Updated on 01.10.08

Airport Frugality in the Era of New Security Regulations

Trent Hamm

As you read this, I’m likely somewhere in the sky over the western half of the United States. I’ve flown quite a bit over the last decade, but I haven’t flown since the most recent restrictions on carry on items. These restrictions really shoot in the foot most of my strategies for saving money in the airport, such as bringing my own bottled water from home and making sure I have a well-stocked carry-on with all my essentials in it (many of them are now banned).

Instead, I’ve adopted some new practices to avoid the ridiculously high costs I’ll face inside of an airport – and also at my destination if my luggage were to go missing. Here’s what I do to get around the new regulations (along with some of the better things I used to do):

I pack an empty water bottle into my carry-on luggage, then fill it at a water fountain inside of airport security. The empty bottle is completely fine within regulations, and then the bottle can easily be filled at a water fountain inside the airport. This saves a lot on beverage costs within the airport.

I pack some energy-rich snacks. Things like granola bars are very filling and energy-dense, perfect for keeping away hunger while in an airport. I can generally find good, healthy food on the other end of my trip so that I don’t have to pay for overpriced airport food.

I look for “travel size” toiletries for cheap – or free – wherever I can. I do much of my shopping at warehouse stores, where quite often you can find full size packages with “travel size” items attached to them for little or no cost. I’ve started to look out for these and then collect them, so I don’t have to pay a lot for a travel sized bottle.

Before trips, I actually refill the “travel size” shampoo and conditioner bottles. These are easily refillable with whatever shampoo I have – I just use a small bulb to suck out a little from a large bottle, then squirt it into the small one. That way, I don’t have to buy these again. This process doesn’t work as well with toothpaste, though, unless you’ve been very careful with the tube.

I always keep at least two days’ worth of clothes in my carry-on. Nothing fancy, but something that will work. That way, if my luggage vanishes, I can wear these clothes in a pinch without having to dump cash on some clothes at a shopping mall. On shorter trips (like this one), I plan the entire trip solely out of my carry-on, though that may mean some ironing when I arrive at my hotel.

My number one tip, though, is assuming that I will be delayed. I always pack a long book of some sort into my carry-on, always. I also pack away my trusty Nintendo DS and more than enough granola bars (along with that empty water bottle). I’ve been stuck in airports for many, many hours before and the last thing I want to do during that long wait is to get bored and then talk myself into buying stuff I don’t need.

All of these tactics work with the new airport security regulations – you should be able to zip right in without skipping a beat and not have to open your wallet for needless things.

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  1. I would add wearing shoes with no shoelaces since getting in and out of those is a pain in the you know what.

  2. Elaine says:

    I always pack my lunch, exactly like I would going to work. Even crossing the border, doesn’t matter. Customs asks if I have meat or dairy (not a problem, I’m vegan) or fruit and that’s it.

  3. klf says:

    Regarding refilling the travel size shampoo bottles…years ago I purchased travel sized (that still meet the new restriction) shampoo and conditioner bottles and just refill them with my regular shampoo…no need to continually “look for” the attached bottles in the warehouse stores…so I’m not sure how you are saving money by doing this. And besides, silly me…I’ve never had to use a bulb syringe to transfer the contents to the smaller bottle..it’s always just poured out nicely with no mess. Seems you are making thing a little harder than they really are?

    And since my dental hygienist knows I travel a lot, she always gives me an extra sample size tube of toothpaste and floss each time I visit.

  4. Cat-Daddy says:

    And don’t forget always to volunteer, if you can, when flights are overbooked. I spent two extra nights in a nice Paris hotel and got a free international ticket good for a year once. It extended my vacation by a couple of days, but the cost of what they gave me was equal to the initial cost of my ticket!

  5. Frugal Dad says:

    Fortunately, I haven’t had to fly much since the new reg into effect, but these are great tips for when I do. I suspect you’ll have some follow up tips for us after you’ve navigate the airports and returned home safely. Have a safe trip.

