For anyone who spends time traveling, it’s probably become routine to be careful when packing liquids into your carry-on bag. But even the most frequent travelers can find themselves confused by ever-changing rules, differences across the globe, and exceptions tough to follow.
Recently, major changes have been announced in some countries and even individual airports worldwide. Specifically, the biggest airport in western Ireland and all airports in the United Kingdom have moved away from or plan to move away from the plastic bag rule and liquid limit. It can be difficult to know what exactly applies to who, going where, and when!
There are even more questions that have bothered travelers for years, too. What about liquids, gels, and aerosols from duty-free stores? Are there exceptions for medically necessary liquids, like medication or baby formula? And what if your itinerary has a connecting flight in a place with a different liquid rule?
Yes, it can be a bit of a headache – but ViaTravelers has you covered. We’ve put together the ultimate guide on packing your carry-on luggage properly. Read on to ensure you aren’t in for any surprises on your next vacation.
Why Are There Liquid Restrictions in Carry-On Bags?
Without going into too many frightening details, know that there are good reasons for the liquid limits in place today. They are the same reasons that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created: to prevent horrific attacks in aviation.
No, airlines and airports aren’t trying to make annoying rules to force passengers to buy expensive drinks in the terminal and onboard. Since the 1990s, the US government has been monitoring threats by terrorists to target planes. And in 2006, an actual plan was stopped by British forces, leading to the liquid limits we’ve come to know.
That’s why you are now used to packing your liquids of less than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) in a single, quart-sized bag (1 liter) if you plan to bring them past the TSA checkpoint. While a bit bothersome, know that making this small effort significantly affects our ability to travel safely.
What Has Changed Recently?
TSA regulations don’t get looser often, but there have been some recent developments that are good news for air travelers. New technology is available that may allow for a more thorough and faster screening process for carry-on baggage.
Actually, the technology isn’t new – just new to aviation. TSA checkpoints, and their equivalents in other countries around the world, are being equipped with an upgraded version of the classic x-ray machine: computed tomography, or CT machines. Yes, just like the ones that scan humans in hospitals!
The CT machines produce much more detailed images of the carry-on bags passing through them, and these images are even 3-D. TSA officers can digitally explore the contents of a carry-on bag from all angles. This can eliminate the need to open them. Although it can still be found necessary, it significantly cuts screening time.
With such powerful machines, airport security has a new advantage in knowing what’s coming into their airport. And if they can be sure that something is safe, there is no reason to not allow it in a carry-on bag!
However, there is a very important note to make: these machines are still VERY new, they are definitely not everywhere, and they likely won’t be for some time. Most airports continue to limit the liquids allowed through their security checkpoint. Do not assume that you are good to bring what you please!
See Related: What is Customs at the Airport?
Maximum Liquid Carry-On Airplane Rules: By Region
As a general guide, almost every country that limits liquids in carry-on bags has the same guidelines. Passengers are usually allowed one quart-size bag (equivalent to 1 liter), which must be transparent, to be filled with liquids in containers that are 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less. This liquids bag is usually removed from your carry-on bag and screened separately.
If you follow that rule, you are fit to fly around the vast majority of the world. However, there are some interesting differences in certain countries and exciting updates in others – let’s take a look at some of the notable ones.
United States, Canada, and Mexico
Travelers in North America will be pleased to know that rules for liquids in carry-on bags are largely the same in the US, Canada, and Mexico. You can carry liquids in containers of up to 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) placed in a transparent quart-sized bag to be removed from your carry-on luggage at the security checkpoint and screened separately.
This rule applies to all liquids, aerosols, gels, creams, and liquid food products. There is a wide range of things (food, specifically) that travelers often question the “liquidity” of.
Visit the Transportation Security Administration’s website for a comprehensive list of what the rules apply to, and know that Canada and Mexico generally follow the same guidelines. Notably, foods like peanut butter and pastes like toothpaste definitely count as liquids.
It’s also important to note that the container must be smaller than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters). It doesn’t matter if there is less liquid than that in a larger container.
