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Five worst packing problems

Messy suitcase spills, broken luggage, valuables confiscated by airport security and other packing emergencies can spell disaster for a well-planned getaway.
/ Source: Independent Traveler

Ashley, an staffer, once faced a packing emergency so calamitous that her only solution was to sway a surly airport worker — by sobbing.

Back when the TSA first introduced its 3-1-1 rules for carry-on liquids, Ashley inadvertently tried to bring a large, expensive bottle of shampoo through airport security. When the TSA guard threatened to confiscate the shampoo, Ashley returned to her airline's counter to check her bag. The line was dreadfully long, and she was going to miss her flight.

She begged a nearby airport worker to let her skip to the front of the line, explaining that she had already waited in line earlier; he refused. Finally, Ashley started to cry and the red-faced airport worker begrudgingly allowed her to bypass the line.

She made her flight with minutes to spare — but the airline subsequently lost Ashley's checked bag. Says Ashley, “If I had known how much trouble the whole thing would be, I would have just forfeited the shampoo.”

When it comes to packing, a small mistake like putting a prohibited item in your carry-on bag can snowball into a messy chain of events.

Fortunately, travelers faced with similar problems don't have to rely on tears to save their vacations. Whether you're dealing with a confiscated item in the security line, a surplus of souvenirs, a nasty spill or a broken bag, a bit of packing emergency know-how can mean the difference between a disaster and a worry-free getaway.

Packing problem No. 1:
Airport security confiscates your prized possession
If you plan correctly and make sure everything you're packing in your carry-on bag is permitted on an airplane by the TSA, you shouldn't have any problem getting your luggage through airport security check point.

But if you're a procrastinator who carelessly throws a bag together as the airport van is waiting in the driveway (or if, like Ashley, you simply forgot about the rules), you may have some trouble getting through security. So when an officer finds your four-ounce bottle of designer perfume and permanently removes it from your carry-on bag, is it lost forever? Not necessarily.

According to the TSA Web site, “If you bring a prohibited item to the checkpoint you may be criminally and/or civilly prosecuted.” Keep this in mind before you start to argue with the guard who is taking away your jumbo-sized tube of toothpaste. It's not worth it.

If you try to bring anything through airport security that is not allowed on a plane, or anything that the security guard deems dangerous (no, it doesn't necessarily have to be listed on the TSA's inventory of prohibited items), airport security has the right to take your property and dispose of it.

If the security officer has confiscated something that has value to you, politely ask him or her if you can take the item away from the checkpoint. If you're lucky and the officer says yes, here are your options:

  • If you're certain you have plenty of time before your flight takes off, you can go back to your airline's check-in counter and either check your carry-on bag or ask to have the prohibited item placed in your checked luggage. Keep in mind that you will have to wait in line at the check-in counter and at the security checkpoint all over again, so you may need an extra hour or two before your flight is scheduled to depart. There is no guarantee that the airline staff will be able to help you out, so don't return to the check-in counter unless you have time to spare; otherwise, you may risk missing your flight for nothing.
  • If you haven't checked a bag and you drove to the airport, take your item to the parking lot and place it in your car. Again, be very aware of how much time you have, especially if you've parked in a lot that is a lengthy walk or ride away from the airport. You will have to wait in the security line all over again.
  • Did someone drop you off at the airport? If he or she is a very good friend (or someone who owes you a favor), give that person a call and ask him or her to turn the car around. Promise to bring your helpful friend a souvenir from your trip.

Packing problem No. 2:
Too many souvenirs
You could always just pack less and leave room in the bag for some extra souvenirs. But who really wants to do that? After all, in the current context of expensive baggage fees, empty space in your suitcase is valuable real estate. And if you only brought a carry-on bag, some souvenirs you might purchase, like liquid-filled snow globes, may be prohibited past the airport security checkpoint.

So with no room in your bag for anything larger than a postcard of Tuscany and only a carry-on in which to cart two weeks' worth of clothing, how do you get those bottles of pricey Italian merlot back to the States?

Many travelers ship souvenirs back home — especially large or fragile things like handmade Moroccan rugs or Waterford crystal. A reputable shop that caters largely to tourists (and sells big and expensive items like furniture) will likely ship your goods back home right from the store. However, without shipping insurance or a tracking number, you have little control over the fate of your purchase.

A second option is to mail the item yourself. We recommend using major international shipping companies like UPS and FedEx as opposed to a local post office because overseas postal services (especially in developing areas) may be unreliable.

Check out the major international shipping companies' Web sites before you leave to see if there's a location near where you will be traveling; if so, write down the address and phone number and stick it in your wallet. Also look up restrictions, shipping costs and shipping times. And make sure to get your shipment insured and write down a tracking number!