  6. Looby says:

    I thought I had become adept at avoiding unnecessary spending at airports until my last long-haul flight when they weighed all customers hand luggage and made people move things to their checked luggage (charging extra if this made them over the weight limit) luckily the person dropping me off was still there so I gave them my excess weight (2 novels) and was allowed through. I then proceeded to buy another book once through security as I refuse to go 9 hours on a plane without a book. Just a warning not to overpack hand luggage as I believe some airlines are becoming stricter about things in order to apply extra charges.

  7. Adam says:

    I hate to admit it, but I usually just take the shampoo and soap from whatever hotel I’m staying in. They’re going to throw them away anyway, so I figure I might as well get some use out of them. I rarely end up buying shampoo, conditioner or travel soap.

  8. Adam says:

    to clarify my post above, I use those only for travel, not at home. Obviously taking enough shampoo from the hotel for daily home use would involve more than just keeping the bottle they leave in the room! :)

  9. guinness416 says:

    There’s probably a whole post in you which I’d really like to see in saving money when on business trips. I don’t travel for work as much as I used to (thank god, I hate it) but every time I do I end up leaking my own money in ways I can’t put on expenses.

  10. plonkee says:

    I’ve always used miniature toiletries for travelling. I often get a sample set for Christmas or my birthday, and have a complete set of toiletries so I don’t forget my toothbrush or something.

    Travelling only using a carry-on is brilliant if you can manage it. For a business trip, I’d probably be at a 3 day maximum (unless I was exceptionally creative) but for leisure I’ve done a week easily, and I’m sure I could stretch it to two.

  11. Coupon Fetcher says:

    Great idea on the empty water bottle. I typically end up buying one once I get thru security but I like your idea better.

    Even though I understand it, people that bring on the huge carryon bug me. They can never find a place to put it and they end of slowing everybody down walking up and down the aisle looking for empty overhead.

  12. Paul says:

    I do the same thing as klf from the above post. Granted, you have to go to a store and buy the bottles at about .50/ea, but they are refillable and have lasted me a long time. Great for the gym too.

  13. The thing that really burns me is contact lens solution. I’ve never been able to find lens solution in bottles smaller than 4 ounces – except in really expensive “travel compliance” packaging. Then you pay for a full size bottle, a 2 ounce bottle and yet another lens case that I don’t need.


    If anyone has a tip for this, please share!

  14. Kat says:

    I am right there with you on the contact lens solution! The smallest is 4 ounces, although once I was given a 2 ounce from my eye dr. Of course that bottle wasn’t refillable.

  15. Aryn says:

    Each time I visit my optometrist, he gives me free sample bottles of contact solution that are within the idiotic 3 oz. limit. You can actually refill them, it just takes work. Once it’s empty, open the cap and pull on the plastic cord that attaches the cap on the bottle. With a little effort, it pops right off. Then I refill it with my solution and snap the top back on.

  16. Paul says:

    What about getting a small bottle of solution, whatever the max is, I think it’s 2.5oz or less, and when it runs out poking a small hole in the side near the top, refilling it with a large bottle and covering the hole with tape? Maybe putting it in a ziploc bag in case of leakage? Just an idea I’ve seen my wife use.

  17. Otis says:

    This technique has worked well for me. Since my company has a good per diem for food, but won’t pay for ANYTHING else. I have sometimes bartered food items with staff members for services.

    My favorite was when I was able to trade a few beers that I got for my stay with some guys at the surf shop. Instead of drinking a few in the hotel room, I ended up surfing for the whole week on a ‘free’ board! And I stayed sotally tober.

    Also, to keep things cheap you can go see sights in just about every town completely for free. Be it the Cherry on a spoon in Minneapolis, the historic trail in Boston, parks, use the per diem to buy a beer at the top of the Hancock center in Chicago instead of paying to ride to the top, run around Town Lake in Austin, jog through Central Park…

    Just be nice to people on your trips and they can clue you in to all sorts of cool interesting things to do that are free and fun.

  18. Wearing flip flops and avoid wearing a belt will save you lots of time. Flip flops are easier to slip on and off and the belt – it won’t beep while you’re trying to get through security.