For example, if your 4-ounce tube of toothpaste is only half-full, it’s still over the limit and subject to confiscation. You can always buy travel-size containers to pack just the right amount for your trip – like these silicon squeeze bottles approved by the TSA.
We are starting to see CT scanners at certain airports in the US. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York is one that recently rolled them out. If your bags are screened by this technology, you can leave your liquids, laptops, and other large electronics in your carry-on bag for screening – however, the liquid limits still apply!
Luckily, rules across the pond are largely the same as those at home – you’ll just find quantities listed in metric form. Don’t worry; there’s no need to do any conversions as long as you understand the North American rules.
In Europe, your liquid containers must be 100 milliliters (or 100 grams) or smaller, equivalent to 3.4 ounces. These liquids, aerosols, gels, creams, or other restricted products must also go in a transparent bag no bigger than 1 liter and be removed from your carry-on bag for x-ray screening on its own. In my experience, European airports often have these plastic bags available for travelers to take at the beginning of the security line, which is nice!
Liquids in containers larger than these quantities aren’t allowed past airport security, even if there are ultimately less than 100 milliliters left, and they will need to go into your checked bag. And while you’ll start to see more and more CT machines at airports around Europe, like in the beautiful city of Amsterdam, the liquid limit still applies, even if you are able to leave them inside your carry-on bag.
We all know that the United Kingdom is no longer a part of the European Union and shouldn’t be grouped with the above. But, there’s an even better reason to separate the UK – and it’s good news for travelers.
First, let’s be clear about the current rules. For now, you must still follow the usual guidelines of packing your liquids in 3.4-ounce/100-milliliter containers and putting them into a clear plastic bag. Again, there’s nothing special to note here besides the typical restrictions.
However, a wonderful development has been announced by the British government recently: from mid-2024, this rule will no longer apply! UK airports have been instructed to upgrade their facilities to include CT technology before June 2024. Once all airports in the country are using this technology, liquids in containers of up to 2 liters will be allowed – which should be more than enough for your travel needs.
You also won’t need to deal with removing your electronics and liquids from your carry-on bag from that time. To be clear, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to bring things like sharp objects or torch lighters onto planes – dangerous things will still be dangerous. And while you need to keep observing the liquid limit for now, the end is in sight.
See Related: Most Beautiful Places in the United Kingdom
Ireland, on the other hand, is certainly still part of the European Union. The Emerald Isle still deserves a special shoutout here thanks to a certain small airport on its west coast that is leading the continent in abolishing the liquids rule.
That airport is in Shannon, County Clare, the gateway to west Ireland. It’s not the first time that the small, rural airport has been the first – it was also the first to have a duty-free store and the first to have a US Customs and Border Patrol Preclearance Facility. Now, it’s the first to completely get rid of the old liquids rule!
That’s right, if you are flying out of Shannon, you can take whatever liquids of whatever size you please on the plane. Of course, security officers still have the right to request an additional screening of anything you bring. But feel free to pack some soda, your favorite shampoo, or whatever else you may need on your trip.
This is an exciting development, but unfortunately only applies to Shannon for now and not the main gateway to Ireland in Dublin. Still, Shannon has a few useful connections to the US, the UK, and the rest of Europe, and western Ireland is absolutely stunning.
On the other side of the world, much is the same when it comes to bringing liquids along in your carry-on bag, but there are some interesting differences, too. In Japan, there are different rules for international flights than there are for domestic.
If you’re departing from Japan and headed abroad, the standard rules apply: pack your liquids of 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less into a quart-sized bag (1 liter) and separate this bag at security. Any larger container or quantity needs to go into your checked baggage.
But for flights within Japan, none of that applies. Most travelers are surprised when they arrive at Japanese airports to find that they can bring their drinks, sunscreens, and other liquids onto the plane. They usually need to pass through the x-ray screening separately from the rest of your carry-on bag, but otherwise, they are generally allowed.
Now that China seems to be slowly opening up to the world again, travelers can finally put this massive country back on their radar. What few know, however, is that China has some of the strictest restrictions on liquids in carry-on bags in the world.
