TSA's Best Tips For Making Your Winter Holiday Travel Go Smoothly

Traveling for the holidays? Great! So are an estimated 50% of Americans, according to Deloitte's 2023 holiday survey. It's no secret that the holiday season — running from Thanksgiving to the beginning of January — tends to be one of the busiest times in terms of travel congestion and consumer spending. And unfortunately, airports and their staff usually take the brunt of it.

Luckily, there are several ways you can make this holiday season of travel a little easier on yourself and the TSA — all it takes is a touch of extra planning when it comes to packing for your trip. From knowing what to bring, how to pack it, and what to leave behind to buy at your destination instead, strategic packing can make a difference between a smooth security checkpoint experience and a stressful one.

Most importantly, though, remember: The TSA deserves a break, too — they're working while you're gearing up for a weeklong extravaganza of turkey, gifts, and pie. So why not be the one to spread a little holiday cheer by not making things any harder than they need to be?

Tips for gift-givers

TSA rules don't change just because it's the holidays. That said, there are a few things that do feel a little different if you're traveling near the end of the year. First up, there's the gifts. Keep in mind that liquids and items like colognes, perfumes, and body lotions must all adhere to TSA's existing guidelines and can't exceed the 3.4-ounce limit if they're hitching a ride in your carry-on.

As an added notice, TSA also suggests that you hold off on wrapping anything until you're at your destination, or that you use resealable gift bags instead. Certain items like larger electronics might need additional security screenings, which means that all your hard work — and season-themed wrapping paper — could just end up in an airport trashcan.

Lastly, make sure that high-value gifts — like jewelry, new phones or laptops, or sentimental items — are all safely packed inside your carry-on so that you can keep these near you at all times. Keeping your checked luggage safe and out harm's way is mostly up to chance, and looted bags aren't uncommon. In fact, the TSA received more than 200,000 claims of mishandled luggage — which includes damaged, pilfered, or misplaced bags — from just January to May in 2022.

Can you bring food?

Then, there's the food. Unless you're a Grinch, you probably won't want to arrive at a family member's home empty-handed — which means packing some stuffing, cookies, or other holiday-themed grub in your bag. However, it's important to know what foods can and can't pass through security. According to the TSA, any spreadable or liquid food items — think cranberry sauce, gravy, wine, and jams — that you plan to take with you (or want bring back as leftovers) must abide by the typical 3-1-1 liquids rule: 3.4-ounce limit per item, stored inside a quart-sized Ziploc bag. If anything you're planning to bring isn't compliant, you're better off packing it in your checked luggage.

As for solid food items like turkey and other meats, pies, bread, and vegetables, TSA insists that you can carry these through security with no issue, although they might be subject to additional screening.

Last but not least, most holiday decorations like twinkle lights, mistletoe, fragile tree ornaments, dreidels, a kinara and its seven candles, and other small decorations are allowed in both your carry-on and your checked luggage, so it's ultimately up to you where to pack them. And if you're still unsure of what's allowed and what isn't, the TSA's handy "What Can I Bring?" section on their website highlights pretty much everything you can think of and whether or not it's carry-on friendly.