, at least along the Eastern seaboard. I take the DC to NYP train quite often, and it's usually just a few minutes late getting on, and not late at all getting off.

However, in the NE corridor, tickets are usually about the same price as air-travel, or even higher. I really don't understand why.

Because people are willing to pay that amount. Those trains are usually full. Even the Acela Express, which is absurdly expensive. And it's so much more convenient than air travel, because you don't have to go to and from the airport, etc.
posted by me & my monkey at 2:33 AM on March 4, 2008

With all due respect, I sense most of the responders here are Americans. I've flown internally in the US a half dozen times in the last few years, and every single damn time the experience at security has been an enormous hassle. I've been lucky in that I've only been properly stopped and searched etc once, but the general attitude is one of bored contempt. Display even a hint of emotion and you'll get the 'calm down sir' bollocks. Security is tight in the UK, but most of the time security staff are pleasant. And when I fly to Germany, they're positively jovial.

As a non-US citizen, your wife will likely get some very discourteous-bordering-on-hostile treatment from border security, and will also be hassled and secondary-searched as soon as anyone see her EU passport. Take the train.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:23 AM on March 4, 2008

With all due respect, I sense most of the responders here are Americans.

Well, I'm not but I know what you're getting at Happy Dave, (when officials in the US get officious, which is approximately every 3 seconds, they get amazingly officious and really quite rude). Having said that, in all honesty most of my hassles were not caused by the TSA but by immigration/customs. As the OP's have to deal with this anyway, I don't think that there'll be much more hassle by adding an internal flight into the mix. Besides, I still stand by my point that most of the shit that I've had to deal with as far as security is concerned has not come from the TSA by their overzealous counterparts in the UK and NL. This was mostly because I was on a visa and because I have the kind of face that to barely sentient drones suggests trouble. Things are much easier now that I have my greencard.
posted by ob at 4:12 AM on March 4, 2008

I should clarify, I was on a visa for the US, and apparently this creates hassle with security in Europe and immigration/customs in the US. I've traveled on the visa-waiver and that was fine, and now that I have my greencard things are much better. Maybe it wasn't the visa and it's just me!
posted by ob at 4:15 AM on March 4, 2008

I get the sense most folks haven't taken the Amtrak between Albany and Buffalo.

I've taken this train about 4 times (though not within the past couple of years), and it's late by HOURS about half the time.

My understanding is that on the north-east corridor, meaning between Washington, DC and Boston, Amtrak owns and has right of way on the tracks.

Between Albany and Rochester, CSX owns the tracks and CSX freight traffic gets priority.

I've also traveled where the Lakeshore Limited was 10 hours leaving Chicago on the return trip. Since it is, I believe just one train a day that's a serious delay.

Nowadays I usually take the less comfortable bus, because it's cheaper than flying to the places I'm headed. I think I see more scenery from a bus than a train, if that's a consideration, but it's still pretty minimal w/ the interstate system.

If I were you and had the cash to take the train, I'd fly instead, Jet Blue flies from NYC to Rochester, if they go to Buffalo, that's the way to go according to my friends who fly regularly.
posted by Jahaza at 4:16 AM on March 4, 2008

The TSA has definitely improved over the last few years, but it still really depends on the airport. I've found TSA people at JFK to be downright miserable bastards.

Will I have any problems with this if we take a domestic flight? I routinely take this to Amsterdam, flying on a very small, Fokker 50 and it fits into the overhead just fine.

No, you won't have any troubles with that bag. I've frequently flown in the US with a larger carry-on. At worst you might have to hand it over at the gate for plane-side delivery.

Amtrak is not even remotely similar to European train travel, at least on the west coast. It's nicer than flying if you have the time, but unlike European trains, Amtrak mostly runs on freight lines, and those freight trains get track priority, causing a lot of delays.
posted by cmonkey at 4:32 AM on March 4, 2008

I routinely fly around the Texas/Oklahoma area and have recently flown to/from the Netherlands. I had a lot more trouble when leaving Schiphol than I have with TSA in the last four years. I also had no trouble with customs coming back to the U.S. via Houston; of course, I am a citizen, but I ended up having to wait a long time in line (my customs guy was in the process of being trained) so I observed the folks in the non-citizens lines, and they seemed pretty cheerful and were processed very quickly.

In 2003 and 2004, TSA gave me big problems, but I haven't had any at all since. Just wear shoes you can slip off pretty quickly and follow their liquids/toiletries guidelines, with the silly little Ziploc bag. They'll still pull you aside at the metal detectors if they have to go through your carry-on by hand (which I sometimes think they do if you have a lot of electronics, but I really have no idea), but happily they've stopped that thing where they randomly pull people out of boarding lines and pat them down in front of crowds of gawking onlookers (heh I'm still bitter).
posted by korres at 5:06 AM on March 4, 2008

Between Albany and Rochester, CSX owns the tracks and CSX freight traffic gets priority.

