safety

Travel Tune-up: “Ask TSA” offers answers.

Want to avoid the TSA tangle? Just ask.

Bowling balls? Yes, you can take them as carry-on

Our column this week for CNBC tackled the TSA experience and offered tips on what you may – and may not – pack in your carry-on. Here’s the story.

Last week, the Transportation Security Administration shared a photo on social media of a missile launcher found in a passenger’s checked bag.

“Man said he was bringing it back from Kuwait as a souvenir,” said TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein on Twitter, “Perhaps he should have picked up a keychain instead!”

As a division of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA is responsible for overseeing security at the nation’s airports. But weighing in on the pros and cons of travel souvenirs and answering questions about what items are permitted on airplanes has become part of the job.

“We get a lot of questions about what people can take through the checkpoints,” said Janis Burl, the @AskTSA manager. “A lot are about food – i.e. ‘Can I take a sandwich?’ [Answer: yes] And over the past few months we’ve gotten a lot of questions about that’s kid toy slime.” [Also yes, but only if the slime is 3.4 ounces or less and is carried with a travelers’ liquids and lotions in the allowed one-quart zip bag.]

On its website – under the header “What Can I Bring?”, and on its app, TSA has an extensive catalog of things travelers may or may not pack in their carry-on or checked bags. Items are listed alphabetically and by category and the list can be searched.

Under “Toys” there are seven examples and TSA notes that while fidget spinners and remote controlled cars are allowed in carry-on luggage, realistic replicas of firearms and explosives are not. The TSA directory also has a helpful note about adult toys (ahem), which are allowed in both carry-on and check bags.

What about toy lightsabers, including those purchased or custom built (to the tune of $200) at Disney’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction?

TSA’s “What Can I Bring?” database says “Sadly the technology doesn’t currently exist to create a real lightsaber. However, you can pack a toy lightsaber in your carry-on or checked bag,” and adds, “May the force be with you.”

With summer travel in full-swing, it’s good to know ahead of time that tent spikes or poles, strike anywhere matches, spear guns, pool cues, Magic 8 Balls, firecrackers, bear spray, baseball bats and bowling pins are not allowed as carry-on items, but that bowling balls are allowed. 

Also allowed as carry-on: compasses, amethyst crystals, fresh fruit, fishing rods, live lobsters (in a clear, plastic, spill proof container), seashells, fruit gummies, cooked lasagna, jelly beans, electronic bathroom scales and frozen water bottles, as long as the water is completely frozen when presented for screening.

And while the Federal Aviation Administration is emphatic that drones not be flown near airports, TSA allows drones in carry-on bags. However, the agency encourages travelers to check with their airline about specific rules for taking drones on board.

For items not found in TSA’s database, and for travelers who want to make sure a specific item will fly, there is a team of ten full-time TSA employees who monitor and respond to questions sent in via Twitter (@AskTSA) and Facebook Messenger.

Team members are on duty 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. (ET) weekdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends and holidays, (including Christmas) and are quick to respond to all manner of “Can I bring?” questions sent in.

One passenger recently asked about traveling with jars of pickles. They were advised that pickles without liquid in a zip bag were good to go as carry-on, but that pickles with pickle juice were only allowed in a carry-on bag if packed in a container of 3.4 oz. or less.

Another passenger wrote to @AskTSA inquiring about traveling with a whole cantaloupe she’d grown in her garden.

“I want to take it to my mom,” the traveler tweeted to TSA. “You can,” TSA responded, adding “We hope your mom enjoys the treat!”

Other recent questions have covered verything from quesadillas to roach bait. And Burl says, when in doubt, sending along a photo is always helpful.

It may seem as if the “AskTSA” team has likely seen it all by now, but Burl says they sometimes gets stumped.

“If you send in a photo and we don’t know what it is, we’ll go to Google to figure it out.”

And while the @AskTSA team uses its knowledge, TSA’s database and, sometimes, a bit of Googling, to give travelers a thumbs up or down on traveling with certain items in carry-on or checked bags, Burl says the final say-so on any whether an items is a ‘go’ rests with the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) on duty at the checkpoint.

