Dear Fellow Traveler,
I am taking my first flight in a couple years and, since I’m only going to be gone for a couple days, I’m not planning on paying $50 to check my bag. (Highway robbery, if you ask me!) I used to fly a lot, but that was pre-9/11 when you could get on a plane with just about anything. I once even made it through security with a pocket knife on my key ring! Anyway, I looked at the TSA website, and the rules seem very strict. I’ve had people tell me that I can bring water through, as long as it’s closed, but it doesn’t say that on the site. I also had someone tell me that you can bring your own lunch through, even if it’s not packaged food. Also, I heard that you don’t have to take off your shoes any longer, but then I heard that wasn’t true either. Frankly, I just can’t keep up. To top it off, I’m one of those people who always gets stopped. It’s not just the airport. I’m the guy who holds up the grocery line, who buys the shirt with the tag still attached at TJ Maxx, and if there’s a cop within five miles, you can bet he’s pulling me over. Wait times are long, and I just want to get on the plane.
What’s the best way to get through security? I don’t want to get hassled on my vacation!
Perplexed in Peoria
The way to avoid getting hassled by the TSA is simpler than you’d think. First, put everything you want to take with you on vacation in your suitcase. Then, put a toothbrush, a deodorant stick, your laptop, and some books in your carry-on bag. Then, take your suitcase and your carry-on, put them snugly in the trunk of your car, and drive to your vacation destination. Have a wonderful time.
If that’s not an option, I can offer only strategies to minimize your chances of officious interference.
TSA agents, like teachers and meter-maids, have nearly unlimited power to enforce rules and face very little downside for being assholes. This presents an opportunity that is difficult for most humans to resist: the opportunity to exercise complete authority over another person. I’m sure many of them are very nice off-duty—well, not meter-maids—but when you give a certain type of person this level of control over others, something bad happens to the mind. Combine that with the fact that the rules they enforce are made by people who do not themselves have to enforce those rules, and you will begin to appreciate the anguish behind many of Yakov Smirnoff’s jokes.
Planning ahead will minimize your annoyability potential.
• Nothing makes you sound more like you have just left the farm for the first time than saying to the guy behind you in line, “Since when do we have to take our shoes off?” Since Richard Reid, the man who looked like a cartoon terrorist, attempted to give himself the Ultimate Hotfoot a decade ago. So unless you’re a senior, yeah, you have to take your shoes off. (Seniors vote in large enough numbers that here, as everywhere, they get special treatment.) Don’t expect this rule to ever be lifted; just accede to reality and wear flip-flops. Not kidding. In the winter, wear Ugg boots without socks. The more easily you can get your shoes on and off, the less hassled you will feel.
• Toiletries are widely available and inexpensive on the other end of your flight. Shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream…if you aren’t checking a bag, your life will be made nicer by buying them on the other end of the flight. (Or using the ones provided by the hotel.) If you must bring your own personal goat placenta and honey shampoo, check it in your suitcase and when they charge you $50, remember that you chose this path.
• Also, in my experience, “toiletries” means “liquids and pastes.” Things I have been leaving in my carry-on throughout the x-ray process for years: stick deodorant, toothbrush, Mach 3 razor.
• Pack your carry-on with the fact that you will have to remove your laptop, tablet, and toiletries in mind. Acting as though the demand that you feed these onto the conveyor separately is an unwelcome surprise because you put those items at the very bottom of your bag under your neatly folded clothes and the presents for your grandchildren makes you look ridiculous, not the badge enforcing rules that he did not make.
• Water-bottle-wise, you cannot carry a full bottle of water (or whatever) through security, open or closed. You can, however, carry an empty water bottle through and refill it on the other side of the gatekeepers.
• As long as you’re willing to feed your lunch through the x-ray, and it isn’t liquid or paste, you’ll be fine. I’ve brought cheeses, baguettes, charcuterie, and fruit through security without a problem.
• That said, understand that if they say “No,” there is no appeal or argument in the world that will get a government employee to break a Rule, so you want to be emotionally detached from your airplane picnic before you try to bring it past the checkpoint.
• Why on earth you would check a bag for a trip of less than a week is beyond me. Even if it were free to do so, you lose at least an hour of your trip in the baggage checking-and-claiming, plus if they send it to the wrong place you’re apt to get it back after your trip anyway. For less than the $50 you would pay to check a bag you can get a nice rolling duffel bag that fits in an overhead bin. Costco has good ones.
• On airlines charging for bags: Stop bitching. The airline has not put this price into your ticket for a reason—bringing a bag is your choice. You might as well express outrage that you have to pay for your seat. Furthermore, this is not a secret surprise fee that goes undisclosed until you get to the airport. Stop acting like they put pay toilets on 727s.
• Pro tip for the frequent flyer: If you have a regular route, pay attention to security on both ends. I know who the mingy nitpickers are at the two airports in which I spend the most time, and I avoid their lines.
Sadly, dear writer, you are of the passenger type that most contributes to the TSA problem from the passenger side—the kind who doesn’t fly much and therefore expresses outrage and/or surprise at every idiot policy. Keep it to yourself. All your harrumphing and ruffled-feathers do is irritate the people in line behind you who know how to do this. We are often told that the TSA is price of freedom. This is true, but not in the Constitutional sense. The TSA is part of the price of the freedom to travel. If you want to get on the plane, you have to pay money to the airline for the seat. If you want to check a bag, you have to pay extra money. And if you want to get on the plane, you have to obey whatever policies the TSA invents. Take a deep breath, empty your flask before you have to put it on the conveyor, and enjoy your trip.
(And be glad Richard Reid packed that C-4 into his kicks rather than into his keister.)
[Go Go Go’s Fellow Traveler is Alan Brouilette, a writer, the Miscreant-in-Chief of Chicago theater company League of Miscreants, and one of America’s best food writers, according to the people who make the books as well as anyone who’s ever read his food writing. He also knows his way around an airport and a truck stop—at least, that’s the word on the street.]