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8 Items a TSA Agent Never Packs in a Carry-on

by Staff

Before he accidentally became a travel influencer, Caleb Harmon-Marshall commuted to his “office”— the world’s busiest airport. Each day the former TSA agent and his colleagues were tasked with screening up to 102,000 passengers departing from Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Harmon-Marshall recently told Travel + Leisure he saw a lot of strange things (including someone who tried to smuggle drugs in live fish) during his screening career. Still, he has no regrets. “Working at the busiest airport for as long as I did equipped me with so much knowledge and stories I’ll be able to share for years to come.”

Today, Harmon-Marshall doles out travel tips via his Gate Access newsletter. His biggest hack for going through security faster? Pay attention to what the people in front of you are doing and take your AirPods out. “Passengers frequently get upset because the rules seem different at each airport,” explained Harmon-Marshall. “Well, I can confirm that all TSA checkpoints follow the same exact standard operating procedures. However, they may be implementing a different screening procedure at any given time. The key here is to listen to what the officers are saying instead of going off of habit.”

Of course, he also recommends packing the right products, especially if you want to minimize your chances of holding up the line, or worse, having your bag searched and items seized. “I worked in Atlanta, where the Coca-Cola Museum is, so many people came in with bottles from the museum, which were confiscated,” recalled Harmon-Marshall, who says snow globes are another souvenir no-no. But for almost every item he doesn’t recommend trying to sneak in your carry-on, he has one that will pass with flying colors. From disposable booties that will keep your feet clean as you pass through the metal detector to contact solution that won’t be considered an explosive device, here are eight TSA-approved essentials, starting at just $4, he recommends packing instead for your next trip. 

Loose Jewelry

Pack This Instead: Plush Velvet Travel Jewelry Organizer


Harmon-Marshall loves a little bling, but when it comes to the X-ray machine, he says jewelry is “annoying.” Because the X-ray machine can’t see through it, if it’s in a bag with other contents, there’s a good chance it will have to be physically searched. For that reason, he recommends keeping your jewelry in a bag or container you can easily take out of your carry-on and place in the bin to be screened separately. 

This particular organizer (which has more than 10,000 five-star ratings) boasts removable dividers, a built-in mirror, and a secret compartment. It was one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2022, and one satisfied shopper wrote, “The velvet is a beautiful deep green, the zipper is sturdy, and overall the box feels of quality. I recently took it on vacation and it was the perfect size to pack away neatly. Probably one of my favorite things I’ve bought on Amazon.” 

Contact Lens Solution With Hydrogen Peroxide

Pack This Instead: Peroxide-free Saline


Harmon-Marshall doesn’t mince words: “I’ve thrown out gallons of contact solution.” That’s because contact solution that contains hydrogen peroxide — an ingredient found in many explosives — isn’t allowed on planes. “Usually these bottles have a red top on them,” he explained. Instead, buy travel-friendly stuff like Biotrue. It comes in a TSA-approved 2-ounce bottle and has nearly 50,000 five-star ratings. 

“Comfort on the go” is the title of one review left by a traveler who says they have sensitive eyes. Note: if you need to travel with more than 3.4 ounces in your carry-on, you totally can. TSA classifies contact solution as “medically necessary.” However, you do have to declare it to a security officer for inspection.

A Laptop in Your Carry-on

Pack This Instead: Timbuk2 Co-Pilot Luggage Roller Suitcase


Unless you have TSA pre-check or CLEAR, you’ll have to take your laptop out of its bag for screening. For this reason, Harmon-Marshall recommends luggage that has a built-in laptop slot. “I can easily slip it out and put it in a separate bin,” he said. “And it creates an easier repacking experience.” 

This Timbuk2 carry-on features a padded 13-inch laptop sleeve in the front, so it’s easy to access your computer or tablet. “Indestructible, simple, and efficient,” is the title of a review left by a shopper who recommends it for weekend warriors who don’t mind getting lots of compliments from fellow passengers. 

