Fox, Goat, Cabbage, and the Airport X-Ray Puzzle

You know you travel too often when you find yourself trying to optimize the personal disassembly/reassembly around airport security. It’s like the old puzzle of the fox, the goat, and the cabbage. Which goes off/on first?

For example, if you take your shoes off last, then they will arrive after your luggage has been screened, leaving you trying to shove your feet into your shoes while impatient fellow passengers mill about.

After much iteration, my current system works like this:

  1. Remove items from laptop bag while approach screening machine.
  2. Take off shoes and put them on counter. This is important to do first.
  3. Put laptop, wallet, keys and phone in one tray, and leave that on counter.
  4. Put laptop on counter behind tray with laptop.
  5. Put rollerbag on counter behind laptop bag.
  6. Push everything along in four-item train into screening machine.

It’s important to put shoes on counter immediately, because otherwise you risk having them come last. You can always put on shoes while fumbling with other bags, so it’s best if you put them through first.

Similarly, if you put laptop and wallet ahead of laptop bag, you can grab those items and insert wallet in pocket and flip the laptop into the laptop bag in one smooth move.

By the time the roller bag comes through you should have keys and wallet in pocket, laptop in bag, shoes on feet, and out you whiz while the tourists are still trying to find their boarding passes that they mistakenly put in their luggage.


  1. Battle Axe says:

    One optimization recommendation from seasoned traveller:
    – put all walet, cellphone, keys, etc. into outer pocket of laptop bag/ backpack while waiting in line
    You can remove later once beyond security and the crush of the milling masses.

  2. I agree with Battle Axe (did I just type that?). Keep the lose stuff in something else … laptop bag or sports coat. That’s the only significant difference I have with your plan. Since I have the sports coat for most trips, I put it behind the shoes. Shoes (slip on) drop the the floor and I put my feet in them while pulling on the coat.

  3. I do the same as Battle Axe…except I do it all before I leave for the airport. By removing it all in advance I don’t hold up the line and I KNOW I don’t have any metal on me or prohibitive items.
    Most airlines now let you check in prior to reaching the airport. If you can do this…do it. If you have bags to check you can then just drop them at the bag check at the curb outside.
    With long check in lines…this is best to just go to security and avoid the front kiosks.
    One difference with Chip’s plan is that with a sports coat, you often have items fall out of the pockets…so you can easily lose your most important items. Best to use your laptop or carry-on bag for this.

  4. Thanks, Alan, now I’m sure to lose something that way! (Though I haven’t yet!) I still put most in my laptop bag before the security line (as you do). But I put my watch and money clip in my sports coat exterior pockets. The flap generally holds them in.

  5. Stompin_PT says:

    A seasoned traveller myself, I use the same system as Battle Axe and it’s encouraging people have made similar optimization moves. Why don’t I ever see you in front of me in line?
    Speaking of which, anyone have a tried and true methodology for picking which security line will move the fastest — i.e. better to go behind business travellers who have more stuff but should hopefully know the drill vs. tourists with little to no carry on? Kids: pro or con? Or does it all just seem to depend on the speed of the particular TSA agent running the x-ray machine?

  6. Don’t forget 1 quart ziplock with gels. Keep in outer flap of Tumi and remove ahead of putting rollaway on conveyor. Also, I don’t leave cell or wallet in suit/sportscoat pocket, as they can and will escape (Pearl escape at SFO). Lastly, boarding pass goes in dress shirt pocket, since TSA has no standards about whether they do/don’t need you to show your pass to the screener.
    Bonus add: Best overhead line from TSA screener in Vegas: ” ….no gels, no alcohol, no liquids, no snowglobes…” Yeah, watch those killer snowglobes!

  7. Or, Paul, you could move back to Canada, where, similar to Europe, you don’t have to remove your shoes (unless they’re real clunkers).

  8. Great post and comments….too bad the people who need to read this stuff won’t get this kind of advice.
    Someone really ought to fund a PSA series of commercials on this. I know I’d expense a contribution.

  9. I also put watch, loose change, keys, etc… in my jacket pocket. I don’t have to wear a sportcoat or suit so my rain jacket has zippered pockets which keep everything safe.
    What amazes me is the number of people who still travel by air and wear cowboy boots or some sort of intricate lace up shoes. I’m at the point now where other than one pair of wingtips and runners all of my shoes now are loafer or some sort of slip on.

  10. When you don’t have secure pockets, your shoes are the next best thing.
    I dump my wallet, cell phone, keys, and watch (heavy steel band) into my shoes as soon as my shoes go on the counter. In most facilities, shoes go directly into the scanner, not into a bin.

  11. @Chris – do you and I live in the same Europe, or does UK not count as Europe? Shoes are routinely asked for removal in London airports for instance, however some are smarter than others. Stansted has a separate shoe x-ray after bags and coats have been x-rayed and everyone must just put shoes through that x-ray machine.
    In general, should airports not try a bit to make things easier for travellers? Why not separate frequent fliers from the riff-raff (haha!) who need to read rules before figuring they must remove outer jacket, coins from pockets and so on?

  12. The fast pass that costs a lot, requires heavy background checks, two separate matching biometrics, and makes boarding for trusted passengers a breeze?
    Yeah, that’ll happen. not

  13. Dorrian says:

    Battle Axe is absolutely right and your post would have been brilliant if you had included this innovation. There are times when I don’t make the move to put all loose pocket items into laptop front pocket (including keys which can stay there until I’m back to the car), but I always regret it… that’s why you used the word “should” in the sentence “should have keys and wallet in pocket”… because something was telling you that you’ve fumbled that a lot of times. Something was telling you to innovate.

  14. It’s not a security line quote, but one from a flight attendant that I thought I’d share after reading Drake’s comment. On a recent flight, the attendant said “Please do not conjugate in the aisles.”

  15. I’d like a stylish velcro sports coat or perhaps a specialized velcro travel vest. Affix all of your odds and ends to your velcro jacket: laptop bag, keys, toiletries. The order of items to be placed onto the conveyor belt: shoes, velcro jacket, laptop, roller bag. After scanning, you slip on your shoes and velcro jacket simultaneously, then grab the laptop and roller bag. While walking to the gate, casually peel off the affixed items and put them away. There you have it, productivity p0rn at it’s best.

  16. Rafael Montoya says:

    Once I was asked to remove all my paper clips from the documents in my briefcase, even the plastic ones.
    I have a similar approach to Paul´s system, but I reinforce it with reading the persons on the lines in front of the security:
    a) avoid persons with large amounts of jewelry, not only with boots. Once my wife and I were held by a young housewife who even had fantasy jewelry laced underwear that will not move from the line to get her stuff off her until she had a long discussion with the security supervisor. Her husband wisely sneaked away from the line.
    b) two parents with children usually work in tandem and are pretty fast because the drill is similar to what they do every day. Avoid the one parent alone with kids. Avoid families with senior members and kids because the grandparents interfere with the handling of everything.
    c) Tourists with backpacks are usually efficient. But avoid turists who are fancily dressed, because at least they will refuse to put their fancy coats in the “dirty” xray conveyor.
    The problem now is that usually they will have only one or two lines at security, even if they have other checkpoints available. One of the facts of life in airports is the budgetary restrictions so do not expect an improvement on this “service” or a helpful hand advising beforehand the non-frequent travellers.

  17. Rafael Montoya says:

    BTW always deal with the security personnel and the airline employees as if they were your workmates. This simple advice will get you thru any airport with much less hassle and most of the time they will go the extra mile to help you in case of a problem.
    99% of the passengers treat them as a nuisance so they react in the same way.