Pack your bags to avoid security hand inspection loss

by Ned Levi on June 6, 2011

luggage by o5com, http://www.flickr.com/photos/o5com/

If you were unaware, all checked luggage goes through TSA x-ray for scheduled commercial domestic U.S. flights, and international flights leaving the U.S., just as carry-on luggage has been checked for some time.

While at TSA checkpoints, everyone knows you want to avoid having your bags hand inspected, because it wastes so much time, it may actually be more important to avoid hand inspections of your checked luggage.

I’ve heard from many who have had checked bags opened by TSA and reported missing and broken items, bags with TSA approved locks left unlocked, permitting easy access to checked bag contents and manhandled personal items.

Fortunately, I’ve never had my checked bags opened by TSA, but my wife has had her bags opened and inspected by them. We’re sure it was TSA, as they left a note. Nothing was missing or broken for us.

A few years ago, I was in Miami speaking with TSA, and they gave me some tips to minimize having my checked or carry-on luggage hand inspected. The major reason TSA hand inspects luggage is because the TSA TSO at x-ray inspection can’t adequately identify something in your bags.

Here’s the tips suggested to me by a TSA agent:

• Pack all loose items in bags, folders, etc. (I use a variety of Eagle Creek “Pack-It!” folders, cubes and sacs). This helps TSA agents looking at their x-ray monitors properly identify your belongings.

• Never have anything loose in your luggage, including all your clothing. This might not prevent TSA from hand inspecting your bags, but with everything in your luggage in bags and containers, you minimize the chance a TSA agent will directly handle your private items during a hand inspection. Seriously, who would want to put on underwear handled by a TSA agent without washing it first. You might even decide to toss it out.

• All wires should be wrapped, banded, and placed in see-through bags, or bags with clear windows. (I use Think Tank Photo cable management products, with clear windows to store small electronics and wires, and use their elastic cable ties to band my wire bundles.) Allowing TSA to see exactly what’s in your bags without opening them, if hand inspected, helps prevent small item losses. Alternatively, you could put your wires in baggies, and band them with rubber bands.

• This is crucial. Once you assemble everything to put into your luggage, load the luggage in neat layers. This helps TSA agents at x-ray, more easily identify your belongings.

• Any thing which has wires coming out of it, and your wires themselves, as well as solid objects, such as a large hairbrush should be laid out throughout the cross-section of your luggage with as little overlap as possible. This will enable TSA to see deep into your bags unimpaired by densely packed potentially suspicious objects, with their x-ray, and be able to properly identify the objects as benign.

• All electronics, and anything with wires are best packed in carry-on, to help avoid hand inspecting your checked luggage which isn’t completed in front of you. It’s possible, without your presence to point it out, TSA may miss replacing something in your checked luggage. So it’s to the benefit of the traveler to pack to especially minimize hand inspection of their checked luggage.

• Don’t have your checked luggage so over-packed that items spill out, on to the floor,when the bag is opened. Over-stuffed bags up the odds something will be missing if it’s hand inspected.

• Place your shoes in plastic bags, shoe bags, or shoe wraps, and pack them on top of your clothes. If TSA opens your bag, invariably, they will check your shoes. This will minimize or reduce the changes of a more intrusive hand inspection.

• Don’t stack piles of books for vacation reading, or documents on top of each other. Instead, spread them out within your luggage. It’s hard for TSA to determine what’s in your bag, under or over a stack of a few books or documents. Stacking makes it more likely TSA will hand inspect your bags.

• Pack no valuables, breakables, or electronics in your checked-in luggage. Eliminate the temptation during inspections behind closed doors.

You want to know if TSA has hand inspected your checked luggage, so you know to immediately check for missing or damaged belongings, while still at the airport. Therefore either lock your luggage with TSA approved luggage locks (they permit TSA to open the locks without damaging them or your luggage) or with numbered plastic security seals which are easily cut by TSA so they won’t damage your luggage.

The TSA locks normally have a “telltale” which alerts you if TSA or anyone else opened you luggage. The plastic security seals, if broken, indicate the same. Either way you immediately know someone was in your luggage, so you can immediately check to see if your belongings are secure, and if not, start the claims process before you leave the airport, so you preserve all your compensation and insurance rights.

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  • JoeInAtlanta

    “Seriously, who would want to put on underwear handled by a TSA agent
    without washing it first. You might even decide to toss it out.”

