If you want to keep food, drinks, medicine or other items cold when flying it's important to know the rules about what you can and can't bring through airport security as well as what the best ice packs for air travel are.
In this article we'll talk about what ice packs you should use and how you can do the right thing so you get through airport security without any issues and get to keep your food and drinks cold.
Can You Take Ice Packs On a Plane?
The TSA has very clear guidelines that apply to ice packs, frozen gel packs and other frozen liquids like frozen water.
I wrote a full guide to what ice packs you can take through airport security and what you can't but here is the short summary:
Guidelines For Ice Packs In Your Checked Luggage
Ice packs in your checked luggage is easy. They aren't seen as a hazardous material and thus they are allowed in your checked luggage without any real issues.
So if you have large ice packs or need to keep a large amount of food, drinks or medicine cold and you don't need access to it on the plane putting it in a cooler and then in your checked luggage is probably the best solution.
Guidelines For Ice Packs In Your Carry On
It gets a bit more complicated with ice packs. The guidelines are basically as follows
- For an ice pack, frozen gel pack or frozen drink bottle to pass TSA security it must be COMPLETELY frozen with no melted liquid at all. It also can't be slushy
- IF it is melted, slushy or partially melted it is counted as a liquid and must meet TSA's 3-1-1 rule
- All liquids must be in a container that is 3.4 ounces (100 mL) or less and all your liquid containers must fit in a see through and resealable 1-Quart bag
What This Means For Ice Packs and Gel Packs When Flying
Regular Sized Ice Packs Aren't Good For Flying
This basically rules out ice packs for flying. Chances are they will have partial melt and because you can't open them to empty out the liquid there is a good chance they will be confiscated.
Unless you have a great cooler (see my list of best coolers for air travel) or you go through security quite quickly after getting the ice packs out of your freezer they are unlikely to be allowed in your carry on.
Gel Packs over 3.4 Ounces Also Aren't Good For Flying
Gel packs are specially designed to be slushy even when below freezer temperature. So any gel pack over 3.4 ounces won't be considered frozen and thus won't be allowed in carry on. The solution is to get small gel packs like these which I will talk about in a bit.
Instant Cold Packs Are Allowed For Injury Only
Instant cold packs are able to be kept at room temperature and then when squeezed cause a chemical reaction that makes them cold for about 15-20 minutes. These are allowed but only for injury and medical purpose
Exceptions To The Rule For Medical Reasons
There are exceptions to this liquid rule if it's for medical reasons, but it's better off to just abide by the rules as there are ice packs and gel packs you can use that are allowed through airport security and onto the plane
The Best Frozen Gel Packs For Flying
The best frozen gel packs for air travel are ones that are under 3.4 ounces or 100 mL. Luckily there are quite a few brands of gel packs available in this size.
If you have a 1-Quart see through sealable bag like this affordable one that is TSA approved then you can put multiple small gel packs in this bag and they should get through airport security without any dramas.
The below linked mini-gel packs come in a pack of 6 and are around 3 ounces (under TSA's maximum allowed amount).
They are super affordable and have hundreds of positive reviews so you can't really go wrong with these
See the latest price of these small gel packs at Amazon
The Best Ice Packs For Air Travel
There are very few ice packs that are small enough to pass the TSA's 3.4 ounce limit but I was able to find 2 good options.
Rubbermaid LunchBlox Ice Pack Small
These rubbermaid lunch blox are designed to slot in between small plastic containers and according to Amazon they are 3.04 ounces per item, making them just under the limit.
If they partially melt and the airport security guards have issues with them then you can just put them in your 1-quart bag as a liquid and it should be fine.
They are also really affordable and come in a pack of 3.
See the latest price for the Rubbermaid LunchBlox Small Ice Packs at Amazon
Reusable Ice Cubes
Another good idea is these reusable ice cubes.
They are basically just little plastic bags filled with purified water. You can freeze them and use them just like you would loose ice cubes, only when they melt they won't make anything wet.
TSA may pass them through as a solid without issues if they are still frozen or if they are partially melted they may require you to put them in your 1-quart bag with your other liquids.
The tiny size of these allows you to squish as many as possible in your 1-quart bag which shouldn't be too hard and allow you to get through security.
If you have to throw away some because you can't fit them all at least they are inexpensive and at least you'll still have some left.
Plus they are just made with water so you have no issues with any chemicals that might not be allowed
See the latest price of reusable ice cubes at Amazon
The Best Instant Cold Packs For Air Travel
Instant ice packs can be kept at room temperature and then squeezed when needed and a chemical reaction will make them turn cold.
The TSA and FAA allowed these on your carry on luggage when carried for medical purposes such as the treatment of injuries – according to the TSA website.
There are a bunch of different instant cold pack brands out there but some of them have really poor reviews.
I found the brand FlexTrek has hundreds of reviews and most of them are very positive. They are affordable and come in a pack of 6 so you can take one with you or you can take multiple.
See latest price of disposable instant cold packs at Amazon
A BETTER IDEA: Use Frozen Water Bottles
The same rules apply to ice as apply to ice packs and gels.
The TSA states on their website:
“Frozen liquid items are allowed through the checkpoint as long as they are frozen solid when presented for screening. If frozen liquid items are partially melted, slushy, or have any liquid at the bottom of the container, they must meet 3-1-1 liquids requirements.”
Using frozen water bottles is the perfect solution.
Firstly, they are extremely cheap and will cost you next to nothing.
Secondly, if they partially melt (as they likely will on the way to the airport) then you can head to the bathrooms right before going through airport security.
Tip out any of the melted water so all you are left with is 100% ice in the bottle and you now should be fine to take them on the plane with you.
Worst case they get confiscated and you lose a water bottle. No big deal.
Thirdly, as they melt on the plane you can drink them and have nice cold refreshing water. You can also reuse the bottles for drinking once you get to your destination or freeze them again before flying home.