Managing liquids and gels with carry-on only

This item appears on page 40 of the May 2011 issue.

Barbara Glavish of Incline Village, Nevada, wrote, “Many readers have mentioned that they travel all over the world with just one carry-on bag. I do wonder how they cope with the rule prohibiting carrying greater-than-three-ounce containers of liquids, gels and pastes.* Do they carry lots of little bottles of body lotion, shampoo, face cream, toothpaste, etc? Do they purchase toiletry items on the go? I’ve found that in many places, even generic-type lotions, shampoos, etc., are much more expensive than others at home and, frankly, I can’t be bothered with hunting down these items while I’m traveling. Some of these travelers go camping or stay in small pensions, and occasionally even quite upmarket hotels do not supply amenities in the bathrooms. Can any of these travelers tell me how they manage on a long trip?”

We asked those of you who never check a bag to give up your secrets. Some responses appear below, with more to be printed next month. If you have something to add, write to Liquids in Carry-ons, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (Include the mailing address at which you receive ITN.)

*With its guideline “3-1-1 for Carry-ons,” the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) asks that, in airline passengers’ carry-on baggage at US airports, any liquids, gels or aerosols be in containers not exceeding 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) by volume and that all these containers fit in a one-quart-size, clear, plastic, zip-top bag, with a limit of one bag per person. EU countries and dozens of others maintain similar restrictions.

The TSA continues to permit in carry-on baggage all prescription and over-the-counter liquid, gel or aerosol medications and other such products (in reasonable quantities) needed by anyone with a disability or medical condition. Such products that are larger than 3.4 ounces may not be placed in the quart-size bag, must be kept separate from other property and must be declared, verbally or in writing, to the TSA officer for additional inspection. Among the many such products that are allowed are baby formula, petroleum jelly, eye drops, saline solution and liquid nutrition for medical purposes. Frozen-solid items are allowed, but if they are slushy or even partially melted when presented for screening, they must meet the 3-1-1 requirements.

The amount of lotions and gels that you need for a long trip is probably much less than you would imagine. Even on long trips, up to seven weeks, I have never run out of lotions or gels and often return home with a fair amount of what I left with.

To get an idea of how much of something you will need, like shampoo, you could try using a little hotel-supplied bottle of shampoo at home to determine how many days it will last you. You can then get an idea of how many of those little bottles to take.

Alternatively, you can get refillable three-ounce bottles and do the same thing.

The 0.8-ounce toothpaste samples that dentists provide last me about a week. I save those toothpaste samples after every dentist visit and then use them for trips.

For facial cream, I have a little bottle that holds about 0.3 ounce and just refill it before each trip.

Take along the smallest deodorant container that you can find, as they often are packaged in plastic containers that take up a lot of space for the amount of product that they hold.

Samples of lotions and shampoo in flat packages are also good to take, as they take up very little room in the zip-top bag.

Adele Buttolph
Enterprise, OR

The enforcement of the rules on liquids can vary with the staff in each security zone along the way. Some “negotiation” may be possible, but it’s not predictable, so be prepared that you may have to sacrifice something, if necessary. Nothing you carry, besides life-impacting prescriptions, is worth a “run-in” with unpredictable security. For these reasons, I always attempt to fall fully within the restrictions.

Taking a six-week trip in India with just a carry-on, as I did from December 2010 to February 2011, only requires creativity with packing the liquids and gels.

Don’t be overzealous on this, but start with the biggest “one-quart” plastic bag you can find. All zip-top bags should be the same size, but they are not. The TSA size limit is 7½"x8". Using a slide closure versus the typical snap-together zip-top can maximize the usable bag space.

A quart is 32 ounces, so, theoretically, the bag could hold more than 10 containers of three ounces each, but many three-ounce containers waste a lot of space with the lids and poor design. Choose products in efficiently sized containers or repackage them.

Pack your “quart” bag; don’t just throw things in. Use every bit of space. Gels in soft packs or in their own bags offer maximum flexibility and fit into tight spaces. If your trip is short, you may not need three ounces of something. Use a smaller container to save room.

