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Smart packing tips for busy airline travel seasons

With crowded airports, flight delays, and perhaps even extra luggage for gifts and winter clothing, busy travel times — including holiday travel seasons and trips to cities before and after they host major sporting events — can be hectic without preparation.

Woman with small bag at airport

“People know the rules for air travel have changed, yet many forget and do not prepare,” says Susan Foster, packing expert and author of Smart Packing for Today’s Traveler. “As a result, they wind up stressed or frenzied.”

One way to ease your stress is knowing how to pack for that holiday excursion. Here, we offer some key tips from Foster and the Transportation Security Administration:

Don’t pack anything you can’t afford to lose

Carry on holiday gifts, valuables and medications, and keep them close by at all times. Added precaution is especially crucial with the recent news of the couple who allegedly stole 1,000 bags from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

“People simply don’t think through the whole — packing — process,” Foster says of passengers who put valuables in their checked luggage.

If possible, send valuable gifts to the destination ahead of time or purchase gift cards. “My favorite gift now is gift cards,” Foster says. “And they are the absolute easiest thing in the world to pack.”

Don’t wrap gifts

Even with checked baggage, a security officer may have to unwrap a package to inspect it, Foster says. The TSA Web site suggests shipping wrapped gifts ahead of time or waiting until your destination to wrap them.

If you bring unwrapped presents, Foster suggests packing gift bags at the bottom of your suitcase so you can easily reassemble your gifts upon arrival.

People have a mental disconnect about holiday gifts versus regular prohibited items, but there is no exception, she adds. For instance, a pocket knife and a metal nail file is the same as a gift set of steak knives in the eyes of the TSA, so these things should not be carried on.

Secure bags with TSA-approved locks

Many travelers do not realize they are allowed to lock checked luggage as long as they use TSA-approved locks, which security agents can open without cutting through by use of a master key, Foster says. Locks themselves can cause stress because many travelers are afraid they will lose keys or forget the numerical combination.

She suggests a lock such as Wordlock, which uses combinations based on words or letters that can be set and reset, rather than arbitrary numbers, because these combinations can be easier to remember.

“I firmly believe in locking your bag every time you leave your hotel room,” Foster adds. “That TSA-approved lock is critical.” (Rules on TSA-approved locks are available on its Web site.)

Know which foods are allowed

You don’t have to let grandma’s baked goods go to waste. According to TSA’s Web site, you can bring pies and cakes through the security checkpoint. However, they are subject to additional screening. Other food items such as jellies, gravy and wine are only allowed in checked bags or should be shipped ahead of time, TSA says.

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Items purchased after the security checkpoint, however, have been pre-screened and can be taken on the plane. (Note that if you’re traveling internationally, you will need to clear customs and then re-enter security — therefore, you will not be able to bring even those liquids back through in your carry-on bag.) 

Foster suggests buying protective wine travel bags like those on Magellan’s website if you must bring wine in your bag. Additional information about prohibited holiday items is available at TSA’s Web site.

Pack your coats in checked baggage

If you’re going to check luggage, consider fitting your coat into the suitcase so you don’t have to haul it through the airport, Foster says. Travel with a lightweight coat but wearing your heavier clothing.

“The less you can carry on… the faster everybody can get through security,” she says.

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Planning ahead is also crucial so you resist carrying a large suitcase. Check out the sample-size aisle at stores like Target, or websites like and, for tiny travel items.

And, Foster says, remember: “It’s a suitcase, not your closet.”

For more travel tips on SheKnows:


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