Whether you’re a jet setter or just trying to get through airport security, the question of what you can and can’t bring onboard is one that confuses people. So let’s make clear what food you can bring on an airplane.
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No matter the food or beverage, it must not contain more than 3.4 ounces (100ml) of liquid. Additionally, the container must be sealed. Besides those two essential ground rules, what are the do’s and don’ts of food, beverages, carry-on bags, and airport security?
1. Alcoholic Beverages
When asked at customs if he had anything to declare, Oscar Wilde famously said “Only my genius.” Witty as that is, TSA won’t be too amused if you try pulling that, so there’s a good chance you’ll need to declare alcoholic beverages larger than 3.4 ounces.
Of course, airports also sell duty-free alcohol. Whether or not that bottle of Bordeaux from Bordeaux or authentic Scotch whiskey is okay to take onboard, however, is another matter.
Airlines don’t allow customers to drink their own alcohol onboard, as it cuts into their profits, and makes it harder for them to keep people who’ve already “had too much” from drinking more.
In addition, TSA stipulates that no alcohol over 140 proof may be taken onboard. Alcohol over 140 proof (eg, grain alcohol and stronger rums) are prohibited.
Still, if it fits the size and proof requirements and you don’t drink it onboard, it should be fine.
2. Baby Food, Formula, and Breast Milk
Traveling is already hard enough when you have a baby without the prospect of not being able to bring food or formula onboard to feed your baby. A baby has no concept of when it is or isn’t a “convenient” time to eat. They’re simply hungry and need food, now.
TSA allows you to bring “reasonable quantities” of baby food and formula, which is likely intentionally vague to allow wiggle room in interpretation.
Either way, you will need to inform the TSA officer at the start of the process that you are in possession of baby food, formula, breast milk, juice, or anything similar. These must be in a clear container.
They will then be placed in a plastic bag and subjected to additional screening separate from the rest of your luggage. You may be required to open the container. If you cannot or do not wish to have the container opened, it may still be possible to bring them onboard.
However, you will still have to submit it for screening, this process will likely take longer, and you will be subjected to extra screening, including a pat-down, further screening of all other carry-on luggage, and additional questioning.
Formula and breast milk are exempted from the 3.4 ounces rule, and do not need to fit in a quart-sized bag, which is the case with other fluids.
A side note on breast milk – if you want to skip the hassle and breastfeed on the flight instead, it is generally permissible to do so, though your airline may request you to cover up when possible.
In addition, you do not have to be traveling with a child to carry breast milk.
3. Candy and Granola Bars
As opposed to the complex rules which govern taking baby food, formula, and breast milk onboard, things are much easier, straightforward, and lenient when it comes to candy and granola bars.
They obviously do not contain more than 3.4 ounces of fluid, so you can skip all the extra screening that comes with that.
The only exception is candies that contain gels, or chocolate that is partially or fully liquid or creamy in nature, which are subject to this rule and, thus, require extra screening.
4. Fruits and Vegetables
This is another example of a category where things are mostly fine with a few stipulations. You probably won’t have to deal with the 3.3 ounce rule, though anything that contains fluids or gels are more likely to be subjected to additional checks.
The trickier part here is actually getting those foodstuffs through customs. Fruits and veggies are incredibly diverse and grow in all manner of different conditions and soil types with different insects who feed on them.
On the one hand, that’s part of what makes fruits and veggies so great. That might even be why you’re eager to take some with you. Who wouldn’t want to bring exotic food back home with them?
Well, TSA and public health authorities might not be the biggest fans of that. After all, as stated, exotic fruits and vegetables from different parts of the world can carry all manner of insects with them. Even if your produce seems clean, it may have eggs or foreign bacteria.
Introducing any new plant life or animals into an ecosystem that is radically different from their own can be incredibly dangerous. It’s what leads to invasive species hunting native species and ruining habitats. It can also lead to the transmission of germs.
That latter part is especially pertinent for areas with prominent ongoing problems with disease, especially if those conditions are or could be food or plant-based. Even if you aren’t infected by the germs, bringing organic goods from such an area into the country could make you a carrier.
That’s why fruits and veggies are sometimes subjected to additional checks. This is, again, especially true if they come from an area that is facing ongoing disease-related issues.
In particular, TSA has ordered that passengers coming from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands cannot bring most of the fruits and vegetables from those areas into the mainland US for fear of invasive plant species.
Plan ahead for these checks so as not to miss your flight due to delays. In addition, you should check to see if the country from which you are flying is on any cautionary disease-related lists, or if any foodstuffs you are traveling with are restricted or banned.
5. “Frozen” Food
This is one of the trickiest categories on this list because things that are “frozen” when you pass through airport security may not be frozen by the time you get on the aircraft – and airport security knows that.
While it may be solid now, it can easily become a liquid, which can then potentially be used as bomb making material. That’s why fluids are so tightly controlled by TSA in the first place.
This goes for food that is wholly frozen, such as ice cream, as well as those that require ice or frozen packs for transit.
You don’t want that Spanish jamon or English cod to go rancid on your 6- to 10-hour flight back to the United States, which means you’ll need to pack it with ice or frozen packs.
But, as established, that ice or those packs can be thawed, which would put you over the 3.4 ounce limit. Any ice or frozen packs must be completely frozen while going through security checks. If not, they won’t be allowed.
You are allowed five pounds of frozen ice and frozen packs.
In addition, you’ll want to make sure any food you are bringing into the country is not prohibited for other reasons, such as an embargo.
6. Different Cheeses
Whether you’re a Wisconsin Cheesehead or are grabbing some gouda from Stuttgart, cheese is definitely one of the most popular foodstuffs to bring home with you. As for airport security, there are different rules for solid versus creamy cheeses.
As you might expect, the former are easier to get through security than the latter. As long as they are not partially melted or fluid-like, they are not subject to the 3.4 ounces rule. Simply place them in a clear plastic bag and you should be good to go.
If you are in possession of creamy cheeses, on the other hand, you will have to abide by that 3.4 ounces rule. They should also be placed in a clear plastic bag for screening purposes. As with other foodstuffs, a TSA officer can ask to subject either type of cheese to additional screening.
If you are packing more than 3.4 ounces, it must be packed in your checked luggage. This goes for all fluids. Failure to do this can result in the cheese being confiscated, thrown away, and you facing additional questioning.
Finally, there’s always the prospect of national embargos and policies restricting the food you can bring into the country.
For example, Russia has in recent years attempted to strike back at the European Union’s economic advantages and their critique of Putin’s human rights abuses by banning food from some or all of the countries in the EU.
One of the victims of that ban? Cheese. In 2018, Putin ordered 26 tons of Western-made cheese to be seized and…bulldozed. If you’re flying to Russia, customs may still say “Nyet” to Western-made cheeses.
7. Canned Foods
Here again, we run into a category where the basic answer is, yes, you can bring these on flights, while the substance is more nuanced and complicated.
If possible, pack these in your checked luggage. If you have to pack them as carry-ons, it should be fine, though if there is any fluid you will once again be subject to the 3.4 ounce rule. Since they’re not transparent, they may be subject to additional checks.
By knowing the rules of what food you can bring on an airplane and what you can expect from TSA, you can make your trip through airport port security and onto your next destination go that much smoother.