I can second this. That train is often unreliable, and I would not choose it if my time was limited. TSA at Buffalo/Niagara Airport are no worse than anywhere else, and if your bag doesn't fit in overhead it can be gate checked with very little fuss.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:29 AM on March 4, 2008

On internal flights, the biggest pains with TSA have been at the larger airports where you do get the bored, sometimes "I hate these stupid people" TSA workers. At the smaller regional airports, I've noted a marked difference in attitude with it being more friendly and positive. However, the actual process of going through security is pretty much the same and not much of a hassle so long as you simply do what you're supposed to do and don't cause any hold ups or attempt to argue over something.
posted by Atreides at 5:59 AM on March 4, 2008

The domestic leg will be no worse than the international, probably better. Customs and Border Patrol is a seperate matter from TSA, so Happy Dave's post is irrelevant. You will not face CBP for a domestic flight. Most of the posters here are naturally going to be Americans as, a) the majority of posters at MetaFilter are Americans and b) American domestic flights would obviously be traveled far more extensively by Americans.

You will need to have your liquids either checked in or in <3 oz. containers in a zip-lock bag. They will ask you to take your laptops out of the carry on and send them through alone, just the laptops, not the charger, etc. They may or may not ask you to send your shoes through. That's it.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:00 AM on March 4, 2008

Pollomachio, my point was that, as a non-American, travelling for both business and pleasure, I'm routinely second-screened and questioned by TSA, flying internally. As Mutant's other half is Dutch, not American, this is certainly relevant. My other half is American, and she goes through TSA lines a lot quicker and more pleasantly than I do.

On the CBP issue, I was just pointing out that she should expect a pretty frosty reception on landing (which I and everyone I know who is not American has experienced at airports across the US) - not strictly relevant to the question yes, but if by some chance this is her first visit to the US, she should know what to expect.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:21 AM on March 4, 2008

Re: Amtrak

There is an enormous difference between first class and coach (or whatever they call them). First class is great, you get a private room with seats facing each other, and at least one very nice meal in the dining car is included. I recommend it. Coach will be like sitting on an airplane for 8 hours. There's also a big price difference, though, so pick your poison.
posted by 1 at 6:42 AM on March 4, 2008

The Boston to DC Amtrak and the rest-of-the-country Amtrak might as well be totally different systems. The former is great (and stunning compared to British rail services); the rest is kinda terrible, but some great routes with beautiful views.

Contrary to what 1 says, every Amtrak train on which I've ever travelled coach (not just on the Eastern seaboard) has seating with far, far more space than any UK train, and more than most mainland European trains that I can recall travelling on.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:47 AM on March 4, 2008

I can second this. That train is often unreliable, and I would not choose it if my time was limited.

The unreliability is not limited to that particular train. I was once traveling through New Orleans on Amtrak. The train to Florida was supposed to leave around 9pm. To make a long story short, it didn't even show up until 6 o'clock the next morning. Around 11pm, the Amtrak employees closed up shop and went home, leaving us to hang out in the station all night with no idea what was going on. No-one at Amtrak's phone hotline had the slightest idea when the train would arrive, so no-one could leave to wash up or sleep without running a substantial risk of missing the train, even if they wanted to foot the bill for a hotel. [This was years before Katrina and was not caused by weather or other natural conditions.]

That delay was significantly shorter than the one I encountered on my Amtrak trip from Detroit to Tucson. After concluding my visit to Tucson, I arrived at the Amtrak station and was informed that the train back to Detroit had been delayed. They said to call back in 3 hours. When I called back, I was informed that the train had been canceled and the next one would leave in three days.

The upsides to Amtrak are that the trains are comfortable, the people you meet are interesting especially on longer routes, and the scenery is very interesting because the tracks run through all kinds of areas (huge industrial complexes, peoples' back yards in small towns, etc) where freeways generally don't. But you probably shouldn't ride it if you are on any kind of a schedule, especially if it's a long distance route.