“If they’re looking at something that doesn’t look right, they can make that decision,” said Burl.

In addition to its website, Twitter and Facebook accounts, TSA also has a very popular and informative Instagram account that can help travelers learn about what can fly.

A recent post, in honor of National Kitten Day, for example, noted that kittens, catnip and balls of yarn are good to go through security checkpoints, but warned that cats (and other pets) must be removed from their carrier while the carrier goes on the X-ray belt for screening.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

TSA also produces occasional quirky-but-entertaining and educational “They brought what? videos.

Souvenir Sunday: socks at the airport

Every Sunday here at StuckatTheAirport.com, is Souvenir Sunday. The day we look at some of fun, local and inexpensive items you can pick up when you’re hanging around an airport.

But here’s something cheap – free, actually – you can pick at just about any airport that you’d be better off leaving behind: germs.

(MRSA Photo Credit: Janice Haney, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

In working on another topic for next week’s At the Airport column on USATODAY.com, I’ve been e-chatting with a podiatrist who has important advice for anyone heading to the airport wearing flip-flops or sandals: put on socks!

“When the TSA has every single person remove their shoes and stand barefoot in the same place where hundreds of prior people have, you create a scenario where infection has the potential to spread,” warns Dr. Nirenberg. “Persons with fungus, warts or bacterial infections are still told to remove footwear and these could be spread to people who have breaks or fissures in the skin of their feet.”

Ick!

Sure, you want to get through the security line quickly. But when you’re dressing to go to the airport wear put on some socks. If you forget and find yourself standing barefoot on that mat with the white foot outlines on it, your next stop should probably be an airport shop where you can buy yourself an inexpensive pair of souvenir socks.

Zombies happen. Pack a travel emergency ‘go kit.’

Tsunami Museum

From the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Hawaii

If you happened to be on the road – in a hotel, a convention center or, of course, in an airport – when some sort of disaster strikes, would you know what to do? And would you have the right tools and supplies with you so that you could do what you needed to do?

I wasn’t confident I would.

But after talking with experts and savvy travelers about the ideal contents of an emergency ‘go kit’ for this story on msnbc.com – Disasters prompt world travelers to be prepared – I’m feeling more confident about dealing with everything from tsunamis to zombies when I’m on the road.

Here’s the story:

When an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile at around 3:30 a.m. in February 2010, Seattle-based wine importer Ryan Sytsma was asleep in a Sheraton hotel somewhere between the airport and downtown Santiago.

Once he realized it wasn’t a train shaking the room, Sytsma jumped out of bed and stood in the bathroom doorway.

“It kept getting worse,” he said. “Soon the electrical outlets started throwing sparks, anything unsecured was falling over and smoke filled the room. I could only see flashes of light, hear explosions like bombs and smell smoke that was a mix of drywall dust, burning plastic and melting rubber.”

Sytsma survived the three-minute temblor unscathed and raced out of his hotel room with his passport, cash, shoes and his small suitcase, which was already packed and near the door.

Those items, and the extra shirts and dozen Power Bars packed in the suitcase, helped ease the post-earthquake experience a bit for Sytsma and the people he ended up with. And now Sytsma makes sure to pack for every trip with disaster preparedness in mind.

Good idea, say the experts. A well-stocked emergency “go kit” can arm a traveler with tools that may help keep a bad travel situation from turning into a full-blown disaster.

“Given the recent events in Japan, Egypt and other places that appeared as low to insignificant on the risk map last year, a lot of people are rethinking their preparedness,” said Alex Puig, regional security director for International SOS, a global medical and security assistance company. “We’re not asking people to go above and beyond what common sense dictates. But anything can happen, and preparation is the most important thing you can do.”

Be prepared
Snow, rain or even a computer glitch, as Alaska/Horizon passengers learned this past weekend, may delay your plane for hours or days. You may get stung by a jellyfish, mugged by thug or knocked unconscious by a falling coconut. Then there are earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, pandemics or political upheaval to deal with.

