I never realized that being a proud female solo traveler would translate to “DRUG MULE” until I reached the final TSA customs checkpoint at LAX and immediately got sent to the secondary search line. Since I’m not in fact a drug mule, nor do I do or deal drugs, it didn’t occur to me that when he asked if I was alone or with friends, it was to figure out what I was doing in Central America.
Of course I went and said “Alone but I was visiting friends in Panama“, which I now realize is the exact scenario that a drug mule would actually be in, so I had to go through the embarrassing luggage search by the semi-attractive male TSA agent, who after tousling through my dirty laundry says, “Ok, I didn’t find any narcotics, you’re good to go.”
No one cared that I was traveling alone when I had to take Malaysia Air…
Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t the first time saying the wrong thing to TSA has landed me in an inconvenience or in trouble, and I highly doubt it’ll be the last. Luckily I at least know a few trigger words to avoid, that might help you out as well.
1. “I Have Friends That Live There”
Apparently it is not normal to have friends in other countries, and as mentioned above, it automatically flags you as sketchy, and potentially a drug mule. If you’re alone, you might want to consider saying your friends were on another flight, you went to a wellness retreat, you don’t have any friends, whatever, just don’t let them know that you were hanging with locals, especially if you were in a country known for drug trafficking.
2. “Yes, This is My Only Bag”
Oh it’s your only bag? Let me just check that out for you.
I guess you can’t really avoid this question if you really only have one small carry on, but usually it’s a red flag for “drug mules” who fly somewhere for the weekend to pick things up or something. Maybe you can act clever and say something like, “No I have my purse/backpack too”, but that just might further entice them.
3. “I Was Just There For The Weekend”
For some reason, saying you were just traveling internationally for the weekend also isn’t normal, especially if you’re alone. Try to remember to say the exact amount of days you were there so it doesn’t seem like you just flew in to swoop some goodies up and head back before Monday.
4. “Because I Wanted to Go”
If TSA asks you what your purpose for traveling to another country was, don’t be stupid and say “because I wanted to go”. Not only does that sound beyond cocky, and might actually piss them off, but it’s not exactly a reason for being somewhere according the TSA. If you really just wanted to go, say “vacation”, or “research”, just make sure to give an actual reason.
5. “I’m Self-Employed”
Do not let them thing you’re smuggling anything.
Don’t say or write that you are “self-employed” to TSA or customs. Drug dealers are “self-employed”. You do not want them to think you are a drug dealer unless you actually want a bag or cavity search. Try to give as much details as possible about your job without giving them your life story. Being vague will only make TSA raise an eyebrow.
6. “Yes, I’ve Been to Africa”
Sometimes TSA talks really fast and you can’t hear what they’re asking you, like, “Have you been to Africa in the past six months?”. I think I’ve accidentally said yes to this twice because all I heard was “Africa” and didn’t realize they were checking for potential Ebola carriers. Either way, when you hear the Africa question…just say no.
7. “Ummm, I don’t think so”
Another speedy question, “Do you have any liquids, aerosols, or firearms?” They say it so fast that I usually get stuck trying to think if I put my lipgloss in a plastic bag without considering that it might appear like I’m pondering where I put my gun (I don’t have one, just saying). Here’s a tip, anything they ask you…just say no.
8. “I travel a lot.”
This is a hit or miss. If TSA is looking through all of your passport stamps, letting them know you travel a lot could help you…orrrr it could make you look like you’re trafficking drugs all over the world. Maybe if you include why you travel a lot it’ll make more sense, but just remember not to say, “because I wanted to go”.
9. “I’m in a rush”
Even if your flight is about to take off or your ride is bitching at you to come outside, try to remain calm and refrain from saying something like “I’m in a rush”. TSA workers are the last people you want to rush, and I wouldn’t doubt if they took extra long to check your stuff if you tried to rush them. If anything, ask the people in front of you if you can go ahead of them, or if you really are about to miss your flight…cry.
Keep in mind that you are the one who is supposed to be getting questioned, and that TSA has to check and question thousands of people per day. Do not ask them “why” you have to open your bag, or “why” you have to take off your jacket, just do it before you get stuck in customs getting interrogated.
Alyssa is a self-made, full time travel blogger who loves adventure and typically travels the world solo. She's been to 53 countries and 6 continents so far, and believes she has mastered the art of chasing waterfalls, traveling solo, wine drinking, and making budget-traveling look good. Curious to know how she started this career? Check out the About section above!