Airport Security - What to Expect


What To Expect When Flying

On Domestic and International Airlines

Created: August, 24, 2007
Last Edited: December 2, 2008
Subscribe to Internet Tips and Tools Feed
f Share
G+ Share
in Share
P in it

Recently I took a trip to Costa Rica (August 2007). My flight was on Continental Airlines. The aircraft was a Boeing 737-800. I had carry-on luggage that included my laptop (notebook) computer. I had my mobile or cellular phone and I had two pieces of luggage to check-in to be stowed on the plane. My flight was departing from San Francisco International Airport (SFO). The flight was going to have one stop in Houston, Texas (IAH) where I would have to change planes. The last plane would land at San Jose Airport (SJO) in Costa Rica.

Update on 12/21/07:I recently took a domestic flight on United Airlines from San Francisco to Atlanta, GA. The security measures and information below were pretty much the same. I also took a flight on Frontier Airlines from Orlando, FL to San Jose, CA. Again, everything was the same except for when I changed planes in Denver, Colorado, the Fronteir airlines sent my luggage to Las Vegas instead of San Jose. I looked for my luggage at the baggage carousel but it was not there. I had to walk to the Frontier desk and they knew where my luggage was. I arrived in San Jose about 9:00 PM. They had my luggage put on a flight from Vegas to San Jose but it wouldn't arrive until 12:30 AM. But they said they would have a driver take my luggage to Monterey, CA. At 3:30 AM the driver arrived at my door with my luggage.

The last time I flew with an airliner was 10 years ago in 1997 to Las Vegas. Things have changed a lot since then. Security has especially changed since 9-11, 2001.

The Cost

It ended up being cheaper to book my flight through then it would have been through or . If I chose bad times to arrive at the airport on inconvenient days then the round-trip tickets would have cost around $500. But since I wanted better flight times and days the round-trip tickets cost about $700. Also it costs more to not have as many connecting flights or to not have a long layover. Sometimes the layovers to get on the next plane were 5 or 6 hours. I chose a flight with a layover of only 2 hours. It is boring to spend half the day in an airport waiting for a flight.

Of course it seems to always be cheaper to fly from a bigger airport. I checked flights from Monterey airport. It would have cost me about $200 more. I also checked flights from San Jose International Airport in California (SJC). That would have still cost me $100 more. So I took the extra drive to San Francsico.

The Check-In

Don't make the mistake I made: Since I was flying internationally I parked my car at San Francisco International Airport in the International section. But since the first leg of my flight was going to Houston, Texas the first flight was a Domestic flight. So I walked all around San Francisco Airport looking for Continental's domestic flights.

Plan to arrive at least 2 hours before your flight departs because they require that you check-in your luggage 30 minutes ahead of time for a domestic flight and 1 hour ahead of time for an international flight.

On Continental you can carry-on:

  • 1 bag weighing less than 40 lbs.
  • 1 personal item such as a laptop computer, a day planner, or a small briefcase.

On Continental you can check-in:

  • 2 pieces of luggage not weighing more than 50 lbs a piece.
  • If 1 of your bags weighs more than 50 lbs but less than 70 lbs it will cost you $25.
  • If you check-in more than 2 pieces of luggage it costs $80 or more per extra piece.
  • OnePass Elite Members can check-in 2 luggage pieces that weigh up to 70 lbs.
  • First Class flyers can check-in 3 luggage pieces that weigh up to 70 lbs.

A companion of mine had one huge bag to check-in that weighed 54 pounds. She kept taking stuff out of her bag and putting it in mine until it weighed less than 50 pounds so she wouldn't have to pay an extra $25. So it is actually cheaper to have 2 bags that weigh less than 50 lbs a piece then to have 1 giant bag that weighs 60 lbs.

Internet Check-In

On Continental Airlines if you check your e-mail exactly 24 hours before your flight they email you with an option for Internet or online check-in. There you can confirm the seats you want and get a printout of your ticket. I wish they would do this a few days before your flight instead of just 24 hours before. If you do the online check-in then when you get to the airport you can go through a faster check-in line.

