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Have gifts, will travel: a guide

JEAN HELLER
Published December 27, 2003

Christmas is over, and the first wave of holiday travelers will be heading home. But passengers, toting holiday booty that could range from snappy new electronics to a crate of Florida oranges, will find challenges at Tampa International Airport and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Here's a brief survival guide:

Can I carry electronic gifts such as laptops, game players, and DVD and CD players on board with me?

Yes, if you don't mind getting hard looks from those in the security line with you. Laptops will have to be removed from their cases and scanned separately. All other electronics can remain in your carryon, but if anything looks suspicious or can't readily be identified on the X-ray machines, you will have to take it out and turn it on to demonstrate it is what it appears. The more gadgets you have, the longer is will take to get through security.

If I have to travel with some electronic gear, am I doomed to a long delay at the checkpoints?

Not necessarily. Leave as much behind as you can, especially accessories. Limit yourself to one cell phone (yes, some people carry more). And ask yourself whether you really need both a CD player and a DVD player for a two-hour flight.

Is there anything else I should worry about carrying on?

Everyone should know by now that you cannot carry on sharp objects, sporting goods, weapons, tools, martial arts equipment, explosive material, flammable items, chemicals and toiletry objects with sharp points.

Oddly enough, cheese and chocolate are on the list of no-nos for checked bags. They contain ingredients which, for reasons the Transportation Security Administration can't explain, set off security alarms. And if you take nitroglycerine pills, carry them with you and tell security agents at the checkpoints that you have them. You also should think twice about carrying stuffed animals, which security is looking at more closely as hiding places for explosives. Consider putting them in checked bags or mailing them home, if your child will permit it.

Is it okay to lock checked luggage if I am shipping gifts inside?

Only if you were among the few lucky ones who managed to buy the new locks approved by the TSA before they sold out. TSA screeners have master tools that can open them, and the screeners can relock them after the security search. But the locks won't be available again until January. If you don't have those locks, it is not safe to lock checked bags because TSA screeners have the authority to break the locks (and, as sometimes happens, damage the bags) if they have to get inside.

Does it matter how much checked bags weigh?

Yes. On some airlines there are limits for checked bags and stiff charges for bags that weigh more. Most of the limits are 50 pounds, though frequent fliers and first-class passengers often are exempt. Among the airlines that have such limits are Continental, Northwest and Delta. Check with your carrier if you plan to pack that new weight set.

Can I take citrus out of Florida?

Domestically, yes. Internationally, no. For travel in the United States, you can carry it on or check it with your luggage. But if you pack it in a checked bag, the TSA urges you to put it at the top. Citrus is dense, and if security scanners can't see through an item, it is a sure bet screeners will open the checked bag for closer inspection. Having the fruit out in the open will speed the search process and result in less chaos to the rest of your unmentionables.

Can I accompany to the gate a minor traveling alone or a senior citizen who might need help, even though I am not traveling and don't have a ticket?

Generally, no. You can ask the airline to issue you a gate pass, but the airlines are turning down most requests because of the heightened state of national alert and the fact that security lines already are so long. Most airlines will make arrangements to have one of their employees accompany travelers who need extra help. Or a Skycap may do it.

What is parking like?

Christmas is only the first wave of travel this time of year. A lot of people fly for the New Year's celebrations. Some spaces are available at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport's shuttle lots. The long-term lot, which has been full for a week, could see a few spaces open up as the weekend progresses. At Tampa International Airport, long-term parking and the remote economy lot were opening and closing all day Friday with spaces at a premium. The overflow holiday lot was full. The short-term garage still has about 1,200 spaces available. Shuttles to TIA's holiday lot will run through Jan. 4.

Is there extra security at the airports because of the nation's orange alert status? Yes. Cars entering both area airports might be searched at random. This is a direct result of the orange alert status. At TIA, other searches go on regardless of the security status. The luggage areas of vehicles entering the short-term garage are searched, and anyone using valet parking must wait while their vehicles are searched.

In short, everyone is advised to leave some extra time for vehicle checks.

Is security still difficult inside the airports?

Yes. It is recommended that you arrive at least two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international.

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