Some will tell you that common sense is now so uncommon that it is rare sense. Nowhere does this seem more true than in airport security checkpoints.
It’s no secret, okay? There’s an international crackdown at security, and they’re actually serious about it. There should be no surprise that liquids can’t come through the scanners. It’s been nearly 15 years since you could take nail files or clippers on a flight. Just because someone think it’s ludicrous doesn’t make it less a reality.
In my first year of travelling, I’ve topped over 45,000 kilometres of planes, trains, and automobiles. That number includes:
- 29 flights
- 3 buses
- 4 trains
- 8 countries
In that time, I’ve had more than three questions from ONE customs officer, and that was on day one of international travels, October 5th, 2015, at Heathrow Airport in the UK. I had my business card, my friend’s address, my itinerary for my AirBNB stay, and my flight receipts in a special Gmail folder for easy reference. Obviously I knew all the answers and I was prepared, so I was relaxed, and it essentially turned into a really fun conversation where my blog got one more reader.
If you’re travelling without known itineraries or destinations, or you can’t produce evidence of upcoming stays, you can be prepared for any border conversation to go sideways, and fast.
Airport Security: Get Over Yourself
Airport security is a necessary hassle. I loathe it when people bitch about it. I’m about to board a flying chunk of metal that’s carrying 100 or more people I don’t know, over thousands of kilometres. I like airport security. It’s saving my life, and everyone else on that plane.
Anyone who thinks airport security is overblown is simply not watching the news. Terrorism isn’t country against country. It’s not a huge percentage of the population that’s a problem. But that one guy with that ax to grind who rages against democracy and the Western world, he’s the guy we’re going through the motions for. Out of the literally THOUSANDS of flights on September 11, 2001, only THREE were the problem, yet it changed our world forever.
Any given airport sees potentially tens of thousands of passengers through security a day. They don’t have the luxury of the benefit of the doubt, since it’s likely 0.0001% of those passengers who could pose a problem, if not less.
It’s Not Just About You
Yeah, okay, you’re inconvenienced at airport checkpoints. And I’m not? He’s not? She’s not? We’re all inconvenienced. What makes you or any other passenger special?
It’s not like it’s a surprise that you have to face this. You had a checklist for everything you would be packing for your trip. You got your passport, arranged for transport to the airport, looked into all kinds of things. But you neglected to remember that security is a hassle?
Uh, okay, then. Enjoy your disruption. And thanks for disrupting my flight day too.
But what about the guy behind you who got stuck behind a car accident and is in a rush to make final boarding call at his gate? What about the woman fresh off chemotherapy who’s so tired she’s about to fall down? How about the old fella with a blown hip who’s too stubborn to get a wheelchair but can’t handle the longer lines? Your disorganization is making them pay too.
Every person who comes through airport security failing to follow protocol is another delay and hassle for all the other passengers trying to get through to their flights.
The least we can do is respect that following the rules means everyone gets through faster and more painfree.
My System for Speedy Transit
I’ve been on 29 flights in 11 months. Know how many times I’ve been “wanded”? Zero. Know how many times my bag has been sent back through the scanner and/or searched? Once.
What’s my secret?
I carry zero liquids in my carry-on luggage. The TSA carry-on checklist is something I know in my head because most countries follow that list.
Every time I transit through security, I have a messenger bag and a jam-packed 30L backpack. I always have my passport and boarding pass stored in the same messenger bag pocket on every trip. Routine is your best friend in matters like these. So I use routine for the scanners too.
In my backpack I carry all my electronics. I don’t pack anything of value in my luggage for checking in, not ever. So I never lock my luggage either, and nothing has ever been stolen. Funny how that works.
As for my backpack’s electronics, well, one look at my cable containment system and it might seem like a bombmaker’s toolkit. But it’s just a nerd’s electronic-connection collection. I’ve got all my USB cables and a hard drive, card readers, and things like that. Backup phone battery, and more. Besides that, a couple books, a wallet, camera, computer, so on.
When I go through the scanner, I immediately put my phone, my computer, and my cable-carrying zipped pack into a computer-related bin for separate scanning. Why the cable bag? The hard drive in there is why my bag got searched once, so now I just stick that in the bin and unzip it for guards to look at, if they want, and they never do.
My coat and messenger bag (unzipped) go in a second bin, and my third bin has my backpack in it, lying face-up and unzipped.
As for me, I wear no belts with metal buckles (or if I do, I take it off while in line-up). I wear sneakers or sandals, shoes with no metal other than the lace eyelets. I have no change in my pockets, no heavy pendants, and nothing else to trip the security.