Luggage on Connecting Flights

This statement from United does not make much sense: "For a trip that includes one or more connections, bags will be checked to the final destination stated on the ticket, and the charge for checking a bag from your origin to your destination will apply." So when we left from San Francisco and boarded a new plane in Houston, Texas, our luggage was automatically put on the next plane. But on our return flight from Costa Rica when we were getting off the plane we walked past the baggage carousel because we assumed the luggage would be switched to the next plane automatically again. An attendant stopped us and asked if we got our luggage. So we went back to the luggage carousel and waited for our luggage to be unloaded. Then we took our luggage to a security checkpoint. Even though we had already gone through all the security in Costa Rica (without taking off our shoes mind you) we then had to do it all over again in Texas just to get on a connecting flight to San Francisco. We had to remove our shoes, I had to remove my laptop from its case again and this is where they stopped my friend to check the scissors in her first aid kit. After the security checkpoint we could then put our checked-in luggage on a conveyer belt where they put it on the plane. All this unnecessary extra work for us.


The walk-thru metal detectors are more sensitive then they used to be. They ask you to remove the following and put it in a plastic bin to go through the x-ray machine:

  • Wallet
  • Coins and keys
  • Belt
  • Cell Phone
  • Shoes!

I didn't like the part of having to remove my shoes. You don't have to remove your socks. I suppose they think that criminals are going to smuggle knifes in their shoes. But I would think the extra sensitive metal detector would beep. United States could learn something from Costa Rica though. When boarding the plane in Costa Rica you do not have to take off your shoes to go through the metal detector! Also I managed to keep my wallet in my pocket and my belt on in the San Francisco airport. But in Costa Rica the metal strip in the money (colones) must be heavier than United States money (dollars) because my wallet kept making the metal detector beep and I had to send it through the x-ray machine.

X-Ray Machines and Laptops

Notebook or laptop computers are safe to pass through x-ray machines. They do ask you to take the laptop out of its carrying case and set it by itself in a plastic bin. That way they can more easily tell that it is a real laptop and not a bomb. Also cellular phones can pass through the x-ray machine.

X-Ray Machines and Other Items

If airport security sees a water bottle in your carry-on bag as it goes through the x-ray machine they will open up your luggage and confiscate the water bottle. This is what they did to me. Apparently you cannot bring a water bottle or any other bottle for that matter that is carries more than 3.4 ounces of liquid. That is a VERY small amount. Normal, smaller water bottles are 16 ounces of water. They seem to think that a terrorist can make a bomb with certain liquids in a normal sized water bottle. After you go through the security checkpoint you can purchase a large water bottle on the other side at 3 times the normal cost.

My friend is a registered nurse and she carries a first aid kit with her that includes a pair of surgical scissors with a rubber tip. She made it from San Francisco airport, through Houston, Texas Airport, all the way to Costa Rica without them stopping her as her carry-on bag went through the x-ray machines. But on the way back home from Costa Rica she again made it onto the plane in Costa Rica but when we had to switch planes in Texas they opened up her bag, opened her first aid kit and analyzed the scissors. After they made sure that they were safe they put the scissors back in the first aid kit and back in her bag.

Flights are governed by TSA (Transportation Security Administration). See this link TSA What Can I bring to see what items they allow on a plane.


According to the above website you can bring canned or jarred fruits and you can bring other foods on the plane. You just can't bring large beverages. However they do not mention fresh fruits. This leads me to believe that you still cannot bring fruit on a plane from one country to another. I hear this is because a parasite from one country could damage the crops of fruit in another country.

Here is what U.S. says about bringing in meats, fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables


According to the TSA website, cameras that use film (non-digital) should be hand inspected. X-ray machines could ruin undeveloped film so you should ask the inspector to inspect it by hand.


