Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/14/2008 9:30:09 AM ET 2008-08-14T13:30:09

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has some good news for laptop-toting travelers: Beginning Saturday, you can leave your laptop in its case at airport security, but only if it is inside a checkpoint-friendly carry-on that meets TSA guidelines. You can read about it here, but the bottom line is your laptop can stay tucked away if it’s stored in a bag that sits flat on the X-ray machine conveyor belt and that offers a clear image of the laptop, separate from the rest of the bag.

Of course, TSA staffers always have the right to pull any bag over for a screening replay. So, even if you go out and buy a new carry-on that a manufacturer claims is “TSA-compliant” or “checkpoint friendly,” don’t be surprised if you end up having to take your laptop out and send it back through the X-ray machine “naked” anyway.

Guns and grenades — still not OK
Shifting rules and over-zealous staffers can trip up even the most checkpoint-savvy traveler. (Is it flip-flops on or off? Is mascara a liquid or a gel? Can a snow globe be considered dangerous?) But some recent news reports have me wondering less about TSA inconsistencies and more about fellow travelers who may have spent too much time in the sun.

For example, on August 6th, Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport in Bullhead City, Arizona, was evacuated when TSA agents found a lighter shaped like a grenade in one family’s carry-on. Turns out that was the second time this year a fake grenade shut down the small facility.

Now, I’m all for unusual travel souvenirs — my latest find is a two-headed bobble-head calf — but could it be that they’re selling fake grenades in the Laughlin/Bullhead City airport gift shop? Or must we ask the TSA, which lifted the ban on common lighters in carry-on bags a year ago, to go back and more clearly explain what the agency means by “common?”

Not that definition of ‘packing’
More worrisome than fake grenades are stories about people trying to take guns through security checkpoints.

In case you missed these notable stories:

  • At the end of July, comedian-actor Jerry Lewis showed up at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas with an unloaded .22 caliber Beretta in his carry-on bag .
  • In May, actor Dennis Farina was arrested (and later sentenced to probation ) when it was discovered that he had a loaded and unregistered .22 caliber semiautomatic pistol in his carry-on at LAX.

Guys! What were you thinking?

It’s not just celebrities who get confused by what it means to “pack” for vacation. “It happens more than you think,” TSA spokesperson Sterling Payne said. “A lot of people just forget that they have their guns with them.” In 2007 the TSA found 769 guns inside carry-on bags at security checkpoints — down 10 percent from 2006.

So far in 2008, the TSA has discovered 519 guns at security checkpoints, but that figure doesn’t take into account weapons found over the past few weeks. According to the TSA Web site, 29 firearms were found two weeks ago, and 23 were discovered last week.

OK, we’ve all probably thrown a few no-no’s into our carry-on bags. Maybe it was a bottle of water you meant to finish in the shuttle van. Perhaps it was container of hand lotion over the legal three-ounce size. But come on — how can someone “forget” they’ve tossed a loaded gun into their briefcase?

And it’s not just guns. “Twenty-one out of every 100 passengers try to bring something that ends up getting intercepted or relinquished” at a security checkpoint, TSA’s Payne said. In 2007 — excluding guns — that came to more than 6.5 million items. In among the full-size shampoos and pocket knives, TSA has found everything from live baby alligators and dead snakes to car and boat batteries, propane stoves, blow torches and, especially during hurricane season, plenty of chainsaws. (Want to see some of this stuff? There are exhibit cases filled with examples of the more unusual items next to at least one security checkpoint entrance at both Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.)

Go through your bag — check it twice
The TSA’s mountain of “intercepted and relinquished” items no doubt grows when the summer travel season winds downs and vacationers head home. Don’t add to the pile. Before you gather up your outdoor gear and beach souvenirs, consider these last-minute packing tips:

  • Before putting anything into your carry-on bag, take out anything left over from your last trip. Or at least look inside the bag. That way, if you’ve “forgotten” that you stashed your gun, you can take it out before you head to the airport.
  • Unsure if your spear gun, baseball bat or new set of golf clubs can travel as carry-on items? They can’t. But you can check them as baggage. What else is permitted or prohibited? Check the TSA’s Web site for the most up-to-date list. And while you’re online, study the TSA’s new rules for “checkpoint-friendly” laptop cases and check to see if your airline has rolled out any new or increased baggage fees during your vacation.
  • If you got a new knee, hip or piercing during your summer trip, be prepared to declare, discuss and perhaps even display it. Most pierced parts don’t set off the metal detector. If yours does, though, you may need to undergo secondary screening. Ditto for new body parts.
  • If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to review the contents of their carry-on bags before you leave home. Just to be sure, conduct another inspection before you pass through the security checkpoint. The fake grenade that forced an evacuation of the small Arizona airport was carried by an 8-year-old boy.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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