  19. BigRed says:

    There have been whole women’s clothing design lines devoted to travel coordinates (clothing that works in separate pieces to make many different outfits). Black is a great travel color, and coordinates with almost anything, including other black clothing that is from a different line (other colors don’t match well-navy is a good example). A skirt suit, an extra pair of pants or two, a couple of hand washable tops, and maybe a matching skirt and blouse, and a pair of plain black, comfortable pumps or two, and you really can make it through a week without wearing the same outfit twice (nice for when you’re traveling for work). And, if you can stand to fly in a semi-nice outfit, that saves room for casual stuff to wear for sightseeing or staying in the hotel and getting extra work done.

  20. Katy Raymond says:

    I finally BEGGED airport security to tell me why I, a middle-aged freckle-faced woman, ALWAYS get pulled aside to pat down. Turns out it’s because I wear skirts for comfort on the plane! “You could be hiding anything under there,” I was told. News to me!

    BTW, a new contact lens case with screw on tops is great for carrying small amounts of gels, ointments, sunscreen, and toothpaste. Just make sure you don’t brush your teeth with the Preparation H!! ;)

  21. Ann says:

    Renu Multi Purpose Solution for soft contacts comes in 2 oz bottles. That’s what I normally travel with. I even take that if I check my luggage, because there’s no sense dragging a heavy bottle around if you’re only going on a short trip.

  22. Dariaclone says:

    Technically, contact solution falls into the medical exception, but it seems like a hassle to risk arguing with TSA. I just always take the 4 oz. bottles with no problem. I don’t know that I would risk trying to refill them though. My eyes are important to me and I don’t want to risk infection.

  23. KM says:

    I’m not crazy about refilling my water bottle from the water fountain, as studies have shown that water fountains in public buildings tend to be eight times germier than toilets in public buildings. So I bring a full bottle of water, chug it while waiting in the line for the security check, and throw out the bottle as I get to the front. Not as ecologically friendly as your way, but unless I am horrifically delayed or on a very long flight, it’s enough water till they come around with the sky carts.

  24. JT says:

    Contact lens solution is an exception, I always take more than 4 oz in a carry on and never get hassled for it.

    I agree with the previous poster on packing tips. Take neutral colors and items that all coordinate with each other…plus some easy to pack accessories like scarves. Than you can change your outfit every day and still look like you are wearing something different. I never check-in baggage; I have gotten very good at packing a versatile but minimal amount into a 22 inch rollaboard carryon, plus my laptop case as my second carry-on.

  25. Mike says:

    For those who like to re-fill bottles, here is a great solution I have been using Pitotubes:


    They are more expensive than trail sizes, but they last forever and are sturdy. I used them 200,000 miles in 2007 and not one leak!

  26. I’m with Adam on grabbing the miniature toiletries from hotels, and I even go one step further…I’ll ask for extras, haha. I have a basket of them at home that I grab anytime I’m going to be traveling. In that basket, I also have things from previous international flights I’ve taken where they give you a grab back of goodies like toothbrushes and miniature tubes of toothpaste, combs, etc. Additionally, most hotels even keep toothpaste, combs, toothbrushes, etc at the check in desk and will give you one if you ask.

    You may call me cheap, but I say thrifty!

  27. jill says:

    I also do the empty water bottle technique(I’m not sure how airport water could be germier than water anywhere else, since it all comes from the same source?). I also bring an empty starbucks travel mug and my own tea bags or packets of “java juice” (single serving coffee extract foil packsthat are .5 oz each). I always offer to pay something for the hot water from Starbucks, but they’ve always given it to me for free.

  28. Lisa says:

    Agree on the slip on shoes. When I get to the airport, I pack my winter coat in the top of my check-in suit case (knock on wood, I haven’t lost it yet) so I don’t have to go through security with it or find space on in the cabin for it. I long ago quit with the pesky contacts and got glasses. A trip involving snorkling only required a free sample of contacts from my generous eye doctor. I travel a lot so I too keep the prepacked toiletries bag (with its own toothbrush etc. so nothing is forgotten).
    I’ve learned the hard way to check before hand if any of my flights are the little commuter jets that don’t take the big carry-ons. Then I can plan accordingly to put the stuff I don’t want lost in the smaller bag that stays in the cabin (ie: legal papers, cell phone, passport, etc.).

