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.