In fact, flying with liquids onboard domestic flights is technically totally prohibited. The Chinese authorities describe an exception for some “daily used cosmetics” that are 100 milliliters in size, but even this is limited to one per passenger.
However, travelers should note that this is not a guarantee, and they can certainly expect additional item screening. Some airports seem to be stricter than others.
Regarding international flights, China is more in line with the world standard of 3.4-ounces-or-less containers packed in a transparent bag. Liquids can generally go into checked luggage, but there are some restrictions when it comes to alcohol, so be sure to limit the amount of booze you travel with.
Finally, let’s head down under for another rather specific policy. Australia has a different liquid limit for not just whether your flight is domestic or international but even the type of terminal it is departing from.
Flights departing to an international destination observe the general rule: passengers can pack liquids in containers that are 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less inside a transparent bag to be screened separately from other carry-on bags. But, travelers flying on domestic flights within Australia may not have to observe this rule, allowing them to travel with any size and quantity of liquids.
There’s just one catch: if your domestic flight departs from an international terminal, the restrictions apply. So, it’s not safe to say that any domestic Australian flight is exempt from liquid rules, and you’ll need to check which terminal your flight departs from.
What About Checked Luggage?
Many of us aren’t a fan of checking luggage. It opens the possibility of the airline losing it, it costs us time at the airport on both ends, and, most importantly, it can be expensive.
However, the upside of traveling with checked luggage is that the TSA liquid rules largely don’t apply. It’s the same around the world as well, and it’s the easiest way to bring larger liquids on your trip. Obviously, security staff in any airport may still have a problem with liquids that are dangerous, whether they are in checked luggage or not.
Therefore, feel free to stock up on whiskey in Scotland or wine in France if you don’t mind packing it away for the return flight. You may want to consider using a locked, hard-sided container to avoid any breaking or spilling, though.
Can You Carry Duty-Free Liquids Onboard a Plane?
Duty-free stores are beloved by international travelers around the world thanks to their low prices on things like alcoholic beverages, high-end cosmetics and perfumes, and cigarettes. But, many travelers wonder if the liquid products pose an issue, and they pass up on those great deals.
Luckily, it’s usually not a problem. Duty-free liquids are almost always purchased after security and can be carried onto the plane.
But the items must remain in their unopened retail packaging, and the special, tamper-evident bag that they are put in at checkout must be sealed until your destination. You should keep the receipt for inspection, too.
There can be issues when it comes to connecting on another flight, though. Some countries, like the US, allow an exemption from the TSA liquid limit if the duty-free items are still sealed in their tamper-evident bags and the receipt can be inspected. They’ll just need to go through the x-ray machine separately.
In many other countries, you don’t pass through another security checkpoint at all when just making a connection. In this case, your duty-free purchases are definitely safe to fly. Do the necessary research on the airlines you are flying on and airports that you are passing through to be totally sure, as you wouldn’t want to lose that wonderful limoncello en route.
See Related: Clear vs TSA Precheck: What’s Better?
Are There Exceptions for Breast Milk, Baby Formula, or Medically Necessary Liquids?
Certain would-be travelers don’t even give flying a second thought when they read about the TSA liquid limit. What about families traveling with infants? Baby food isn’t generally a menu item on flights. And what about people who need access to liquid medication?
Luckily, TSA liquid rules and their equivalents around the world aren’t uncompassionate, and they make a few exceptions for what they call medically necessary liquids. As long as you are traveling with reasonable quantities of these liquids, they aren’t size-restricted.
Baby food, like pouch purees, is covered by this exemption, as are breast milk, baby formula, and the ice packs that may be needed to keep them cool. You must declare these items to a TSA officer before the screening process begins so that a special screening can take place. It’s recommended that they are stored in clear containers, but this is not a requirement.
Liquid medications also benefit from this exemption and must be declared to a TSA officer. Hand sanitizer in quantities of up to 12 ounces is currently allowed, too. It’s very important that medications are in their original, labeled container, and it can be helpful to travel with the prescription or doctor’s note.