  29. ablemabel says:

    You can bring real food through security as long as it isn’t liquid. I often bring sandwiches, pasta salads, or any other solid leftovers. Personally I can’t survive 8 hours of traveling with granola bars!

    a small tube of toothpaste only costs about a dollar, and if you don’t travel often it will last a long time.

    I *definitely* agree with carrying on a few changes of clothing, especially if you are attending an important event the next day. I can’t tell you how many times (I travel frequently for business) I’ve heard people lamenting that the airline lost the clothes they need for the funeral the next day, the job interview the next day, etc.

    All my frugality is going to be wasted though, when I succumb to the intense desire to buy the sound-reducing headphones… must…resist…

  30. Gayle says:

    The bulk of my travel these days is international and to some fairly remote places. I try to make it as easy on myself as possible when I know I am going to be travelling for sometimes 24-36 hours.

    Pack lightly, they are enforcing weight and size limits. Don’t invite them to hassle you. A friend of mine tried to sneak by, and then tried to charm them into it. He came within minutes of missing the weekly flight to our African destination. Had to dump his excess on the spot.

    Girls, forget the underwires, they will cause you grief, and you won’t like that patdown. Comfortable, slip on shoes. Socks, you don’t want to be walking barefoot on those floors anywhere in the world. Extra quart size ziploc bags, I have come to the rescue for quite a few people just giving them away in line. They will sell you one for a dollar if you forget, or think they are not really serious about that requirement. They are.

    I have had water bottles confiscated any number of places inside of security areas. Then they sell you another one in that particular airport. It’s a racket and you know it, but there is no way I am drinking out of anything but a water bottle that I personally unsealed. This is not a frugality issue it is a health issue.

    For me spending a few dollars in airports for convenience is not a big deal and saves me a lot of hassle with inspections and running through airports with heavy loads. On domestic returns I check everything but my purse and reading materials and find it to be very freeing. I also have a nice jacket with inside pockets that is very handy.

  31. Jen says:

    if you wear the “Chuck Taylor” style of sneakers, they don’t ask you to take your shoes off as the soles are flat and very thin.

    Also, don’t refill your contact solution bottle, it’s not sanitary. Call your eye doctor and see if they can set you up.

    Same with your dentist and little tubes of toothpaste.

    Here’s one, we were flying with our toddler after he was off of bottles (about 15mo) but still drank whole milk. A baby bottle of milk is allowed, but sippy cups of milk are up to the descretion of the TSA agent. So we took a baby bottle of milk, and an empty sippy. In the airport, poured the milk into the sippy. A little dishonest, but whole milk is crutial before 2yrs for brain development, and I don’t bend when it comes to my kids.

    LLBean makes a healthy back bag that my mother got me for Christmas a few years ago, and I only use it for traveling. It’s deceptively large. I think I could go for an overnight trip with just it. But it’s also compact and the way it sits on the shoulder really does make it seem lighter.

    Finally, if you’re really interested in saving packing space, REI sells underwear made out of a fabric that dries really quickly. They claim that they dry overnight, so you wash them everynight in the hotel and they’re dry in the morning and you don’t need to pack any undies at all. But I think I would pack a spare in case they didn’t dry that fast. I think they make socks too. Isn’t that a riot, traveling for an indefinite period of time with 1 pair of undies and 1 pr of socks.

  32. mp says:

    Like other people have mentioned, refilling the small bottles of contact lens solution is a risk because the solution would no longer be sterile. After dealing with multiple contact solution recalls as well as a couple of minor eye irritations/infections that required doctor visits, I switched the daily disposable contact lenses. Considering the fact that I no longer have to buy contact solution and I haven’t had an eye problems since getting them, I think the cost works out almost the same as using 2 week or monthly disposables.

