Should You — And Legally, *Can* You — Lock Your Luggage When You Check It?

Here are the facts on the oft disputed topic.

Maybe you've seen the videos of airline crew rifling through bags, or maybe you've had something turn up missing mysteriously. So you might be inclined to lock up that luggage before checking it the next time you fly — but should you? And moreover, is it even permitted?

The short answer, according to travel agent and managing director of MickeyTravels Greg Antonelle, is yes. Hence why many of the products in emerging luggage companies, like Away, feature locks. There’s no harm in putting a seal on your packed goods for your new trip away, but Antonelle is careful to note that if the TSA spots something suspicious in your pack, a lock or key code isn’t going to stop them. In fact, by law, they have every right to break that bad boy open, even causing damage.  

As the TSA shares on its blog, “In some cases, TSA officers will have to open your baggage as part of the screening process. If your bag is unlocked, then our officer will simply open and screen the baggage if any item alarms. However, if you decide to lock your checked baggage and TSA cannot open it through other means, then the locks may have to be cut…. TSA is careful to not damage any personal belongings, however, we are not liable for damage caused to locked bags that must be opened for security purposes.”

While every airline will offer different recommendations, the vast majority of major players — like Delta, United, Jetblue and others — is to check-in lock free. American Airlines’ site explicitly advises leaving your bag safely, securely zipped — but not locked.

That being said, Antonelle explains there are TSA-approved locks sold in various retail and luggage stores that lock and unlock with a universal or master key. “This key is used by baggage inspectors and will prevent your luggage or lock being damaged. If baggage inspectors deem it necessary to check the contents inside your luggage, they will find a way to do it. You can't really lock them out.”

Whether you choose to lock or not depends on your personal comfort zone and trust level. While Anontelle says as long as your luggage closes securely, there is no reason for it to be locked, the TSA’s website says added security doesn’t always have to be a bad idea. Why? It still gives you protection against possible theft, since the only people who can open a TSA-approved lock are — you guessed it — part of the TSA, those handling your suitcase, tagging it, and sending it through baggage claim won’t be able to wiggle it open.

In addition to these one-of-a-kind locks, Antonelle recommends zip ties as an extra measure. “These are very cheap, and if a baggage screener needs to search your luggage, they can simply cut the zip tie and you don’t risk ruining your luggage,” he explains.

Regardless of what you choose, a smart rule of thumb is to keep anything you can’t replace in your carry-on, or on your person at all times. These might include prescription medicine, jewelry, cash, documents, and other must-have items that would be a pain to replace in the event someone wreaked havoc on your checked bag.

Here are a list of TSA-approved locks if you do choose to lock up your stuff.

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