    Seriously? You would throw away your underwear because it was merely touched by a TSA agent?

    Do you avoid buying your underwear in stores where TSA agents also shop and might have touched them? Do you eschew underwear made in factories where TSA agents might be moonlighting? And really, break it down for us … How much physical contact between a TSA agent and your underwear before it turns to trash in your eyes? An errant tap with a fingernail? A push with the finger to see what’s underneath? Lifting it between pinched finger and thumb? Patting it down with the palm of the hand? At which of those examples did your stomach start to turn, Ned?

    So you hate TSA agents so much that you’d throw away clothing merely because they had touched it? Is that your only blind prejudice, or do you have some observations on race and ethnicity that you’d like to share with us, Ned?

  • Patmurraypm

    So Joe.. Are you a TSA agent?

    MUST BE for such a vitriol response!!! ..Jeez lighten up!

  • Ron

    Joe, I don’t think any malice was meant to the TSA agents…….it is the fact that TSA agents handle hundreds or thousands of pieces of luggage during their shift, and it is doubtful that they change their gloves after every bag they hand check.  Who really knows what is anyone’s bags and what the agents had to wade through before they got to your bag?

    When my carryon luggage is hand checked at security, most times I have to ask the agent to change their gloves before they inspect my bag.  They don’t all do it as a regular thing. I ask them not because the agent in front of me looks germ-ridden or dirty, it is because they have handled many people’s luggage, and there is no way to be sure those folks might have something I don’t want transferred to my property……the first thing that comes to mind for me was during the Swine and Bird Flu epidemics…….

    Ned’s suggestion to keep your clothing that comes closest to your skin and private areas less prone to handling makes perfect sense.  As a seasoned traveler, I am going to start taking that suggestion.

    Joe, you would do well to read some of Ned’s writings to know you are as far off the mark as you could possibly be in the remarks in your last sentence.

  • Anonymous

    I’m with you… (perhaps with not as much enthusiasm.)  Seriously, underwear touches the most germ-infested parts of your body.  I’m having trouble thinking of a single illness you could possibly catch through a TSA agent touching your underwear, even if he isn’t using a fresh glove.  I would think any residual germs that might be on his/her glove would be overwhelmed by the germs already swarming over every part of your body that underwear covers.

    I’m pretty sure that TSA agents have more to worry about than you do.

  • Pete26

    I’ve given up on TSA approved locks after five of them disappeared during one summer’s travels a few years ago.  So much for the “Security” in TSA.

  • JoeInAtlanta

    Nope, I’m not a TSA agent. I’m actually a computer programmer — which is why I have an enthusiasm for logic and reason. And that enthusiasm for logic and reason is why I am extremely disappointed in Ned’s absurd statement.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been using TSA-approved locks since they became available – so, about 10 years?  I’ve only once had a bag opened, it was re-locked and inside was a xeroxed “letter” from TSA explaining why they’d opened it and what may have prompted them to do so.

  • Nina

    I have TSA agents change their gloves, if they need to open my luggage. I don’t know what was in the luggage of the last person they inspected. That is how diseases and bed bugs can easily travel. That is why health care professionals wash their hands after touching a patient. I would like to see TSA adopt the same standards.

  • AKFlyer

    Oh, give me a break!  I am a frequent traveler who, admittedly, does not often check luggage, but when I have, I’ve never lost anything.  And it has been opened by TSA on more than one occasion.  I will continue to put my shoes and other heavy objects at the bottom of the bag when it is standing on its wheels.  I have my own habit patterns (as do most experienced travelers) that keep me organized and help me remember what to pack.  I am not letting even more fear of the TSA take over my life to the point of making me spend an extra 30 minutes organizing my stuff so my hairbrush doesn’t overlap my cell phone charger!

  • Lyn G

    In the past, when I’ve had the TSA search my checked bags, they put a little card in the bag when they’re done.  Have they stopped doing that?  I also use little plastic twist-lock mini carabiners or zip-ties to keep the zippers closed, as the TSA approved locks vanish way too easily.

  • LindaB

    Same with me.  It is most annoying to pay for the more expensive TSA-approved locks only to have them not put back on your luggage after inspection.  Now I buy the cheapos in bulk, and if they go, they go.  BTW, the TSA does not always put in a paper indicating they inspected the bag. Just like the don’t always put the locks back.  By the time you discover that, you are at your destination and the TSA agents responsible are long gone.    