  33. Kat says:

    Interesting to see what people find acceptable by the TSA and what isn’t. Our airport, even if you have flip flops on, the shoes MUST come off. Underwires have never been a problem for me and neither has my skirt wearing habit.
    My S.O. has had issues with bringing his CAP machine, even with a note from the dr. My mother has had issues of being able to fly out of one airport with two ziplock baggies, one for her medicine and the other for makeup, etc and then when flying out of a different airport being told she must have all of her stuff in one. Of course she lost a lot of little stuff because she couldn’t fit all of her cancer meds in the bag with her makeup, so out the makeup went. My dad even tried to take some of her stuff and they wouldn’t let him.
    She has also had problems wearing sweat shirts. She was pulled out of line and told to remove it. She had just had surgery on her breast and couldn’t move her arm very much and was not wearing a t-shirt. The TSA agent got mad at her and my father who tried to help her and then patted her down so rough she was bruised. Of course filing a compliant does nothing.

  34. Sunbee says:

    It depends on why you’re traveling and how much flexibility you have, but the last time we needed to make a longer trip than we cared to drive we took a train. It worked out pretty well for us: even with buying some food on the train it cost only about half of plane tickets. (We brought granola bars and such with us.) There was security, but they were polite and reasonable, and the security requirements were sensible. If you are accustomned to airplanes you will not believe how big train seats are: they recline and you can comfortably sleep in them. The only downside was that some of the tracks were very rough and the children got motion sick. The children were fine on the sailboat at the wedding at our destination, so that gives you an idea how bad the tracks were.

    I swore off plane traveling after flying eight months pregnant with an 18 month old. No chairs to sit on to get the kid’s shoes off, let alone mine, and it wasn’t like I could even see my feet! Just plain inconsiderate, and that was four years ago. TSA seems to be much more badly behaved now.

  35. turbogeek says:

    “The Container Store” has a section of little bottles and such designed to solve the ‘how do I carry it these days’ dilemma. They are pricier than some other ‘little bottles’, but don’t leak.

    I traveled for 10+ years, 4 to 6 flights per week, and in that time I only checked a bag a dozen or so times (I logged 2 million miles with American from 1998 to 2007). It can be done frugally. Aritificial fibers, like polyester, will pack smaller with less wrinkling than natural fibers like cotton, they are also typically lighter (compare a pair of polyester trousers to a pair of jeans – big difference). The $300+ bags (like Tumi) seem pricey, but if you are traveling a lot a bag that is 2 pounds lighter, durable enough to take the abuse, and has lots of ‘load cinching’ straps and pouches will let you pack a lot more. When you can fit more into less space you are 1) less in need of purchases on your journey, and 2) less cranky because the bag is a more manageable size.

  36. db says:


    I hope the TSA people felt proud to make your poor mother strip down to her skin and then bruise her. Poor woman! That’s absolutely ridiculous.

  37. Heather says:

    There are small toothpaste tubes, generally that fit on the bottom of travel toothbrushes, which are easily refilled. They thread onto the top of regular toothpaste tubes. Do a search for “refillable handle toothpaste”

  38. ryan says:

    As a former hotel manager I will say this. I can’t think of a situation where anyone would object to someone taking their shampoo, conditioner etc. with them at the end of their stay. As has already been mentioned it’s just going in the trash anyway. In fact if someone would come to the front desk we would just give them pretty much whatever they wanted within reason. On the other hand guests that take the shampoo every day for a multiple day stay, forcing housekeeping to bring in more if it’s not needed always made me angry.

  39. Monica says:

    You forgot to mention getting meal vouchers. Anytime I am ever delayed, I go to the desk and ask for compensation. I almost always get a meal voucher for free food while in the airport. I don’t know if I happen to always get the seriously delayed flights to where I’m eligible but it never hurts to ask.

  40. Leah says:

    to piggy back on this thread – I always pack a lunch (sandwich, apple, granola bar) and a book on a trip. Also, to add to the empty water bottle, tap water tastes BAD. Those crystal lite togo packs to flavor the water are decent and only cost $1.50 a box at Wal Mart.
    And to add to the shoes off – wear slip ons with socks folks. A friend of mine got ringworm from the dirty floors at the airport!

  41. i says:

    new protest song on myspace,in reference to the expenses one spends at the airport,this song should be a huge hit,if we all protest.check it out if you can,


  42. Jenny says:

    I use extra contact lens cases for makeup for travelling (or last bits) They are just perfect for foundation, cream blush, or that last bit of lipstick from the tube. I actually don’t use contacts, but I get extras from people who do.

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