Holiday Travel Tips from CHHS, Part 1: Tickets & Packing

December 16th, 2010

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There is no place like home for the holidays, and for many Americans, myself included, getting “home” involves getting on an airplane. Airport war-stories may be fun to swap over turkey and pie, but wouldn’t you rather avoid getting into those stressful situations in the first place? Here are some helpful ways to avoid close encounters with the TSA, or at least be prepared for your close-up.

Identification

Most people try to snag those early holiday flight deals that crop up around Halloween, but for those of you who prefer to fly by the seat of your pants and go where the wind takes you, you will be happy to know that, indeed, you can book a flight within 72 hours of flying without having any issues with “Secure Flight.” In fact, even if you book right before getting on the next available flight, you should not run into any real issues with the Secure Flight program because it conducts watch list matching until the time of the flight.

What’s Secure Flight? The Secure Flight program is the reason that, as of November 1, you have to provide all of your personal identification information, e.g., your full name as it appears on your government-issued ID, date of birth, gender, and, if applicable, your Redress Number (you have one of these if you were misidentified in the past, resulting in the denial or delay of your boarding or entry/exit into/out of the good old USA, or are a perpetual target of the dreaded second screening), at the time you make your travel arrangements. Your airline shares that information with the TSA so the TSA can check your personal information against the federal government watch list – a responsibility that used to belong to the airlines. If you are not on the No-Fly List, the TSA will give your airline the approval they need to issue your boarding pass. Watch out members of the No Fly List – there’s a new sheriff in town.

Leave the PB&J at home

Now that you have your ticket with all of your personal identification information properly transcribed, you are ready to think about packing for your trip. Packing has become increasingly tricky over the years as the once simple list of items that you were not allowed to bring onboard (e.g., the obviously dangerous weapons and flammable items) has expanded into a complicated and confusing list, including common household, yet easily weaponizable, items. Seemingly innocuous commodities like gel shoe inserts and liquidy, creamy spreadables like peanut butter are no-nos, even though some of you may have successfully carried these on in the past.

Then there is the pesky problem of liquids. In an effort to enhance safety, the TSA has limited the quantities of permitted liquids to the maximum amount of liquid a person can carry without causing damage to the plane. They have cutely dubbed this liquids policy as the “3-1-1 for carry-ons.” The rule is that you may bring on liquids that are in containers not larger than 3.4 ounces by volume, and you must fit all of those containers in one quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag. For a more exhaustive list, check the TSA website for a prohibited items brochure.

Just as a side note, there are a few things you can bring onboard that you may not have realized. You can, for instance, bring on a pair of scissors with pointed tips (if the blades are shorter than four inches), handcuffs (as Lady Gaga discovered), tools, including screwdrivers and wrenches, and even surgical tools that are seven or less inches long, and common lighters and safety matches (congratulations smokers, the ban has been lifted). Additionally, the 3-1-1 rule goes out the window for medical types of liquids – medications, baby formula or breast milk, and baby food are allowed in reasonable quantities (if you have a medical condition or a baby with you). My personal favorite permitted items are frozen items. They are allowed as long as they are “frozen solid when presented for screening.” However, “if frozen items are partially melted, slushy, or have any liquid at the bottom of the container, they must meet 3-1-1 requirements.” Now you know.

What about gifts?

Not surprisingly, many people travel with gifts during the holiday season, and the TSA can be a bit of a Grinch about it. If you have selected a particularly exciting item, one that is confusing to the scanner machines, the TSA may have to un-wrap your gift to get a better look (note that this even applies to checked luggage). There is a silver lining though. For those of you that have procrastinated when it comes to your holiday shopping, you can rest easy knowing that anything you buy after passing through security has already been pre-screened, so it is safe to take on the plane, even if you have it gift-wrapped. This may be a selling point for some – the perfect reason to put off your holiday shopping until you can acquire a copy of Sky Mall.

Now that you are all packed – off to the airport!

(In part 2 we’ll discuss surviving the security line & preparing for your return trip)

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