Visit the TSA website to see the specifics of medical and infant exemptions. While rules may differ slightly abroad, most countries allow for the same exceptions.
See Related: Tips for Traveling with Toddlers and Kids
Do Foods Count as Liquids?
Yes, very often, foods do count as liquids when it comes to air travel. While totally solid food can be brought onto planes with virtually no restrictions, liquid, semi-liquid, and spread-like food is prohibited in the usual maximum quantities.
If you’re wondering if a certain food counts as a liquid, unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. I’ve had several personal experiences with these “gray area” food products, and I’ve found that if it’s liquidy enough to question, it’s probably not allowed.
For example, peanut butter is quite expensive in France, where I live, and I once tried to stock up at home in the US before flying back. As it turns out, peanut butter is very much a liquid to the TSA. In another case, I wanted to make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving when I returned to France and bought some canned pumpkin, and that was a no-go, too.
If your liquid food product is less than 3.4 ounces in size, and you have room in your quart-sized bag, then it can fly in your carry-on luggage without issues; otherwise, into your checked bag it goes. Visit the TSA website if you are still unsure – they have an extensive list of questionable items with their official verdicts.
Food for your furry friend is allowed on the plane if it’s solid or “moist,” according to the TSA. If it’s liquid or mostly liquid, there aren’t any specific exemptions, as it’s probably not the best idea to feed your pet on the plane, anyway. Place liquid pet food in your checked luggage.
Powders: A Recent Addition to the Rules
The TSA has recently taken issue with powders and powder-like substances in carry-on bags. While you can still travel with them, if they are over 12 ounces in size, they need to be declared and screened separately.
This includes things like spices, protein powders, and even baby formula powder. If you are traveling with checked luggage, it’s more convenient to simply pack it in there. If not, you are still able to fly with powder in your carry-on bags, but you can expect this extra step.
What Alternatives Are There to Avoid Checking a Bag?
Some travelers are simply not interested in checked luggage. Even if it’s the easiest way around liquid restrictions, it opens the door to plenty of other costs and headaches. Luckily, there are some rather simple tips and tricks to fly with everything you need in carry-on bags only.
First of all, it may not require much work to take your most important liquids on board after all, thanks to the miniature packaging that many of your favorite cosmetic brands offer. These packages meet the Transportation Security Administration’s quantity requirements, and it’s as simple as packing them correctly in your carry-on luggage.
You don’t have to give up quality, either. For example, consider the TRESeme 3-ounce shampoo and conditioner for your hair care and tubes of Banana Boat 1-ounce sunscreen for sun protection. Check your favorite sites and stores to see if your preferred brand has travel sizes.
See Related: Best Travel Hair Dryers | Top Portable Options
If that fails, you aren’t out of luck. The easiest way to bring your preferred soaps, shampoos, and other liquids onboard is to just bring some of it – in a travel-size container. While things like medications should always be in their original packaging, there’s no such rule for most liquids, meaning you can put some in a container smaller than 3.4 ounces for the trip.
I’ve always found squeezable silicon travel-size bottles very convenient for this purpose, as they minimize wasted product and are very convenient to use. If you’re worried about exploding containers due to a super-jam-packed bag, though, you can consider hard plastic travel-size jars that will take a bit more force to break.
To avoid flimsy material and plastic waste, you might also consider reusable clear plastic bags to place your containers in. They are also pre-approved by the Transportation Security Administration and can avoid messes in your luggage in case a container opens or breaks.
This is an easy one, but not obvious to everyone because aerosols larger than 3.4 ounces are limited by the TSA liquid limit, too. Plus, normal-sized deodorants can take up valuable real estate in your carry-on luggage.
Like your favorite shampoos and sunscreens, solid deodorants often come in miniature sizes perfect for travel. A favorite for ladies is a three-pack of Secret invisible deodorant, and for the gents, a three-pack of Degree Cool Rush deodorant. They are simple enough to get the job done, the perfect size for travel, and you’ll probably have a few sticks left over in stock for future trips.