If you need every bit of your limit of any one item, put it in a 100-milliliter bottle. The “three-ounce” restriction is really 3.4 ounces, or 100ml, per container. You can also have more than one three-ounce container of the same liquid in your “quart” bag.

Limit the bag’s contents to what MUST be in the bag. Things like shaving cream, skin lotion, toothpaste and mouth rinse ARE to be included in the “quart.” However, TSA rules state that liquids, gels and aerosols that are prescription or over-the-counter medications do not count in TSA carry-on restrictions, “including petroleum jelly, eye drops, and saline solution for medical purposes.” In other words, any liquids and creams that are for “medical purposes” do not need to go into the “quart” bag.

Put prescriptions and “medical purpose” items in a separate place so you can show them as needed. There is no limit on the sizes of these prescription items, but you may need to explain to security that you have a “reasonable” amount.

If you really need something that badly and it will not conform to the gel/liquid restriction, get a prescription for a similar product.

Be realistic about what you need to take with you. I find it fun to go to a local store in India and try to find aftershave. How bad can a strange brand be for the six weeks? And if your trip is shorter, you need to pack less of it, anyway.

Pack light and enjoy the security of having your bag when you arrive!

Kerry Brock
Santa Fe, NM

We love international bicycle touring and have taken trips where all our belongings need to fit in the bike panniers. I have become an expert in paring down products while still having the items I need to look good.

The first task is to prioritize what you actually need. How many of those items can be substituted with small amounts of “dry products”? For example, I travel with cleansing cloths instead of a liquid face cleanser. To see what works, try them before you leave. To reduce the bulk of the large pack, they can be repackaged in small zip-top bags.

Many of my essential cosmetics can be purchased in dry form, such as bronzer, blush, eye shadow and foundation. Benefit Cosmetics (800/781-2336) has some very versatile products that are small and do not fall into the liquid or gel category. I’ve found that many of the cosmetic counters will give you samples of their products, if you ask.

I package shampoo and light conditioner in small plastic bottles. You need only a little bit for each shampoo, so use sparingly.

For the heavier, more creamy conditioners or hair products of which I need only a little, I put a little “gloop” in a snack-size zip-top bag, seal it and roll it up. This can go in the quart-size bag. I’m talking about a tablespoon of the product, because I use a very small amount (pea size) daily. The snack-sized bags are pretty small.

My two essentials are toothpaste and Neutrogena SPF 70 sunscreen. I take one and then have my husband carry one extra of each in his bag. Those are enough for about three weeks. If we run out of toothpaste, I just buy a tube.

I carry a small container of hand lotion and usually buy a small bottle when it runs out. It’s never expensive or hard to find.

After a long trip, I rinse out the small plastic bottles and have them ready for the next adventure. It just takes some thought and planning and you will be able to zip right through with your carry-on bag!

Susan F. Glasson
Zephyr Cove, NV

I rarely, if ever, check a bag, especially going overseas. Here are some helpful ideas I’ve used.

You can buy a set of small plastic bottles and put what you need into them. Buy a small size of a product you use and then save the container for future uses.

At hotels, save any shampoos, conditioners, lotions, toothpaste and shaving cream that they supply and use them on other trips.

You can get small sizes of toothpaste for 99¢ and use two to three tubes per trip.

Many sunscreen products and lotions now come in three-ounce sizes. Suave, for example, has a lotion that size for around $1.

To save space, use a combined shampoo/conditioner instead of two separate products. Pantene has this available.

Pam Sanborn
Mesa, AZ

To fill as needed, I recently purchased three GoToob “squeezable” tubes in the two-fluid-ounce size. A three-pack cost $20 at Bankhardt’s Luggage & Gifts in Cincinnati, Ohio (800/997-7875).

Nancy Hesselbrock
Cincinnati, OH

I am one of those world travelers who would never travel any other way than with one carry-on (22x14x9 inches) and a shoulder bag. My Tumi-brand luggage holds my clothes and other items, like a camera, umbrella, etc. My liquids are in a medium-size tote along with my valuable items, camera and book.