Your third, probably cheapest option is to pack a squashy, foldable bag that takes up little room in your suitcase. A soft duffel or zippered tote bag will work. If you end up with a mass of bulky souvenirs, you can unfold the extra bag and check it at the airport. Although you may end up paying a checked-bag fee for an extra piece of luggage, this might be a more economical way to cart your souvenirs home than paying for international shipping, which is not cheap. Wrap some T-shirts or sweaters around any breakable items.

Packing problem No. 3:
You left (insert essential item) at home
As you are pulling up to the airport, it hits you like a ton of bricks: you've forgotten your cell phone charger, raincoat, guidebook, wallet or some other item that you need or want to use on your trip. Don't panic. Have you forgotten an item of clothing or an electronic device? It's time to think positive and maybe even treat yourself to something new at an airport shop if you're feeling upset. Or be brave and go on without your favorite possession. (You may even be better off finally breaking your BlackBerry addiction!)

We probably don't need to tell you to turn the car around the second you realize that you don't have your passport. But if you've arrived at the airport with only a few hours before your flight, not enough time to get home and back, and without proper identification, you're going to miss your flight. If you're traveling to any international destination, including Canada and Mexico, there is no way you're getting on a plane without a passport.

So now you've missed your flight. You still have a chance to save your vacation, so stop crying — everyone is staring.

First, go to your airline's check-in desk and try to get on the next flight. If you're already on your way home, pull over the car and call your airline. Airlines' policies on missed or canceled flights vary, so you may find a sympathetic ear or you may end up paying full price for a new ticket. For more information on what to do if you miss your flight, read How to Take On Travel Trouble.

Packing problem No. 4
Your luggage breaks
I've never seen a suitcase explode in the middle of the airport, although I've often envisioned this scenario after stuffing my rectangular bag so tightly that it ends up in the shape of a ball. We live in reality, as opposed to an animated cartoon world, so the worst thing that could happen to your overstuffed bag is probably a broken zipper, which may or may not produce a gaping hole with your underwear hanging out.

Are you no longer carrying a suitable suitcase while traveling? Here's what you do:

Proper preparation is the best way to handle this situation; duct tape should be at the top of your must-pack list. But if you forgot your trusty tape and your bag has a gaping hole, find some tape! Whether you're at the airport or you've already arrived in your destination, search for shops that may have or sell tape, find help at your airline check-in counter, talk to your hotel concierge or even ask around to see if any fellow travelers have some duct tape to spare (someone will, trust us).

A broken bag is the perfect opportunity to use those arts-and-crafts skills you learned in grade school. Is your zipper tab broken? Hook a paper clip through what's left of the zipper (ask any store cashier for a paper clip if you don't have one). If the situation is dire and your bag is non-functional, ask a store employee for some plastic bags in which to pack your things until you can get to a place that sells luggage.

Packing problem No. 5
Something spills all over your stuff
One good thing about the TSA's 3-1-1 rule is that it forces travelers to store their carry-on liquid items in plastic bags, thereby preventing any spills from staining sweaters and dresses. But your checked bag may be a different story. If you neglect to pack your liquid items in plastic bags or to bring a travel-size stain remover (which you should always do), the rough-and-tumble ride from check-in counter to baggage claim may result in punctured plastic containers or broken bottles.

Stay calm. This is a situation where the worst thing that will likely happen is your own emotional reaction when you discover your favorite cashmere sweater is slathered with costly face cream. Your clothes may or may not be ruined, depending on what has spilled and how long it's had to set in.

Heat sets stains, so don't dry your stained clothes with a hair dryer or use hot water on them. If possible, bring your clothes to a professional cleaner. Or, if you're staying at a hotel that offers laundry service, ask the staff to clean off your clothes. You may have to purchase one or two new clothing items so that you don't go naked while your clothes are being cleaned (but who doesn't love an excuse to shop?).

Travelers who are in developing countries or places where there are no dry cleaners should roll up their sleeves and get to work. Don't have access to a stain remover product or detergent? First, flush the stain with cold water. Dab, don't rub, so that the stain doesn't spread. Dab stains with white vinegar, a great natural stain remover, and use dishwashing soap diluted with water, which effectively removes most stains (ask the hotel kitchen staff if you may borrow some vinegar or dishwashing liquid).

Before you submerge any stained item in a basin of water, press a towel against the stain to make sure that it doesn't easily come up; if it does, it could color the water and stain more of the fabric. Dry sweaters and delicate pieces by rolling them in clean towels and then hanging them on hangers or the shower curtain bar.