Solid Shampoo & Soap
Here is a product that often surprises travelers – while most of us remember bars of soap, did you know you can actually get solid shampoo, too? If you have no other liquids to worry about, skip the whole quart-sized bag ordeal and simply throw a bar into your bag.
There’s a surprising selection of shampoo bars. A top-rated traveler favorite is Peach not Plastic shampoo bars, while those who want an all-natural and environmentally-friendly product may appreciate Garnier Whole Blends sustainable and natural shampoo bars.
Reusable Drinking Bottles
Personally, I can’t stand throwing away perfectly good bottles of water just to get past security and buy another for ten times the price. The easiest solution? Bring an empty one past the checkpoint, and fill it up for free.
More and more airports recognize this travel pitfall and its impact on the environment and are installing water fountains for this purpose. You can buy something incredibly cheap but perfectly capable of serving its purpose, like the Rubbermaid 24-ounce bottle. Or, go with the Cadillac of reusable water bottles that holds its temperature for days and doesn’t seem to break, the Hydro Flask 24-ounce bottle.
Liquids Frozen Solid
If you are dead set on bringing your favorite iced tea or other food product onto the plane, there is one other solution – freeze it. The Transportation Security Administration has no problem letting your liquid fly as long as it’s not a liquid but, rather, completely solid.
This is not a scam, as it’s even explained on the TSA website. The only caveat is that the product must be frozen completely solid, meaning not even slightly melted or slushy. If you’re going this route, pack the product in a cooler with some ice packs for the car ride to the airport so you can keep it as cold as possible until the last minute.
See Related: Best Beach Bags With Cooler
How Big Can My Carry-On Bag Be?
With all of the liquid rules out of the way, you should be ready to pack your bag. But make sure it complies with your airline’s size limits, or you’ll be in for an even less pleasant surprise: checking it in at a hefty fee.
United, Delta, American, JetBlue, Alaska, and Hawaiian Carry-On Size
We’re going to group these six major US airlines together because they all have the exact same maximum size for carry-on bags. Note that when flying United and JetBlue, not all tickets come with a free carry-on bag, but instead, some only allow for a small bag or personal item. Be sure to check your fare details, but if allowed, these are the maximum dimensions on these airlines:
- 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches (56 cm x 35 cm x 23 cm)
- Wheels, handles, and tags are included
- Must be able to fit in the overhead bin without issue
If you want to be completely safe, buy luggage that definitely complies with these dimensions. I’m a huge fan of my Away Carry-On, which is the maximum size for these airlines, has a durable hard exterior, and even a built-in charging pack for my phone and other electronics. The Monos Carry-On is a close competitor with a similarly high-quality design.
Southwest & Frontier Airlines
As for the low-cost carriers, I would almost never put Southwest and Frontier in the same category. One has the friendliest service in the skies with not only free carry-ons but two free checked bags as well. The other demands extra fees for everything, including normal-size carry-on luggage.
However, their maximum carry-on dimensions are the same (if you pay for it on Frontier). Surprisingly, they are also bigger than full-service airlines’:
- 24 inches x 16 inches x 10 inches (61 cm x 40 cm x 25 cm)
- On Frontier, the bag must weigh 35 pounds (15.8 kg) or less
- Wheels, handles, and tags are included
- Must be able to fit in the overhead bin without issue
You can take advantage of this larger size allowance and pack more if you have the right suitcase. The Beis Carry-On meets these limits and offers a sleek, hard-shell design of high quality.
See Related: Away vs Beis: What is the Better Suitcase?
Finally, budget-conscious travelers have loved the rock-bottom fares of Spirit Airlines for years. However, keep in mind that Spirit’s fares never include carry-on luggage, and the fee to add a bag can cost more than the ticket. Spirit passengers do benefit from some of the largest luggage allowances in the industry:
- 22 x 18 x 10 inches (56 cm x 46 cm x 25 cm)
- Wheels, handles, and tags are included
- Must be able to fit in the overhead bin without issue
The key here is the increased width allowance that allows you to pack a fat bag. If you are looking to max this out, go with the LEVEL8 Grace 20-Inch Carry-On, which expands its standard width if needed.