Unmarked Liquids

Pack This Instead: Morfone 16-Pack Travel Bottles Set for Toiletries


“I would never pack liquids in bottles that don’t display the ounces,” said Harmon-Marshall. TSA can’t just eyeball a container or assume it falls under the 3.4-ounce allowable threshold. And you can’t bring an 8-ounce container in your carry-on even if it’s 90 percent empty. According to the TSA website, “Officers only consider the bottle size, not the actual substance inside.” 

If you’re going to put your toiletry liquids in smaller bottles (after all, buying travel-sized can get expensive and isn’t eco-friendly) opt for this set which won the “best size range” category in Travel + Leisure’s roundup of the 7 Best Toiletry Bottle Sets of 2024. All 16 bottles are clearly labeled with how much they hold. “Compact, leak-proof, and easy to fill,” wrote one shopper who appreciates that they’re made of a silicone material which allows them to “squeeze out every last drop.” 

Full-size Pillows

Pack This Instead: EverSnug Travel Blanket and Pillow 


While some travelers are packing full-size pillows, a travel hack trending on TikTok, it’s not recommended because some airlines might not consider it a personal item. They’ll either charge you for an additional carry-on, or worse, make you pay to check it. Fortunately, this EverSnug Travel Blanket Pillow that flight attendants are obsessed with always counts as a personal item. It’s super soft and doubles as a travel blanket, too. Plus, it’s convenient to carry. 

“It easily attaches onto your carry-on,” said Harmon-Marshall who travels with it and loves the fact he can stash a few “extra goodies” in the carrying case if he runs out of room in his bag. With more than 5,000 five-star ratings, it’s one of Amazon’s best-selling travel products. “Can not recommend enough,” summed up one traveler who says it made her 27-hour trip to Spain, on planes and trains, a lot more comfortable. 

Oversized Luggage

Pack This Instead: Dagne Dover Lagos Convertible Duffle

Dagne Dover

In the bag department, Harmon-Marshall is most enthusiastic about Dagne Dover, a women-owned company with a cult-like following that includes several celebs. “They are fantastic,” he proclaimed. One of the brand’s best-sellers is the Lagos Convertible Duffle, which was recently deemed the “best convertible bag” on Travel + Leisure’s list of The 19 Best Weekender Bags of 2024

This bag comes in two sizes, medium and large, and both fit in the overhead bin. Justify the higher price tag by reminding yourself that essentially you’re getting two bags — a duffle and a backpack — for the price of one. “The organization on the inside makes it easy to find everything, and it slides over my suitcase for easy carrying,” wrote one reviewer who admits to being really picky when it comes to bags. 

Shoes Without Socks

Pack This Instead: Hitituto Disposable Shoe Covers 50-pairs


If you don’t have TSA Precheck or CLEAR, or you’re traveling abroad, you’ll probably have to take off your shoes while going through security. Because Harmon-Marshall hates having his feet touch the well-trafficked airport floor, he is a big fan of these disposable shoe covers that you’re allowed to wear while walking through the metal detector. About $.16 per pair, they’re super affordable, and they’re so popular that more than 8,000 were sold last month. “Felt much better not standing on a dirty airport floor in my socks,” wrote one shopper who bought them specifically for going through TSA. 


Pack This Instead: Touchland Power Mist Hydrating Hand Sanitizer Spray 3-pack


To keep his hands germ-free, Harmon-Marshall always packs this TSA-approved hydrating sanitizing spray. He told Travel + Leisure that he likes it because it’s easy to carry, it comes in different scents (so you don’t have to reek of ethanol), and thanks to the addition of aloe vera, it’s hydrating. Plus, it comes in a slim Tic Tac-sized colored container that’s a lot more stylish than your classic clear bottle of Purell. At $10 each, it’s not the cheapest hand sanitizer on the market, but you do get 500 sprays out of each, and the price tag hasn’t deterred other travelers from stocking up. Touchland Power Mist has an impressive 4.8-star average rating from more than 5,000 ratings. One rave review reads, “These little wonders have transformed the mundane act of hand sanitizing into a delightful ritual.”

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