I did not know this before my flight, but you can take small pets with you on the plane. This is very strange to me. On my flight to Texas there was a person in the row across from me with a small dog on her lap. On my flight home from Texas to San Francisco there was a couple in the row across from me with a cat in a pet travel case. During the flight they would take the cat out of the case and hold it in their lap. According to the rules though at Animal Rules only 1 pet can be taken per customer in the cabin and it must remain in the kennel at all times!

Alcohol (Liquor)

According to United's website at United Fragile items, you cannot bring alcoholic beverages with you on the plane in the cabin unless they are less than 3.4 ounces and even if you do bring it you cannot consume it while on the plane. Normal bottles of alcohol can be checked-in though with your luggage that is stored in the cargo hold on the plane. If you are flying from another country to U.S. you can't bring any amount of alcohol on the plane.

In Flight

You can bring a laptop (notebook) computer and your mobile phone with you on the plane. However, your phone must remain off while the plane is being taxied to the runway and during the whole flight. They are afraid that the cell phone may disrupt airline communications systems. You can use your laptop during the flight as long as the wi-fi (wireless) internet is turned off during the flight.


On the Boeing 737 there were two restrooms at the back of the plane and one at the front of the plane. The one at the front is reserved for First Class passengers only. Sometimes there can be a line for the restrooms in the back so it was nice to have seats at the back of the plane where you could see if the restroom was occupied or not. Also on the 737 the aisles were so cramped you couldn't really pass people in the aisles. So it was a real benefit to sit near the back.

Leg Room

The economy seats in a Boeing 737 have very little leg room. In fact, if you are sitting in the middle or near the window then the other passengers have to get up in order for you to leave your seat. On my first flight I requested seats at the very rear of the plane. These seats still had very little legroom but since there was no one behind you the seat could be laid back as much as you want. I thought the seat might hit the wall but it didn't. However, on other planes the seat back might hit the wall behind you.

If you want more legroom you can request seats next to the emergency exits. Those seats are further apart from the row of seats in front of it so you have much more legroom. My only complaint about those seats is that they didn't seem to lie back as far as the normal seats. Also you have to be ready to help out in an emergency. Another place that had more leg room was the very front row of seats in economy. The only problem in the front row is that the food tray comes out of the arm of your seat instead of from the back of other seats. So the arms of the seats in the front row could not be lifted to make more room. But the seats could lay all the way back.


Airline meals are not too bad. They even give you choices between chicken, beef or vegetarian sometimes. But you better be awake when the beverages cart is going through or the meal cart because they won't want to give it to you later. Don't be surprised if a stewardess (flight attendant) spills a drink on you. It happened to me. All they gave me was a blanket to dry off with but the blanket would not absorb any water.

On some flights the female flight attendants were very rude. One time my friend and I were very thirsty so we pressed the button for a flight attendant. After 10 minutes the light went off and nobody came so we pressed the button again. After 5 minutes a female flight attendant came up and instead of saying, "Yes?" Or "May I help you?" she rudely said "What?!". We both asked for some water and 5 minutes later she came back with 1 small cup of water.


On most long flights they show an in-flight movie. Sometimes the screens are very small and on one flight the screen in front of me was broken (it didn't display all the lines or all the colors) so I had to look at another screen that was far away from me. The movies are pretty low budget anyway. Here is an example of the movies they showed on the flights:

  • Are We Done Yet? (2.5 out of 10 stars)
  • The Astronaut Farmer (6.5 out of 10 stars)
  • Fracture (7 out of 10 stars) Edited for content.

On Continental domestic flights they wanted you to pay $1 for headphones. At least the headphones are more sanitary then the used to be. They now come in sealed plastic bags, are brand new, and they let you keep them. On Continental international flights when you board the plane they have in sealed plastic bags, brand new headphones on every seat for free! Don't ask me why the difference.

Arrival in Foreign Country

Customs Declaration Form

Before you arrive in the next country, on the plane you are given a Customs Declaration Form. You are supposed to fill it out before you land. You have to fill out this form so that they can tax you a duty tax if you have brought too much merchandise from one country to another.

