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Carry-on Luggage: Restrictions & Rules

TSA Inspection Old Man

Updated June 23, 2010

Wow – where to start? Airline carry-on luggage restrictions, rules, and liquid bans have changed our ability to pack for carry-on like we once were able to. Some of these rules are just downright ridiculous, but at the same time I appreciate that there are efforts to try and keep us safe up in the sky. Okay, well not so much keep us safe as keep someone from flying a plane into a building again.

Amidst the confusion and seemingly daily changes, how can you keep track of what is permitted and what isn’t? That’s why I’m here to help. Think of me as your guardian-angel-meets-attorney-slash-rebel. I’m going to go down the current rules (as of June 2010) line by line and try to help you (and me) understand them. I’m taking two approaches; the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. You make up your own choices based off what you understand.

Here’s a good place to start. Read our guide to Carry On Items Still Permitted (updated June 2010) and then follow along down below.

Deep breath! And here we go, down the rules – one at a time:

Liquid Ban – now adjusted to 3oz or less containers:

Effective Tuesday, September 26, 2006 TSA Adjusted The Ban On Liquids, Aerosols And Gels.

1. Travelers may now carry through security checkpoints travel-size toiletries 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less that fit comfortably in ONE, QUART-SIZE, clear plastic, zip-top bag.
2. After clearing security, travelers can now bring beverages and other items purchased in the secure boarding area on-board aircraft.

At the checkpoint travelers will be asked to remove the zip-top bag of liquids and place it in a bin or on the conveyor belt. X-raying separately will allow TSA security officers to more easily examine the declared items.

Letter of the law: Notice it says “that fit comfortably in ONE, QUART-SIZE, clear plastic, zip-top bag” but it does not specify that it MUST be contained within a bag that fits that description. Things you buy in the secure (after security checkpoint) areas are okay to bring on board, including liquids.
Spirit of the law: “At the checkpoint travelers will be asked to remove the zip-top bag” implies that they want it to be in one. We’ve heard stories from people who have had their toiletries confiscated due to not having them in a bag, and others of airport stores selling ziplock bags to passengers.
Recommendation: Use a zip-top bag. Make sure its no more than a quart in volume – you can see that on the package before you buy them. Take ONLY ONE bag full.

Exceptions to the 3oz or less liquid rule:

In addition, larger amounts of prescription liquid medications, baby formula and diabetic glucose treatments must be declared at the checkpoint for additional screening.

In addition to the above changes, the following guidance is provided to ensure the health and welfare of certain air travelers the following items are permitted.

* Baby formula and breast milk if a baby or small child is traveling;
* All prescription and over-the-counter medications (liquids, gels, and aerosols) including KY jelly, eye drops, and saline solution for medical purposes;
* Liquids including water, juice, or liquid nutrition or gels for passengers with a disability or medical condition;
* Life-support and life-sustaining liquids such as bone marrow, blood products, and transplant organs;
* Items used to augment the body for medical or cosmetic reasons such as mastectomy products, prosthetic breasts, bras or shells containing gels, saline solution, or other liquids; and,
* Gels or frozen liquids needed to cool disability or medically related items used by persons with disabilities or medical conditions.

You are not limited in the amount or volume of these items you may bring in your carry-on baggage. BUT if the medically necessary items exceed 3 ounces or are not contained in a one-quart, zip-top plastic bag, you MUST declare to one of our Security Officers at the checkpoint for further inspection.

Letter of the law: If you plan to bring anything allowed in the list above, that is over 3oz in size, you have to let them know. They might want to inspect things like your augmented boobs. If you don’t have your shampoo in a ziplock bag, you have to declare it ahead of time. Still doesn’t say it HAS to be put in one.
Spirit of the law: You better have a good reason to bring aboard something that’s more than 3oz of fluid. That means, it’s got to be your water bra, your breast implants or baby formula. Better get a ziplock if you don’t have one already.
Recommendation: Unless you need it medically or you’re carrying a heart-on-ice for the childrens’ hospital – pack it in checked baggage or leave it at home. Possibly FedEx your items ahead of time. Use a ziplock bag.

Lipstick (and similar) is okay:

You are permitted to bring solid cosmetics and personal hygiene items as such lipstick, lip balm and similar solids.

Don’t wait till the last minute, and don’t use your brain:

We ask for your cooperation in the screening process by being prepared before you arrive. We also ask that you follow the guidelines above and try not to over-think these guidelines. Please pack liquids, gels, and aerosols in your checked baggage even if you do not normally check a bag.

Letter of the law: They’d like for you to be prepared, and follow the guidelines. They’d love for you to do so mindlessly. It would be nice if you just gave up and checked your bag.
Spirit of the law: It would be nice if you were prepared and mindless. Just do what they say, don’t ask questions. Check your bag, there’s only a small chance that it will be lost.
Recommendation: Think about what you’re packing. Use your mind as much as you possibly can. Analyze and be prepared.

There are other things you should not bring on board, like guns:

In addition to liquids, gels, and aerosols numerous other potentially dangerous items are not permitted in carry-on baggage. We strongly encourage travelers to read more about previously prohibited items to avoid complications during screening.

Letter of the law: Read the list of what is not permitted. Don’t try to bring them in your carry on.
Spirit of the law: Read the list of what is not permitted. Don’t try to bring them in your carry on.
Recommendation: Read the list of what is not permitted. Don’t try to bring them in your carry on.

This is the rule, and it’s probably going to stay the same for a while:

It is unlikely that additional changes in the liquid, aerosol and gel policy will be made in the near future.

Letter of the law: The rules are probably not going to change soon.
Spirit of the law: The rules are probably not going to change soon.
Recommendation: Deal with it, cause this is the way it is. Or charter your own private jet.

These are the rules for the US and A – other countries have their own:

This security regimen applies to all domestic and international flights departing U.S. airports. Travelers should, however, check with transportation security authorities in their country-of-origin for flights originating at non-U.S. airports.

Letter of the law: We are the US and A government and can only force so many other countries to comply to our rules.
Spirit of the law: You should do what we say when you’re coming to our country.
Recommendation: Do what they say, or charter your own private jet. Or go to Russia.

But, what about X ?

Look it up! Here’s the TSA page to check.

Remember, just because you did something one way last time, doesn’t mean it was right or that it hasn’t changed. Double check to be sure. You could even try calling the TSA phone number: 1-866-289-9673 or email them: – no guarantees on response time.