The 4 Major Dos and Don'ts Around the TSA Rules for Packing Gifts

Updated 10/24/18
Stacie Flinner—TSA Rules for Packing Gifts
@stacieflinner

When it comes to managing the stress of the holidays, it seems like preparation is always key. That's why some people pull out their decorations the day after Halloween or start to stock away presents as early as Labor Day. Since the season always goes by much faster than we anticipate—and there's always much more to do than seems physically possible—even the smallest actions to get ahead can help.

But that's not necessarily true for wrapping presents before air travel. If you're braving the airport this season, and you have gifts in your luggage, it's probably best to procrastinate on wrapping them until after you arrive. Why? Because even if your wrapped present is as innocent as a scarf, the TSA can unwrap it if the box is flagged for a screening, and no one wants to stand in line for that.

Instead of creating a frustrated scene at the airport that would make the Grinch blush, here's everything you need to know about the TSA's rules for packing gifts. Consider this to be your lesson in prep, so that you can avoid any problems en route to your destination. 

Do: Mail your gifts ahead of time. Don't: Run the risk of wrapping gifts ahead of time

While the TSA doesn't object to wrapped gifts in carry-on luggage, it does reserve the right to check any object that has been flagged for security. So if you managed to perfectly wrap a present, but then it gets flagged, an agent can ruin all of your work.

Instead of running this risk, it's best to mail items ahead of time and instruct the receiver not to open them until you arrive. This solution not only cuts down on the amount of luggage you're packing, but also ensures that nothing breaks as you're on the go.

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Do: Buy booze in a duty-free or local liquor store. Don't: Wrap liquor in your luggage

If you're planning on checking a bag, the TSA allows passengers to pack liquids, including liquor, as long as they're easy to identify. This means that some passengers will bubble wrap their uncle's favorite whiskey ahead of a trip. But since TSA still reserves the right to double-check that liquor, and will unwrap that protection to do so, travelers aren't guaranteed that the bottle will be rewrapped with care. It isn't uncommon for people to discover that their packed items are covered with spilled alcohol upon arrival.

Don't spend the first few hours of your visit doing laundry in a bad mood. Pack a wine bag or a bottle stopper to go with your gift, and then buy your liquor in a duty-free shop after security. You could also go on a liquor run after you arrive—chances are you'll be able to find what you're looking for, or something better.

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Do: Bake or cook when you arrive. Don't: Pack food, even if it's within prescribed limits

If you can believe it, some travelers have packed pies and spreads into their bags before takeoff. While we appreciate that level of preparedness—and TSA doesn't prohibit this—there are rules. If the spread is more than the allotted 3.4 ounces rule for carry-ons, then it must be checked. And as a checked item, along with other baked goods, additional screenings may apply.

It's understandable that you wouldn't want to feel as though you're imposing too much on a host's space, but cooking and baking shouldn't apply. If you're known for a decadent pie or a beloved cake, call ahead and make sure you can use the kitchen. It likely won't be an issue, and there will likely be a nearby grocery store that you can stock up at.

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Do: Download the My TSA app. Don't: Assume that something is allowed

The TSA's list of allowed and prohibited items is long and complicated. For instance, you can pack bocce balls in your carry on, if you so desire, but you're not allowed to zip up bowling pins in that same bag. Don't put yourself in a position where you either need to unexpectedly check an item or leave it behind—it's not a fun way to start a trip.

Before you start packing, download the My TSA app and search for items that you're unsure about. That way, anything that's questionable can be addressed before you're going through security. Bottom line: You want to get through TSA checkpoints as painlessly as possible, and with all of your items intact.

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