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Rules for Carry-On Luggage

What Liquids Can You Bring on the Airplane?

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Rules for Carry-On Luggage

"Baby formula and milk are allowed in quantities greater than three ounces, and don't need to be packed in the zip-top bag."

Arthur Tilley/Stockbyte/Getty Images
Note: if a threatening incident occurs, airport security procedures may change immediately. Check the TSA website for latest updates, and also check the website of your departure airport.

For several years, travelers have been strictly limited in the liquids they can bring on an airplane with them, but there are exceptions for formula, baby food, and medications; see below for details.

No Liquids, Etc. (-- and That's a Big "Et Cetera")

In a nutshell, no liquids (gels, creams, or even jams, honey, or salsa) can be brought through the security gate. If you're carrying a water bottle, you'll have to throw away your water.* You can take toiletry items, but only in 3-oz. sizes, all packed in one clear quart-sized Zip-lock bag. For details, and important exceptions, read more below.

What Can I Bring on the Plane?

The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) has a "3-1-1" motto to help you remember what you can bring in your carry-on luggage. (See the TSA website.)

3-1-1 For Carry-on

  • Toiletries (and other liquids, gels, lotions, etc.) must each be in a 3-ounce container (or smaller);
  • Pack these items together in a 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, Zip-top bag;
  • 1 such bag per passenger is allowed, and must be removed from your carry-on bag and placed in a bin to go through the screening machine.

Size of the Clear Bag
The size for the clear plastic zip-lock bag is one quart, not the common one-gallon size! The TSA web site explains: "One-quart bag per person limits the total liquid volume each traveler can bring."

You Can Bring Bottled Water on the airplane IF...
... you first pass through the security gate, and then buy the water (or other beverage) in the secure boarding area.

It's Not Just about Drinks and Toiletries
The 3-1-1 rules about what you can bring on an airplane apply to all liquids, gels, lotions, etc., including some food items you might not consider "liquids." The TSA has specified:

    "Food items such as jams, salsas, sauces, syrups and dips will not be allowed through the checkpoint unless they are in containers three ounces or less and in the passenger's one quart zip-top bag. This applies to gift items including lotions, creams, scented oil, liquid soaps, perfumes, and even snow globes, that are in excess of three ounces -- even if they are in sealed gift packs."

You can carry such items on the plane if you buy them at a shop beyond the security checkpoint. But otherwise, be sure to pack all such gifts in your checked bags! Watch out for prohibited items, too.

Exceptions: Formula, Breast Milk, Baby Food
Parents of babies, of course, have to bring nourishment for their little ones onto the airpoane. Baby formula and milk are allowed in quantities greater than three ounces, and don't need to be packed in the zip-top bag. You'll need to declare these items for inspection at the security checkpoint.

Formerly, a mother was only allowed to bring breast milk if traveling with her child; later TSA rules say that "mothers flying with, and now without, their child will be permitted to bring breast milk in quantities greater than three ounces as long as it is declared for inspection at the security checkpoint." Parents can also stock their carry-on bag with baby food in cans or jars, and gel or liquid-filled teethers for babies. There are also allowances for creams, medicines, and other essential items for your child: read more about travel with children at the TSA site.

Exceptions: Prescriptions and Other Items for Medical Conditions
A wide range of prescription and over-the-counter medications (in liquids, gel, or aerosol forms) can also be brought onto the airplane; other items for medical purposes are allowed as well, and size is not limited to 3-oz. containers.

However, if the item is larger and not in the zip-lock bag, passengers must declare it for inspection at the security checkpoint. Check the TSA policies about medications for details.

For Travelers from Countries on the Metric System
The commonly-used 100 ml containers are acceptable to bring on the airplane, even though their liquid volume is slightly more than 3 oz.

Change Happens
At any time, a new security incident can lead to changes in regulations about the items you can carry on the plane. Other changes, too, evolve over time. You can find the latest regulations for the United States at the TSA site, which is user-friendly and has lots of useful info.

See also Tips for Checked Luggage: - Locks, Protecting Fragile Items, Free Checked Bags

Always check for updates!

* One reader writes that she was able to carry an empty water through the security checkpoint, and then fill it from a water fountain in the boarding area.

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