It’s worth noting that security guards have no sense of humor. Don’t joke around. Don’t small-talk or ask about flight delays. Don’t play charades or do the “Running Man” thing in slo-mo when going through the bodyscanner, like I did once. That went over baaaadly. Don’t use words like “bomb” or “explosive” or anything else in their presence, even if it’s just a pun or a slip-up.
We tend to bitch about airport security, that they’re on a power trip. But we forget that, somewhere, there are guys who had the chance to stop some dudes who eventually killed thousands of people on a September day 15 years ago.
Guards can’t be distracted. If you have some pathological need to make small talk with everyone you meet, put a cork in that at security. Guards aren’t just watching you as you come through, they’re also trying to watch the crowd who are waiting. They’re seeing who’s fidgeting, nervous, or shifty-eyed. That’s part of their job too, and your bullshit small-talk just seems like a distraction effort, so don’t do it.
What we see looks mundane with airport security. But they have it drilled into them during training that they’re the last checkpoint between us and a senseless act of terror that can kill thousands. They have that repeated to them in every staff meeting and beyond. And guess what? It’s true.
Be Organized, Respectful, and Fast
Here’s a handy checklist to print out and read before you fly.
- Keep your passport or ID out and ready to show, along with your boarding pass. Keep the boarding pass in the passport on the page where your photo is, so it’s quicker to open. Note that tears or even a fold on your passport could be sufficient reason to prevent you from boarding, so keep your passport protected, flat, and clean, both on travel days and in between travels.
- Know exactly what is where in your bag. Pack mindfully so you can easily break it down when you’re going through security. If you have memory issues, simply take photos of how you pack your carry-on so you can review it while you’re in line, if you need to do so.
- Have no liquids in your carry on, or at least put them all in one clear Ziploc bag so it’s easy to just grab them at once and produce them for inspection.
- Take all electronics with hard drives out of your bag at once and store in a computer bin for separate inspection, including your cellphone.
- Don’t wear a belt, or at least take it off before reaching the checkpoint.
- If travelling through the USA, wear slip-off shoes and get them in a bin for scanning.
- Unzip or open all bags and put them through the scanner face-up.
- Keep all loose change in your wallet. If you can’t, then put any loose change in a bin for the scanner.
- Don’t joke around or try to make small talk with the guards, because they are never chatty.
- Finally, if you want to avoid long security lines, arrive a little earlier for your flight. 2.5 hours before lift-off generally sees me through security in under 15 minutes.
Remember, this isn’t about you. You’re not the only person being inconvenienced. The faster you get through, the faster everyone gets through. If you want everyone ahead of you to be this organized so your experience is painless, then have the decency to do the same for everyone coming after you.
Do all this and I’ll be surprised if you ever get searched or harassed. 27 of my flights have taken place after terrorists shot up Paris and killed over 150 people, so my methods work in heightened security, even on Air France flights in Paris!
Any time you’re getting irate and impatient, just take a deep breath and remember that this really is for all of our benefit. If this is the price I pay to not be hijacked, then yeah, I have some time to spare for security.
Postscript: I’m not planning to travel in the United States during my five years as a nomad, for several reasons. Ridiculousness in security is one of those reasons. Guns and the fact that it’s statistically among the least-safest countries in the world is another. But mostly it’s because I’m Canadian and it’s too easy to travel in the States. It’s like going to play next door. But American security is tougher than nearly any other country’s and I’m glad it’s not the standard I usually face.
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In some countries you really do have to be there 3- 4 hours early. In South America it’s really common. If you arrive with two hours to go you’ll often notice this huge line snaking through the airport and wondering what it is – chances are it’s your line for your flight!
The only countries (out of 35) that have ever asked me any questions are the United States, UK and New Zealand. For the most part nobody else really asked me anything and just proceeded to stamp my passport.
I’ll remember to consult you on iffy countries as to whether I should be arriving then, travel bud. Hah. 🙂
Eek. Yeah, I feel a lot better arriving early rather than pushing my luck. I had one flight in Mexico where arriving 2 hours early did have me worried with the check-in counter, let alone security!
That is a MUST READ!
All solid advice, however, if you have an especially unusual name, or aren’t white, you’ll often get searched regardless of how closely you’ve followed the rules.
True! And sadly more true than ever. So frustrating to watch/witness, let alone live through.
Well I just did three separate trips and have been randomly selected for extra screening EVERY TIME and came online to try to figure out why. I did everything you do except unzipping my one carry-on and was still searched every time. I’ve travelled a lot and this year was the first time I was ever selected. I’m Caucasian and was even travelling with my dog. Not fun having someone hold your dog while getting a pat down. So I don’t think your tips will work for everyone. Leaving tomorrow on another flight. If I’m selected again I’m going to start to wonder if I somehow have been put on some kind of list.