You can see a sample Customs Declaration Form with instructions on how to fill it out here: Declaration Form. The item that will be relevant to most flyers is item number 15. You have to claim all items you purchased and are planning to leave as gifts or doing business with in the foreign country. You do not have to claim items for personal use. Usually you are exempt from paying tax if it is less than $800 of goods. But this is different from country to country.

In some countries the Customs Declaration Checkpoint is before the Passport Control Checkpoint and in other countries the checkpoints are combined.

Passport Control Check

When departing the plane in a foreign country you have to go through a passport control check. For some reason this line is very long sometimes. I do not understand why some people take 5 minutes at the checkpoint while my friend and I only took 5 seconds to show them our passport and get it stamped. Read here for more information: Passport Control Check

Departing from a Foreign Country

When you arrive at the airport in a foreign country to take the departing flight home you have to go through three different lines in this order:

  1. Taxes/Fees (This added up to about $26)
  2. Check-In (Where you can finally drop off your luggage)
  3. Passport Check

I do not know why they don't consolidate these into 1 or 2 lines so that you don't have to wait around in 3 different lines.

Arrival in U.S.

Customs Declaration Form

Before you arrive in the U.S., on the plane you are given a Customs Declaration Form. You are supposed to fill it out before you land. You have to fill out this form so that they can tax you a duty tax if you have brought too much merchandise from one country to another.

You can see a sample Customs Declaration Form with instructions on how to fill it out here: Declaration Form. The item that will be relevant to most flyers is item number 15. You have to claim all items you purchased in the other country and are bringing into the United States including gifts. Usually you are exempt from paying tax if it is less than $800 of goods. However non-U.S. residents are normally only entitled to an exemption of $100. That means they can bring $100 worth of merchandise from another country into the U.S. and leave it there as a gift with someone or sell it without paying duty tax on it. On the reverse side of the form you have to declare all items separately and how much you paid for them.

The duty fee is usually 1.5% to 3% of the value of merchandise. Personally I brought some Rum from Costa Rica and some souvenirs. The value was under $50 so I didn't have to pay any taxes on it.

Back to
Subscribe to Internet Tips and Tools Feed        

User Comments

There are 9 comments.

Displaying first 50 comments.

1. Posted By: kayela - - September 29, 2007, 10:55 am

2. Posted By: joy herrera - - December 6, 2007, 7:45 pm
Ok I get that you hadn't traveled on a plane for a while, but don't you watch the news? The requirements for on board luggage etc. are drilled into our heads on a regular basis. I flew to El Slavador for the first time at 15. I had never been on an international flight before, but I think I did better than you. WOW!

3. Posted By: joy herrera - - December 6, 2007, 7:46 pm
BY myself BTW.

4. Posted By: Rkale - - December 11, 2007, 3:08 pm
Thank you very much for a very detailed information on Continental international flights. We will be leaving for Japan this week and reading your story certainly gives some insight on what to and what not to expect. Again, thanks!

5. Posted By: Sharon - - January 14, 2008, 5:08 pm
The fact that you had to recheck your bags and go through security again was because you came in from an international destination. The airline or airport has no control over that. That is a U.S. government requirement.

6. Posted By: Tuco - - April 16, 2008, 9:47 am
Your information is very helpful for me, I am traveling to Costa Rica next month. Thanks for taking the time.

7. Posted By: toni - - July 30, 2008, 6:38 pm
Please....let people know that federal regs. state that passengers must NEVER remove pets from carriers! What you saw on board was illegal....

8. Posted By: Alexa - - April 20, 2010, 10:28 am
Thank you very much for a very detailed information on Continental international flights. We will be leaving for Japan this week and reading your story certainly gives some insight on what to and what not to expect. Again, thanks!

9. Posted By: Rousieee - - June 15, 2010, 1:56 am
This has been really helpful in letting me know what to expect. Thankyou!