Carry-On Bag Guide: What’s Allowed, What’s Not

Do you travel with only carry-on luggage? If you do, I congratulate you. I’m not there yet, but I’m heading in that direction. That means learning about the pitfalls of packing lessor-known forbidden items in my carry-on bag.

The images of TSA-confiscated carry-on items normally look something like this:

These obvious weapons aren't the only thing that might be snagged from your carry-on bag

These obvious weapons aren’t the only thing that might be snagged from your carry-on bag. Image by Transportation Security Administration.

But there is a much longer list of far more benign substances that could cause a snag at a security checkpoint. I recently ran into a problem with this:

Hummus is not allowed through airport security checkpoints in the United States.

Hummus is not allowed through airport security checkpoints in the United States. Image by Thompson200 | Wikimedia Commons

I’ve wanted to make sure I understand what NOT to pack in my carry-on bag.

I’ve learned that these items, if we must to bring them, either need to be left home or in checked luggage.

Meat, fruit, vegetables, and other agricultural products

When traveling internationally, most countries prohibit the carriage of meats, fruit, vegetables, plants, and other agricultural products. If you want to bring an apple as a snack, just make sure you eat it on the plane. Otherwise it will be confiscated on arrival, and you could find yourself facing an angry border agent.

This happened to a friend and I when we landed in Honolulu from French Polynesia. As we waited for our bags to arrive my friend started eating an apple that he got on the plane. We were flagged and and were on the receving end of a talking-to, as well as a warning. Not a fun experience.

Certain countries, like Australia and New Zealand, are even more strict and won’t allow things like wooden souvenirs you may have picked up somewhere else.

Liquids over 3.4 ounces or 100ml

Though the liquids restriction is almost universal, its enforcement sure can vary. I suggest you stick to this rule: all liquids must be in containers of no more than 3.4 ounces or 100ml, and all containers must fit in a clear, one quart sized zip-top plastic bag.

You can still travel carry-on only with liquids. If you’re economical, this amount can last a while. If you stay in hotels, many of these items are available to you. I always like to try local sundries so I travel really lightly when it comes to packing liquids.

You can buy travel sized containers and fill them with shampoo, shower gel, and any other products you want to bring on your trip. These days everything seems to come in travel sizes!

There are special rules for medications, but these vary by country. Check with the country you will be flying out of for their rules, but in most cases you will need to let the screening agents know that you have liquid medication in addition to the one quart bag you are allowed.

Items passengers often forget about which are considered liquids: peanut butter, mascara, and aerosols. I had a container of Trader Joes hummus taken away from me as a liquid item, and this happened to my maple syrup as well.

Sharp Objects

This restriction might seem obvious but sharp objects, as a class, are prohibited in carry-on luggage. If you must bring a knife, box cutter or sword on your trip, it must be packed in your checked luggage. Scissors that are less than 4 inches long, like nail scissors, are generally allowed by TSA, but since the final decision as to what constitutes a “sharp object” rests with the specific agents, TSA may confiscate it.

Rules in other countries can be different from those in the US, so check those out before you fly from somewhere else outside the US. I once had a small swiss army knife taken from me. It was my favorite and I never made that error in judgment again!

Straight razors are also not allowed in your carry-on luggage. However, you can take a razor through security if it’s a safety razor. That means the actual blade is inside a cartridge attached to a handle, the kind most commonly used for shaving these days.

Sports Equipment

Baseball bats, ski poles, pool cues, bows and arrows, hockey sticks, golf clubs, and pretty much any other sporting equipment containing the words stick, pole, bat or club cannot be brought on the plane as carry-on.

If playing sports is part of your travels, consider renting equipment at your destination. If you’re quite attached to using your own sports equipment, you’ll probably need to check it.

A strange exception, the TSA website states that it’s ok to bring ice skates in a carry-on.

Guns

Obviously a gun is a weapon, and they don’t want you bringing it on an airplane in your carry-on bag. Most guns are permitted in checked luggage as long as they are empty, and they must be in a locked, hard-sided container.

Check with your airline about other restrictions and/or fees they might have. Some items, such as flares and gun powder, are not even permitted in checked luggage.

Before you travel, research the gun laws in the state or country you’re going to. Different US states have different laws, and many other countries heavily restrict or prohibit personal gun use and ownership.