  • http://compleattraveller.blogspot.com/ Jim

    Why pay for “cable management products” at $15-$25 a pop when you can buy a packet of plastic ziplock bags at your local supermarket for a couple of dollars? I use these to hold cables and cords and other small items, and have never had problems with them passing through security. Just a (much cheaper) suggestion.

  • Henare

    Joe–the reason you want to avoid any contact of your property (underwear or anything else) is that those hands have been in countless other bags full of countless other travelers’ things and those travellers may have hygiene issues, etc.  

    Why so defensive?  

  • Marlin

    Not wearing underwear after being touched = paranoid. Come on.

  • Vhtg

    The first (and only) time that I used a TSA approved lock on my checked suitcase was in 2005.

    Upon retrieval, I found the open lock actually thrown inside the suitcase on top.

    Far worse, I found a huge, disgusting wad of chewed gum smashed into my underwear which was no longer neatly folded inside a sealed, clear plastic bag. It was all unfolded and jumbled around and the plastic bag was open with some of the panties hanging out of the bag.

    I nearly vomited and you bet I threw them all out! I also sat in my hotel suite with a bottle of rubbing alcohol and wiped down every single item in my luggage.

    I also washed every bit of other clothing after my gloved hands inspected them for more chewing gum.

    I could relate many stories of TSA agent incompetence, theft, illicit behavior, filthy remarks and the like, but instead I’ll end this with my personal belief that the majority of TSA agents aren’t trained anywhere near well enough and far too many are not fit to have the job.

  • Ned Levi

    Hi All,
    Thanks for your comments and your readership, whether you agree with my point of view or not.

    I have thrown out underwear after being handled by TSA, before I was smart enough to pack everything in some kind of bag, in both my carry-on and checked luggage to protect it. I was in Atlanta a number of years back. I always carry a complete change of clothes in my carry-on, “just in case.” You never know if someone might spill a drink all over you on a long flight (you don’t want to sit for hours in wet clothes), and you never know if your luggage will be delayed, or worse, lost. I’ve had both happen to me, more than once.

    Meanwhile back in Atlanta, they decided to hand inspect my carry-on bag. The table wasn’t very big and the floor underneath it was filthy. The agent manhandled my belongings and accidentally, through his carelessness, dropped my underwear on that filthy floor. When he picked up the underwear, he did say he was sorry, (I think he was truly sorry.) and pointed out that they were wet. Something had spilled on the floor under the inspection table. They were wet, filthy, and I didn’t have a plastic bag to put them in. Rather than put wet dirty underwear in my bag, when he gave me everything to repack, I tossed them out.

    I personally don’t use TSA approved locks myself, but know many travelers, who’s opinion I trust, who’ve had excellent experience with them. I use the numbered plastic security seals I mentioned in the article. If they are broken or missing you know someone has probably been in your luggage. That’s actually important. There are a number of airlines which either require you to start the claim process before you leave your destination airport, or within 4 hours of landing at your destination airport. Often, if you don’t know your bags have been opened, and you wait until you get to your hotel and unpack, or wait until you’re home, it’s too late to put in your claim. If my security seal is broken or missing, I check my luggage and its contents immediately after retrieving it in baggage claim.

    Another tip: When checking in your luggage, make certain you get a baggage claim ticket and put it in a safe place. Keep it until your bags are retrieved, and you’ve inspected them for damage and missing items. Without the claim ticket your airline may refuse your claim of lost, delayed, or damaged luggage, or luggage which has missing items.

    Regards to All.

  • BLWDC

    I just returned from San Francisco last week.  I, too, had been using the so-called “TSA approved” locks since they became available.  I always check a large bag when I travel for any length of time.  I suppose I have been fortunate that this is the first time my checked luggage has been opened, but, I, too, wonder what the point of the TSA approved locks is when they are removed and not replaced.

  • Beth Terry

     I have a funny story that goes along with this — My Hawaii friends always send me lists to pick up at Trader Joe’s before I go over so my bag is often full of food. On this particular trip I had bought cereal and lots of giant chocolate bars. So the chocolate wouldn’t get broken, I put them in the side pockets around the edges. Then I put the cereal on the bottom. Just as I was leaving my house I realized I had forgotten to pack my cell phone charger. So I tossed that into the bag and zipped it up. You can imagine what this looked like on Xray. Here are solid objects connected by a wire and cushioned by some gravelly lookin’ stuff. Of course it was immediately pulled and I was detained. Apparently chocolate looks like C4! Fortunately I travel out of Phoenix Sky Harbor and it’s the same TSA guys I trained once. We all had a good laugh and I got a lecture about not packing that way. They told me to carry on chocolate or anything potentially suspicious and show it to the inspectors rather than having it in my bag for XRay, then put it back in my bag after the inspection to speed it up. Good lesson. LOL.

