Review: 3 TSA-Approved Laptop Bags Compared – Belkin Flythru, Skooba Checkthrough Brief & Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer

If you’re a geek like us, you never travel without your laptop. While netbooks have become more popular for lightweight personal travel, most of us still have to lug full size notebooks for work. Given the travel situation in the post-9/11 world, we were extremely happy when we heard that TSA (the airport security folks) put out specifications for laptop bags to allow laptops to go through security without having to be removed from the bag. Sure, you could always travel with your laptop, but those of us who travel regularly know what a hassle the X-ray checkpoints can be.

Typically, with an ordinary laptop bag, security makes you remove a laptop and put it in a bin by itself, with nothing covering it. This means, on top of removing your shoes, emptying your pockets, taking off your watch, belt, cell phone, keys, yank out your zip lock bag with your gels and liquids, you also have to dig out your laptop.

Given that most laptop thefts take place in airports, and the majority of those take place in the exit of the X-ray line, being able to keep your laptop secure and hidden in your bag is a big deal and a time saver. If you travel through a major US airport such as Atlanta or Chicago, you know that even saving 20 seconds per person can add up to huge time savings and shortened lines when considering the thousands of people moving through the checkpoints in those airports.

It has been several years since TSA announced their guidelines for approved bags, and we felt it was time to see what the various bag manufacturers had come up with. We contacted a total of 7 manufacturers asking for their offerings, and three sent us review units: Belkin “Flythru”, Skooba “Checkthrough Brief”, and Tom Bihn “Checkpoint Flyer”. Let’s see if any of these TSA compliant laptop bags fit the bill.

Test Methodology

In order to try to make this comparison as even as possible, we asked each company to provide us with a TSA approved bag that could fit a 15” Dell D820 laptop (a fairly common size/weight business laptop.) We asked for bags that were large enough to store the laptop, accessories, some paperwork, a change of clothes and your toiletries, – ideally, everything needed to make an overnight business trip (okay, everything a guy would need for an overnight trip!) We gave each bag a thorough inspection, and then gave each person in our office a chance to use the bag for several days. Each bag was also used for actual travel on at least one occasion. Each team member’s comments were taken into account while writing this review.

Common features

All of the bags had some features in common. For instance, with the exception of the Tom Bihn bag, they all used a zip-open butterfly design with a compartment off the main bag to place your laptop into. This is to keep the laptop isolated while on the conveyor belt of the x-ray machine, but then to easily re-attach it to the main bag before continuing through the airport. The Tom Bihn used a 3rd “flip out” pouch to do this. Each bag also had some form of strap to slip the bag over the pull handle for your roll-aboard luggage to facilitate easier carrying.  All of the bags had numerous compartments in which to store your items, as well as internal pockets in each section. Several of the bags also either included, or have as add-on accessories a 3-1-1 liquids + gels bag/pouch (as a replacement for the ubiquitous zip-lock bag).

5 comments

  1. Thanks. Great, thorough review. The chart is very useful too. I want to recommend another to consider for your next review. I've been using the Cozmo Mambo Combo from Waterfield Designs (sfbags.com). It uses the TSA sleeve + bag system and has served me exceptionally well for years. I highly recommend checking it out.
    http://www.sfbags.com/products/cozmo/cozmo.htm

  2. Thanks for the feedback and I'm glad you enjoyed it! If we end up doing another eval of bags in the future I'll be sure to include your recommendation.

  3. I second the recommendation for the sfbags.com Cozmo bag. TSA friendly, sturdy, great pockets and stylish (which…ahem…is more than I can say for the ones in the picture.)

  4. Too bad there is no such thing as a TSA approved bag. Was the TSA even consulted before writing this??? The TSA does not and will not approve any mfgrs bags. They at their discretion can still make you take your laptop out of the case.

    1. Lenny, if you REALLY want to pick nits, yes, you're right…

      TSA gave specification that the manufacturers could follow to create bags that would allow laptops to go through the screening devices without being removed from the bag.

      So, no, they're not "TSA Certified", but they are "TSA Compliant". So if you want to pick nits, fine…

      And I DO say in the article that TSA ALWAYS reserves the right to make you remove the laptop… But so far the couple of times I've travelled with these bags (and the others here in the office that tested them as well) we have YET to be asked to remove the laptop… TSA haven't even so much as asked me if I had a laptop in the bag (they have asked another tester that, but didn't ask him to remove it.)

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