On the CBP issue, I was just pointing out that she should expect a pretty frosty reception on landing (which I and everyone I know who is not American has experienced at airports across the US)

Yeah, she should. I'm an American citizen and I've received a "frostier" reception entering America than I have when entering any foreign country. It's really quite ridiculous. I've had officials in foreign countries confiscate items from me with a more pleasant attitude than I typically encounter from American immigration officials even when nothing goes wrong. If this is how I'm treated as a white American, I can only imagine how it is for everyone else.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 6:58 AM on March 4, 2008

TSA has no way of knowing a passenger's citizenship. The airline does, and perhaps the airline is tagging "foreigners" for secondary TSA screening, but even then TSA screeners would have no way of knowing where you are from or what type of visa you are on.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:41 AM on March 4, 2008

The TSA recently announced increased anti-dignity measures for Amtrak.
posted by user92371 at 7:48 AM on March 4, 2008

I've been on a couple of Amtrak trains that do the cross-border thing with Canada through Windsor/Detroit. I have to say, I've not been impressed, even compared to the rolling stock that Via uses. Though I haven't been on the trains that do the equivalent run through Buffalo, I've seen them in Toronto's Union Station enough times to believe they're the same equipment.

By way of comparison, I've got a lot of experience of rail in Europe (was a frequent user of Thalys, Eurostar, TGV; some knowledge of ICE and the internal services of France and Belgium). My experience of Amtrak doesn't come close. The only positive side was the legroom, as mentioned above.

I believe that the DC-NY service is their jewel in the crown, and that service to Buffalo has far lower priority.
posted by lowlife at 8:20 AM on March 4, 2008

I just wanted to second the comment "bored contempt". I've never been treated as poorly and rudely as I have by american customs and security personel. It's like they hate life, hate you, and hate their job. And that's on a personal level. And if you're not an american you're pretty much scum trying to ruin the country. I say that as a Canadian who lived in the states, travels internationally, and doesn't fit into any of the "high-risk/racial profiling" categories. It's seriously reduced my desire to visit the States, or travel there, I'll be quite happy taking my tourist dollars elsewhere.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:21 AM on March 4, 2008

Yep. They're complete and utter assholes to non-Americans, and quite often to non-white or foreign-born Americans.
posted by randomstriker at 8:41 AM on March 4, 2008

Having just come back from abroad, let me say that the US airport security is awful. They are mean, angry, under trained, under paid and miserable. It's a race, everyone knows it's a shame, but everyone plays along, anyway.

In contrast, airports security in Europe and Morocco was great. In Ireland they apologized for having to chuck our water and when we needed to check our jar of jam (Surely you remember the great Jam Massacre of '99?), she stamped our passes so we didn't have to wait in the line again. Much more pleasant. When we left the US I got screamed- I mean screamed- at for not removing my scarf.
posted by GilloD at 8:53 AM on March 4, 2008

My parents (live in Europe, extremely well traveled) are now of the policy that they wouldn't even bother with visiting the US anymore if it weren't for family and the occasional business trip, purely because they're so sick of TSA treatment. For what it's worth, my father said that he found it easier to get into North Korea las year than into the United States. Having no such basis of comparison and being rather lucky, I haven't had any bad incidents lately and had a jar of jam very politely confiscated from me the other day ... but all of the comments above are worth noting. You have to be prepared to be completely solicitous and nice no matter what crap they throw at you, or they'll up the ante.

Getting through security should be straightforward, but tedious, because you'll have to take out both those laptops and possibly other electronics.
posted by bettafish at 9:00 AM on March 4, 2008

I'm routinely second-screened and questioned by TSA, flying internally.

So is my mother. It's not based on nationality.

Yep. They're complete and utter assholes to non-Americans, and quite often to non-white or foreign-born Americans.

The question was about TSA, not CBP. CBP agents are frequently (but not always—there are some good ones) jerks. TSA agents, not really.

There's not even really an attitude difference between TSA and CATSA.
posted by oaf at 9:50 AM on March 4, 2008

If I had a choice between flying and Amtrak, I'd always choose the train (unless it would take >24hrs). Coach is fine. Amtrak usually runs behind schedule, but if you're not in a hurry, it's a great way to go, but take your own food.

The part from NYC to Albany is right down along the Hudson- much of it practically at water level. It's one of the most beautiful train rides in this country.
posted by MtDewd at 10:50 AM on March 4, 2008

MtDewd makes a good point that the NYC to Albany leg of the trip will be quite nice. Less to see between Albany and Buffalo, as I recall.
posted by Jahaza at 11:57 AM on March 4, 2008

TSA has no way of knowing a passenger's citizenship.

Um, besides looking at a passenger's passport?
posted by fatllama at 12:30 PM on March 4, 2008

You only have to provide them with a photo ID. Driver's licences do not state a person's citizenship. Also, screeners do not check ID. ID check occurs prior to reaching screening.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:55 PM on March 4, 2008

"As a non-US citizen, your wife will likely get some very discourteous-bordering-on-hostile treatment from border security, and will also be hassled and secondary-searched as soon as anyone see her EU passport. Take the train."

"They're complete and utter assholes to non-Americans, and quite often to non-white or foreign-born Americans."

