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This Is What a TSA Agent First Notices About You

While it's nice to be noticed, this isn't the kind of attention you want. Here's what to avoid if you want to fly through security.

woman watching as a tsa agent searches her bagJodi Jacobson/Getty Images

You’re on the TSA’s radar

You’re walking through security at the airport when suddenly the TSA agent gives you that look. You know the one: It’s the one that means your bag is going to be swiftly removed from the lineup to be checked, the one that means you are going to be stalled in security for another 10 minutes while every single item in your bag is inspected. But why? What did you do wrong? Are there red flags that you didn’t know about and mistakes that you’re accidentally making? In short, yes! We spoke with TSA workers and travel experts to find out why you’re on the TSA’s radar—and how to stay off of it during your next trip. While you’re at it, make sure you know these 13 things you should never do at the airport.

Studio shot of a senior woman posing against a grey background looking downshapecharge/Getty Images

Avoiding eye contact

Perhaps you have other things on your mind—like all that traveling you’re about to do. Or maybe you’re just an introvert and don’t particularly love interacting with strangers. But to a TSA agent, it could signify something else entirely, says former TSA agent Richard Rozins. “The eyes are the first place a TSA agent looks,” Rozins says. If you’re unable to look a TSA agent in the eyes, you’re likely going to be stopped so he can make sure there’s no security reason for it. Eye contact is important in other aspects of your life as well. Here are 15 body language mistakes you make during job interviews.

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Looking at your luggage

Worried that you may have forgotten something? Or perhaps you’re nervous that something in the bag may set off the alarms. “If a person is frantically looking at their luggage, that is a giveaway that something is not right,” Rozins says. Take a breath before walking through security, take a moment to get your life together, and at least try to look calm, even if you aren’t feeling all that relaxed. By the way, these are the things that will likely get your luggage flagged by the TSA.

man in a shirt and tie covering his mouth with one hand. gray background.g-stockstudio/Getty Images

Talking about bad things

Not bad things like a breakup—bad things like bombs or firearms. Of course, this will absolutely get you pulled off to the side. Even asking the TSA agents about weapons (i.e., asking what weapons are allowed on a plane or why you can’t bring your gun) will get you questioned. In fact, you can get arrested for joking about bombs while in line. Pro tip: Keep quiet. Silence is definitely golden in regard to this topic. Here are some more secrets to speeding through airport security.

Studio shot of a redhead woman with a braided up-do posing against a gray backgroundPeopleImages/Getty Images

Intricate hairdos

We’ve been there, done that. Every single time we wear our hair in a lazy bun (it’s our travel go-to style), we get frisked. But why? Jennifer Wilnechenko, editor at, a travel info site, says there’s a reason why those lazy buns get a second look, as well as more involved styles. “Passengers with an intricate and elaborate hairdo like braids and updos can lead to additional inspection, as they’re capable of concealing weapons and equipment,” she says. Plus, bobby pins will also set off the metal detector. The good news: A quick hair frisk (they pat you down in your hair) will eliminate any concerns, and it can be done quickly. Just FYI, these are the 12 things your TSA security agent isn’t telling you.

close up of long dress hem, ankles, and sneakersDeagreez/Getty Images

A long dress

Sure, it’s easy to travel in a long dress—and it’s super comfy. But this might be something you’ll want to avoid if you don’t want a pat-down. Kimberly Pruitt, a former TSA agent from Los Angeles, says officers will need to check to make sure you’re not hiding anything under that long dress or skirt. Still want to be comfortable but avoid the pat-down? Try wearing leggings or loose-fitting pants. Just avoid these 8 things you shouldn’t wear on a plane, according to flight attendants.

close up of a hoodie zippersewer11/Getty Images

Baggy clothing

Sure, it’s comfortable, but it’s also something that TSA agents will flag right away and probably prompt an extra screening, according to Barton Associates. Baggy clothing isn’t necessarily prohibited, but the TSA is wary of your loose clothing because they can’t tell what you might be hiding under it. They may even need to pat you down. Also, make sure you don’t bring prohibited food. Here are 6 surprising foods you can’t bring on a plane—and 7 you can.

portrait of a nervous womandrbimages/Getty Images


You may be nervous because you’re a nervous traveler. Or you may be nervous for another reason that’s not so innocent. The TSA has been trained to be on the lookout for nervous passengers—those who clear their throats often and those who appear shaky, pale, or wide-eyed. So, that said, anything that makes you look nervous could set off a TSA agent, as they’re trained in a SPOT program, which uses behavioral indications to identify people who pose a risk. Another reason you could be targeted? You’re carrying an odd item or one that you’re simply not allowed to take on a plane. To make your next trip a whole lot easier, look into these 7 pre-screens that will speed you through airport security.

Miniature Spirits/Liquour Bottle Mock-Up - Multiple Bottles. Blank LabelsShablon/Getty Images

Drinking before your flight

One or two drinks is totally fine. But if you’re drunk, it could be a serious offense. If a TSA agent senses that you’re intoxicated, he can call the police to do a blood alcohol check, and you could potentially be kicked out of the airport. You’ll probably be asked about the number of drinks you’ve consumed and if you’re feeling tipsy. In the best-case scenario, you’ll be taken out of the line and delayed—or, who knows, you might actually get through, since many people do manage to get through drunk. Do know, however, that aviation law forbids you from being drunk on a plane for safety reasons. Next, find out the 13 ways air travel will change in 2020.


Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff regularly covers travel, health and lifestyle for Reader's Digest. Her articles have also been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Boston Globe and other publications. She has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and a master's degree in musicology from Oxford University in England. Danielle is based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two children. See her recent articles at You can follow her on Facebook @Danielle.Karpinos, Twitter @daniellebraff, and Instagram at danikarp.