I do not carry a purse when traveling but wear a waist pack that houses all my money and valuables. It is placed in the tote only when going through security at the airport. The rest of the time it is attached to my waist.

This makes it very easy to get through security checkpoints while traveling because I know exactly where everything is that needs to be looked at, particularly the liquids and gels. Best of all, by carrying everything with me, nothing gets lost and I don’t waste time waiting for luggage.

As for liquids, I carry shampoo, lotions and face creams in TSA-approved containers that hold three ounces or less and which you can buy at any drugstore or at Target or K-Mart. Some products are now packaged in three- or 3.2-ounce containers, such as hand lotions. The rest I transfer into the empty containers I buy.

If you think you need more than 3.2 ounces of a product on any one trip, remember that you can have more than one three-ounce container of it, as long as all the containers fit into your quart bag.

If you travel with a companion or spouse, your partner may not need to use the full quart bag, leaving you to borrow space from the second quart bag as I sometimes do. (My husband takes a razor but doesn’t need space for shaving cream, since he uses soap instead.)

The following is what I fit into a clear, plastic, zip-top quart bag: liquid nose drops and spray; travel-sized hand lotion (two, if room); face cream or cleansers (two, if room, in store-bought small containers); roll-on or stick-form deodorant; small-size ointments; Visine; a hotel’s small shampoo (or my own brand transferred to a small container), and suntan lotion (again, transferred).

At the start of a two- to four-week trip, the only item I buy AFTER the flight is a tube of toothpaste, because all over the world it’s very easy to find American brands at good prices. This allows me to take one small, travel-sized toothpaste for emergencies until I find a larger tube, which I then use and get rid of before boarding the plane home. Colgate does make a 3.2-ounce-size toothpaste.

As for cosmetics, makeup can mostly be bought in powders and creams. Mascara remover can be bought in pads (again, not a liquid).

Sandy Fox
Scottsdale, AZ

My wife and I carry a half bar of Kirk’s coconut oil castile soap (Erlanger, KY; 800/825-4757), which works very well as a shampoo. Our nearby supermarket carries it.

For shaving, I cut out the center four centimeters of a Williams Mug Shaving Soap (White Plains, NY; 800/431-2610) and carry it in a tiny, No. 1463-10 Tupperware container. It takes up very little space, and the bar can be rubbed over wet whiskers without a brush to give a comfortable shave.

Lee R. Duffner
Golden Beach, FL

Here is how I solve the liquid, paste and gel problem.

• Take a good look at what you think you’ll need. Many lotions and ointments are used because they possess a “feel good” quality. Unless medically necessary, many can be dispensed with — at least, for the brief duration of your trip. Leave much of the stuff at home; your skin won’t change that much during the trip.

• Check the actual amounts of liquid or gel in each container you now use. My Speed Stick deodorant, although it stands six inches high, holds just three ounces of the gel, so it can pass inspection and goes in the bag as is; I have the room for it.

• Our nearby Wal-Mart has several bins of sample sizes of toothpaste and other items. You may have to change your preferred brand, but it’s only for the trip’s duration.

• If you don’t find a small-size item you like, buy several small, empty plastic bottles, each about the size of the 3.4-ounce limit. Just transfer your shampoo or favorite lotion or gel into one of those.

• For shaving, I use Somersets shaving oil (The David Somerset Skincare Company, PO Box 8, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, RG9 6YZ, U.K.; phone +44 118 952 6916), which comes in a 35-milliliter bottle (a little over an ounce). It lasts forever; just three drops are enough to use on the face for shaving. I also carry just enough of those inexpensive razors to last the trip. Each can be used a couple of times and then tossed away.

Put all the small containers of gels, liquids and pastes into that plastic bag.

I can remember camping across Europe long ago. How do those travelers manage? I can’t speak for the women, but I know that all I carried back then was toothpaste and soap. It’s surprising how lightly one can really travel.

Like Barbara Glavish, I wouldn’t want to waste time on my first day trying to track down and buy the stuff that I need, but at some point it’s not a bad idea to do some shopping. You’ll experience more of the local culture, which is, I think, one of the main reasons for traveling.

Bill Steltzer
West Grove, PA