I have never ever ever had a problem with TSA, or been treated poorly, and I've flown into/out of the US from the UK five times since 2005 all of which involving at least one domestic connection. I'm not sure how everyone else is behaving, but I have my things organised, my laptop out, I wear slip on shoes, I say hello and thank you to the agents and I move where I'm supposed to move. I've been pulled out for secondary screening once (in Atlanta) and that was because I had a receipt from Delta for a replacement ticket instead of a boarding pass. It's really not hard to be an anonymous sheeple and get through the machine without incurring hassle.

And FWIW, my boyfriend feels the same. I'm white and English, he's Chinese-American. There is no racial discrimination or xenophobia going on that I've witnessed.

Mutant, I wouldn't worry. Be organised, efficient and polite, you'll be fine (I'm also flying back home tomorrow morning, so I'm prepped and ready to go). They rarely pay attention to the size of bags unless it's very obviously outsized (much to my annoyance - people with huge bags clog up the aisles like no one's business).
posted by saturnine at 2:31 PM on March 4, 2008

TSA agents are far less polite about how they do business than their overseas cousins, but with the exception of the whole shoe thing, its about the same as it is at Heathrow or Schiphol, though with fewer paramilitary involved. I ran shoes through CDG on a -through- leg, tho, so it ain't just us. Largely and even amongst the non-native born they seem to suffer from the common cultural failing that comprehension increases with volume.

I've yet to see evidence that they treat any of their sheeple charges preferentially based on nation of origin, only nature of compliance. Maybe if we paid, you know, substantially better than we do for baggage handlers...
posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:50 PM on March 4, 2008

I look Jewish/Middle Eastern and don't have any problems traveling internationally. Take a messenger bag with you. On the way to security, take off your belt, watch, coins and other stuff that may trip up the scanner and toss it in the bag. Take off your shoes regardless, they always trip me up. Take your computer out of it's bag, even if it doesn't say to.
posted by bprater at 5:03 PM on March 4, 2008

I have nothing to offer when it comes to Amtrak, but on the subject of TSA, generally I'm in agreement with those that say it's gotten better since 2002.

I think we forget that in Europe, we learnt the hard lessons of terrorism and security thanks to the various factions that UK, Germany, France, Italy, Greece etc. had in the 60s-90s. The US was unfortunate enough to have had a hard introduction to airline security issues with 911.

Given that Europe has had several decades head start on screening, it will naturally be more efficient. The TSA will get there eventually. However, like most frequent travellers, if you've got the security drill sorted - laptop, belt, jacket off, shoes off as needed, then screening with TSA is usually ok.

US Immigration though could seriously use a lesson in politeness. Experiences vary. I've encountered perfunctory efficiency where they can barely ask a question without snapping, outright hostility that made me question why I would want to come to the US in the first place and the nicest possible Immigration agent who encouraged me to marry Mrs arcticseal before she got away (I took his advice - always respect the government!).

I fail to understand why entering the US takes so long though. Frequently i's a couplpe of hours to clear customs & immigration in some airports, when in the large European airports it's usually about 20 minutes. My 2c.

Mutant - congratulations on your marriage.
posted by arcticseal at 5:27 PM on March 4, 2008

Thought I'd close this thread off.

The trip out from New York to Buffalo / Depew was very nice; only about thirty minutes late, no big deal at all. We traveled Business Class and the food was food, coffee plentiful and lots of seat space. All in all, this leg of our trip compared very well to European train travel. So good job Amtrak!

The return train trip didn't go so well; upon arriving at the Amtrak station at 6 AM we learned the train was cancelled (1) due to a freight train derailment. Coal, I believe, was blocking the tracks and it was going to take a couple of days to clear them down.

Amtrak was providing substitute transportation, but rather than take a five to six hour bus ride to Albany, THEN another three to four hour train ride to New York, Mrs Mutant & I decided to take an internal flight.

So we flew US Air flight to New York, Laquardia, and had no TSA related problems at all. In fact they were downright courteous to Mrs Mutant, Dutch passport and all. The folks were, however, more than a little curious about my passport. I've had two extension books sewed in, and page after page is either stamped full or carries a visa, so a little curiosity is to be expected and wasn't a problem.

So all in all, the TSA were very nice, very professional and next time we'll probably take an internal flight.

(1) Pitiful display of xenophobia and worldly ignorance on the part of Amtrak; when asked why we were'nt informed of the cancellation, the woman claimed I hadn't provided a telephone nummber. Which of course I did. When asked to confirm this omission on my part, the clerk then allowed there was indeed a telephone number, but as it had "too many digits", didn't want to dial it as "something didn't look right".

When I told her I didn't live in The United States she gravely informed me that "she knew something was wrong as soon as she heard my accent" . Uh Huh.
posted by Mutant at 9:19 AM on April 21, 2008

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