Can You Take A Cooler On A Plane? Find Out!

Can You Take A Cooler On A Plane? Find Out!

Summer vacations. Road trips to see family. Bringing snacks for the kids’ sports tournaments. All scenarios where you may find yourself wondering: can I bring a cooler on my upcoming flight?

The answer is yes, you can bring a cooler through airport screening and onto planes. However, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and individual airlines have guidelines around cooler size, contents, and screening processes.

This article will cover everything you need to know about bringing lunch coolers, beverage coolers, and other types of cooling containers onto flights departing from the United States. You’ll learn:

  • TSA quart-size bags rule and other regulations around cooler screening.
  • Size restrictions for carry-on vs. checked cooler bags.
  • What food and drinks you can and cannot pack inside?
  • Smart tips to avoid leaks, travel delays, and other hassles.
  • Alternatives if skipping bringing your cooler altogether makes more sense.

TSA Regulations for Carry-On and Checked Coolers

When going through airport security with your cooler in tow, the most important rules to follow come directly from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I recommend thoroughly reading through the official TSA website for the latest on permitted cooler sizes, screening policies, and other regulations.

As of 2023, here are the key things we need to know about TSA standards for coolers as carry-on vs. checked baggage when flying:

Carry-On Cooler Rules

TSA is highly specific about cooler dimensions for carrying your chilled container directly onto the plane. The official rule is that the empty cooler must fit easily in the security bin without being jammed or squeezed in.

As I learned speaking to TSA agents at Chicago O’Hare airport, this means adhering to the standard carry-on luggage size maximum:

  • No larger than 22” x 14” x 9” (including wheels and handles)

So your Yeti, RTIC, or other cooler brand needs to clock in under these dimensions.

TSA Screening Process

Additionally, any food coolers or beverage coolers need to undergo standard security screening just like laptop bags, purses, etc. This involves:

  • Placing the empty cooler in a security bin
  • Sending it through the X-ray scanner
  • Potentially opening it for manual inspection if anything seems suspicious in the scan

Be sure to budget 10-15 extra minutes when traveling with a carry-on cooler to accommodate this extensive screening. Pro tip: freeze any gel packs solid so security can identify them.

What Can (and Can’t) You Pack in Your Flight Cooler

When going through TSA screening, security agents will often manually inspect the contents of your cooler. So what is and isn’t allowed? Here’s what I’ve learned from my years navigating food rules for carry-on luggage:

Approved Items

  • Meals and snacks – Sandwiches, salads, fruits, veggies, cheese, baked goods, and other solid foods are all A-OK. Just nothing liquid or overly messy.
  • Frozen items – Pack frozen meals, ice packs, or freezer gel packs to keep items cool en route.
  • Non-alcoholic drinks – Bottled water, juice, soda, and other sealed beverages under 3 oz capacity.

Banned Items

  • Loose ice – Ice cubes or shaved ice are prohibited since they melt into uncontained liquids. Use re-freezable ice/gel packs only.
  • Alcohol – Beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks are not allowed to be packed inside coolers.
  • Melting food – Items that liquify like yogurt, pudding, thawed meat, etc. are banned given leakage potentials.

I like to use an RTIC lunch cooler as my under-seat personal item since it fits TSA quart-size bag allowances for beverages and portioned snack bags while keeping everything chilled.

Expert Tips for Smooth Cooler Travel

Over the years I’ve refined my methods for seamlessly taking a cooler through the airport. Whether stowing it overhead or underneath the seat, here are my top tricks as a seasoned flight attendant:

First, hard-sided models like the YETI Hopper M20 tend to hold up better than soft lunch coolers. Their rigid structure prevents crushing when stuffed in packed overhead bins. I also recommend attaching a luggage tag displaying your name, airport arrival/departure, and any connecting flight details.

To avoid the dreaded cooler leak, use ice or freezer packs instead of loose ice cubes. I once had a Yeti drench my uniform and the business suits next to me thanks to melting ice! Packing drinks in resealable bags adds backup containment.

If possible, don’t pre-stock your cooler with beverages or perishables until after clearing TSA security. This saves time, messy bag checks, and even money since you can’t take drinks bought airside through screening.

Finally, consider items that don’t require chilling if catching tight connections. Warm soda won’t spoil if your layover means lugging an extra item. For longer multi-flight itineraries, forego the cooler hassle entirely and buy food/drinks once past security at your departure or connection airports when possible.

When to Skip The Cooler While Flying

While portable coolers provide convenience on shorter flights, sometimes they create more hassle than they’re worth. Here are smart cooler alternatives for certain trips:

Shipping Items Ahead

If checking a bag with traditional airline fees anyway, consider shipping snacks or premade meals to your destination instead.

Services like FedEx offer cost-effective packaging that meets FAA standards for perishables. This also reduces weight limits for carry-ons.

Purchasing Upon Arrival

For longer journeys with lengthy layovers or multiple connections, stock up on food/drinks once you deplane at your destination airport.

Many offer mouthwatering local options post-security – no need to carry items the whole trip!

Renting Coolers If Driving

On recent road trips and family vacations across the southern United States, we found renting a cooler for the hotel/resort conveniently without flying with one.

Seeking out destinations providing guests with cold storage locker rentals is another fresh alternative I love.


At the end of the day, the main things to remember when taking a cooler bag, lunch cooler, or drink cooler on your flight are:

  • Adhere to TSA carry-on size limits – For a seamless screening, keep it compact like the Yeti Hopper Flip 18.
  • Expect manual bag checks – Open up for agents and repack sealing drinks after.
  • Freeze gel packs fully – Less melt means fewer spills or leaks in transit.
  • Label it clearly – Include key travel details on a luggage tag for easy identification.
  • Buy post-security when possible – Skip dragging items bought airside through screening.
  • Consider cooler shipping/rentals – For long trips, alternatives may be less hassle.

Armed with this complete guide to flying with coolers, you can pack snacks, meals, and cold beverages without sweating the rules or aggravating TSA. Just remember it ultimately comes down to the size, construction, and contents meeting checkpoint regulations.

As a parting thought, don’t forget to fully sanitize your cooler after traveling before the next use! Safe travels with your chilled companions.


What is the exact quart size I can use for beverages?

The TSA 3-1-1 rule allows each liquid container to be 3.4 ounces or less. Most standard quart-size freezer bags meant for liquids fit this quota perfectly.

Can I bring a soft-sided cooler as a personal item?

Yes, lightweight packable soft coolers like the YETI Hopper Flip can be carried on and stashed under seats when empty. Just ensure it truly fits personal item size guidelines outlined by your airline once packed.

Do hard-sided coolers count as carry-ons?

Given their larger, bulkier shape, most hard-sided coolers fall outside the official carry-on size limits dictated by TSA and common airline policies. We recommend checking hard-shell coolers to avoid hassles.

What if my cooler leaks after it was screened?

If you experience cooler leaks or spills after TSA clearance, alert airline staff immediately to avoid short-circuiting sensitive flight equipment. Be honest if asked questions instead of hiding a damaging leak.

Can I use dry ice in my cooler when traveling?

No – dry ice is considered a hazardous material by TSA and FAA guidelines, so it cannot be transported in plane cabins or checked luggage. Stick to re-freezable ice/gel packs only to avoid heavy fines or delays.

Are there different rules for international vs. domestic US flights?

Yes, other nations often have much stricter policies on flying with coolers or certain foods/drinks. When traveling overseas, check both your departure country rules as well as the arrival country cooler regulations.

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