Of course, many travelers will never experience an emergency while on the road. And danger can also find you close to home.

But for those who want to be prepared, what should go in an emergency kit?

“A good police whistle, two glow sticks, a small roll of wide adhesive tape to prevent hotel doors from closing, and $100 in local currency in small denominations,” said Noel Koch, senior director of travel intelligence for the travel risk management company NC4.

Koch considers a smartphone, with a reliable service provider, essential as well. “In the case of Japan, a smartphone would have given the traveler the ability to get information on how to book a flight out of Tokyo,” he said. “In the case of Egypt, travelers could have gotten information via Twitter to find out what was happening with the protests.”

Medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter, belong in your kit as well. “Take enough for your trip and an extra supply in case you get delayed or stuck someplace for a certain length of time,” said Myles Druckman, vice-president of medical services for International SOS. “You can’t assume you’ll be able to find the same medications you have at home. And some over-the-counter medicines may be prepared or branded differently than you’re used to at home.”

Puig adds that you go should always have items that allow you to travel and communicate. That includes a copy of your passport (with another copy saved in e-mail or another electronically accessible way), a cell phone you know will work in any country you’re visiting and a calling card to use if your cell phone dies or is stolen. “None of that really requires a lot of extra effort,” he said.

Make room for these items
Beyond the basics, you may want to add some of these items to your “go kit.”

Beth Whitman, founder of Wanderlust and Lipstick, used to carry a water purifier only on her international trips. “Now I won’t leave home without it even to a destination with drinkable tap water because I realize it would be perfect if water supplies were compromised,” said Whitman.

When she travels to West Africa, nature writer Susan McGrath takes a folding mosquito tent and beeswax earplugs in case she finds herself in a village with a community loudspeaker that plays bad pop music 24/7. She also always takes along a headlamp. “I did get stranded in Nigeria during a countrywide shut down and lived briefly in the Lagos Hilton on my emergency kit,” said McGrath. “And when the power went off in the very crowded airport at 11 p.m., I was pretty well equipped not to panic.”

When WanderingEducators.com publisher Jessica Voights travels with her wheelchair, her “go kit” includes the phone number and address of a mobility organization or store that can help in case of an emergency and/or equipment failure, extra batteries, adapters and converters for medical devices, extra copies of prescriptions “and letters from doctors explaining my medical conditions and equipment needs.”

And Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor of WeJustGotBack.com, keeps a few quart- and gallon-size Ziploc bags in her “go kit” as well as “phone numbers and policy numbers for my car and health insurance, customer service numbers for credit cards and contact numbers for my family’s doctors and pediatrician.”

Pre-packed kits and emergency quarters
At minimus.biz, which sells a wide variety of travel and trial-size items, miniature rolls of duct tape, individual packets of water purifier and glow sticks are listed under the “Survival” tab. Pre-packaged “personal care” kits filled with three days’ worth of water, food and other basics supplies are there, too. Company co-founder Paul Shrater said that since the Japanese disaster, he’s gotten a lot of inquiries from companies and agencies seeking to stock up on those emergency kits but few calls from vacationers seeking to create their own travel-versions of the kits.

“If you really stock it correctly and think of all the things you really need, you start getting up there in terms of weight and size,” said Shrater.

That’s why Puig of International SOS urges worried travelers to sit down and make a plan. “Do an analysis of who you are, how you travel and what the risks are in the country you’ll be traveling to,” Puig said. “Ask yourself how well prepared you’d be if you were in Cairo when the demonstrations broke out or in Japan after the earthquake. What are the things you’d need to have to be prepared?”

Mitch Ahern of technology consulting firm Cantina is prepared. He carries a roll of quarters in his travel emergency kit for late nights at airports or trade show set-ups when dinner may come from a vending machine. Ahern said the quarters have a dual purpose. “I have it on excellent authority that a roll of quarters in a sock makes an excellent zombie-stopper when applied with force to the head!”