Self-defense Items

Self-defense items, like pepper spray or mace, are not allowed in carry-on luggage. These could be considered a weapon by TSA, so leave them at home. If you really want to bring it along for your trip, the TSA website says you are allowed to have one 4 ounce container of mace or pepper spray in your checked luggage “provided it is equipped with a safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge.” Always check with your airline since they often have stricter restrictions.

Tools

Most, but not all, workbench tools are prohibited in carry-on luggage. If you’re planning on bringing your tools with you, put them in checked luggage. You might not want think of a hammer or drill bits as weapons, but TSA will differ.

Flammable Items

Leave all flammable chemicals and items at home. If you feel you must have fireworks, bleach, or paint thinner at your destination, buy them when you arrive. These and other flammable and explosive items are prohibited in both carry-on and checked luggage. Lots of camping gear, like camping stoves, is considered flammable as well.

What About Lighters and Matches

TSA does allow one book of safety matches in your carry-on, but matches are not allowed in your checked luggage. You can bring a lighter on a plane in your carry-on, though usually only one is allowed, and lighters can only be checked if they have no fuel in them.

What is allowed but not recommended in your carry-on bag?

These of course are some of my pet peeves and own personal preferences, informed by a myriad of off-putting in-flight experiences. You might have some to add to this list.

Smelly Food

This is different for everyone, but here’s my take. Yes, airline food is bad — we all know that — and it may not even be offered. On occasion we all need to bring our own food.

Please be respectful of other travelers and leave the smelly foods at home. When buying food at the airport, please consider your fellow travelers, as well. I’ve seen some strange food choices for airplane meals.

But in general, can you bring food on a plane? Yes, normally it is allowed, but some airlines might be more strict than others. Also remember that any food that can be considered a liquid or paste is not allowed through the security checkpoint if it is more than 3.4 ounces (100ml). Hence my confiscated hummus :(

Nail Polish

Nail polish belongs in your liquids bag, and please leave it there, it stinks. Please don’t use nail polish during your flight. I could have included this in the smell category but I see so many women using nail polish I have to make this a special request.

Adult Reading Materials

Trust me, neither I nor any seat mates you’ve ever had on a plane like this. We do not want to look over and see you reading an adult magazine or watching adult movies on your laptop. Save it for the privacy of your own home.

Perfume

Let’s face it, perfume can be pleasant or perfume can be unpleasant and bother many people. Some people have allergies. Wait until you reach your destination to spray on the perfume. Then your seatmates can breathe better during the flight.

Guidebooks

This is not a pet peeve but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Sure, books are allowed in a carry-on but do I really need to bring them if I’m traveling with carry-on luggage only? Guidebooks can be really helpful, but chances are you don’t need the whole book. I’ve seen people rip out the pages they’ll need and photocopy them. I’ve also noticed that people take pictures with their phones of the pages they need. Better yet, you can buy digital copies for your Kindle or other e-reader.

Bottom Line

Remember that this list of what not to pack in your carry-on bag is just for starters. Regulations change often, so please check the TSA (or other countries) and the airline websites before you fly. Despite the long list above, it’s still pretty easy to travel carry-on only. After every trip I take I always make a list of what I didn’t need and didn’t use. It helps me understand what I REALLY need to take along when I travel. Then I can just focus on enjoying the trip!

Still not sure if an item is allowed in your carry-on? For US travel, check the TSA website to find out what you can bring.

4 thoughts on “Carry-On Bag Guide: What’s Allowed, What’s Not

  1. Liz

    LOL, people paint their nails on a plane? That I have yet to see.

    I was sure TSA was going to take away some cupcakes I bought in NYC a few years ago, on my way home to Detroit, but they did not :).

    Reply
    1. Shelli Post author

      That’s a good one, Liz. Voodoo cupcakes in Portland, Oregon is a local and tourist favorite. I’ve seen many people on planes with those donuts. Hope you never see nail polishing on a plane!

      Reply
  2. Tonei Glavinic

    Not-so-fun fact: some foreign airports don’t prevent you from taking liquids through security, which means your bags get searched for liquids at the gate if you’re on a flight bound for the US. (I’ve experienced this in Hong Kong and Lima, Peru). This of course means you can’t take any water or other beverages with you on board and are at the mercy of the airline for hydration.

    Reply

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