  • http://www.orene.net Orene Kearn

    This is an extremely helpful article.  In other words, “think like a TSA agent when you pack.”

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  • http://twitter.com/BeaVanni Bea Vanni

    Outstanding article and thank you for such detail!

  • http://twitter.com/BeaVanni Bea Vanni

    Is that what these products are now called, cable management? I use ziplock bags too and yes, they’re a cheap alternative and never disappear.

  • Brooklyn

    Think about it – the TSA may have been touching the underwear of someone with a communicable disease or – just for example – with crab lice.  Now they’ve touched your underwear.  Do you really want to put it on, especially if you’re a woman?  At least wash it, for g-d’s sake!

  • Daryleann

    Just returned from vacation so am reading this article with interest.

    You said ” I always carry a complete change of clothes in my carry-on, “just in
    case.” You never know if someone might spill a drink all over you on a
    long flight (you don’t want to sit for hours in wet clothes)
    Then you say ” When he picked up the underwear, he did say he was sorry, (I think he
    was truly sorry.) and pointed out that they were wet. Something had
    spilled on the floor
    under the inspection table. They were wet, filthy,
    and I didn’t have a plastic bag to put them in.”

    May I suggest you CARRY a plastic bag – for the ‘just in case’ scenario that you mentioned in the first place? It would only make sense. Surely you wouldn’t throw away a full outfit.

  • Ned Levi

    Like most frequent travelers, I’ve learned about packing over time, both from my own experiences, and those of others with whom I’ve talked or corresponded.

    I carry a half dozen baggies, of various sizes, in my carry-on, for emergencies, these days. I also carry travel rolls of toilet paper, and a non-woven wash cloth and towel in my carry-on too. I’ve been on a number of flights in the last 10 years which ran out of toilet paper, and paper towels in the lavatory.

  • http://www.focuspackaging.co.uk Strappingx Machines

    Well i agreed with what you have written.I must say you have smart written skills.Thanks for sharing.Keep sharing as always in future too.

  • Patmurraypm

    Hi Joe,
    I too work with computers.. on the artistic end.. so that being said..
    one person’s logic is another person…folly..:):)!!

  • guest

    Actually, the most germ infested parts of your body are your mouth and under your fingernails… The parts of your body that your underwear covers are actually remarkably clean in comparison…sorry…

  • http://www.technibond.co.uk/ bobchrist488

    A very detailed article regarding security in united states.very helpful article. .TSA agents are very alert with the security point of view in united states. nice posting .thanks for sharing.

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    Its something unique for me and amazing as well.I really like this modelt a lot man.Thanks for sharing this and keep sharing as like
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  • Anonymous

    It isn’t the agent as a person I would object to, just his gloves that have touched both the clean and filthy worn items of the passengers before me.   You can request he/she put on clean gloves but I’m sure you are in for a bigger hassle if you do.
    Yes lets bring race into the matter, that shows you have nothing else to debate with. 
    I would not want to wear clothing pawed over by hands with dirty unsanitary gloves why would it matter the color hands inside the gloves. Like storing your clean clothing amid someone dirty laundry.

  • Pete

    On a trip last year, I picked up my checked bag upon arriving, my TSA lock gone, pocket knife (inside of small shaving kit) gone, and NOTHING else disturbed…Hmmm, thanks for saving the world, one checked knife at a time. I hope you cut yourself with it, thief.

  • Fred

    This is quite a naive article. You don’t need to look for “telltale” clues to know if your luggage has been opened. When you are at your destination and your suitcase comes down the conveyor wide open with your clothing hanging out you can expect to find a TSA card somewhere in the mess.

  • http://twitter.com/orsay orsay

    Or….Not!!

  • Blahblah

    Hate for the Thousands Standing Around runs deep with all law abiding Americans, the inconveniences they cause us for the sake of our “safety” are a total violation of our privacy and respect. Yes it is disgusting even if their fingernail touched it, because how can I know if they washed their dirty hands?

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