A TSA Guide for Cigar Enthusiasts

I’m a seasoned traveler. I left the hotel with plenty of time. I’m TSA Pre-Check approved. I even bought the CLEAR upgrade and status with American Airlines so I don’t have to wait in line or show my I.D. But I’m also an avid cigar enthusiast with an eclectic collection of accoutrements to prove it. In December, I attended the Cigar Heritage Festival in Tampa and bought one of the Rocky Patel torch double flame jet lighters at King Corona Cigars as a souvenir from the trip. It’s a memorable lighter displaying bold red paint that looks something like a light saber and is priced at about $85-$90. As I walked through airport security ready to catch my flight back home, I was selected for the random screening. From here, the blue shirts of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) proceeded to probe my luggage and inform me that I could not bring my magnificent new lighter onto the aircraft. 

We often hear that cigar culture transcends politics, race and socio-economic status. Let’s go ahead and add geography to that list. One of the great joys of being a cigar enthusiast is that wherever flame touches leaf, we discover an entourage. Cigar culture, more often than not, brings out the best in people. It demands that we be prepared to pass the light to the needy, guide the traveler to the cigar shop, and open up to our fellow man/woman. We are invited to speak freely, judge openly, and be respected—and respectful, of our differences. Nowhere is this better celebrated than on the road.  

Whether for business or pleasure, travel is the prime opportunity to further indulge in your passion —explore a historic shop, take in the hospitality at new cigar lounge, or light-up with fellow rouges at the last cigar friendly steakhouse bar for 500 miles. With a little planning, your next business deal or family vacation can easily include few hours of cigar diplomacy.  

Ask any frequent flyer and they’ll confess to an entire section of their closet dedicated exclusively to travel. Non-iron shirts, hardy suits, sample size toiletries prepacked in ziplock bags —all designed to expedite packing and minimize attention from TSA agents. No one wants to hold up the line or find a family heirloom lost during screening.  

Unfortunately, there is no easy-to-follow flow chart to fully guarantee a perfect experience with the TSA. And it’s imperative for every traveler to understand that at the end of the day, frontline TSA agents are empowered to make decisions unilaterally for the safety of travelers. That said, there are some general guidelines that can help ensure you are able to comfortably enjoy a cigar on your next trip.

Lighting Up

  • Disposable and “Zippo” soft flame lighters are allowed in your carry one.
  • Soft flame lighters with fuel are prohibited in checked bags, unless they adhere to the Department of Transportation (DOT) exemption, which allows up to two (2) fueled lighters if properly enclosed in a DOT approved case.
  • Torch flame lighters are prohibited in both carry-on and checked bags.
  • One (1) book of safety (non-strike anywhere) matches are permitted as carry-on items, but all matches are prohibited in checked baggage.

Snip the Tip

  • Small scissors with blade of less than four inches (pivot hinge to tip) are permitted.
  • Common handheld punch, guillotine, and V-cutters are permitted in carry-on and checked baggage, but, keep in mind that TSA agents have discretion to confiscate “sharp objects” they believe may pose a threat.
  • Any exposed blade must go into checked baggage and be in a case or sheath.

Keeping it Safe

  • Cigars are permitted as carry-on and checked baggage
  • Pressurized Cabins and luggage compartments of airplanes are not conducive to cigars, even for short trips.
  • Hard-sided, foam-lined humidors offer necessary protection. 
  • DOT-approved capsules are the only way to safely transport soft flame lighters in checked baggage.

The bottom line: Assume TSA is on high alert and plan accordingly. If stopped, understand the agent has the authority to restrict items and passengers from flight. I highly recommend being courteous and respectful and ask for alternatives to having your item confiscated. At Tampa International Airport, aka Cigar City, the local TSA agents clearly don’t want to harass cigar tourists spending money in their city. The TSA agent I encountered was very helpful and gave me a few options: 1) have my lighter confiscated and eventually sold at auction; 2) have my lighter placed into a check bag with the possibility that it might get flagged again by the gate security; or 3) utilize a third party contractor to ship the lighter home. I choose option 3, partially as a field experiment for this article. 

For $28, MailSafe Express returned my lighter to my home address six weeks after I returned home. These bins are being installed in several airports throughout the country, and are specifically designed to ship items, for a fee, when they’ve been flagged during airport screenings. Typically, the shipping time is 2-4 weeks, but in my experience, a delay was incurred due to the holidays (something to keep in mind when traveling during busy mail times). As this was my first experience using this service, the TSA agent walked me through the process, even though the service is not run by the government. When I was done, I immediately received a tracking number for the item that I was shipping. It was slow and expensive, but it worked. And that’s where this story ends.  

Side Box: 

Did you find that perfect lighter/cutter combo while on vacation? Ask your retailer to ship it to you. The extra fee is worth knowing that it won’t end up in TSA’s treasure trove.

Joshua Habursky, Director of Federal Affairs of the Premium Cigar Association and Patrick Anderson, PCA Government Relations Consultant contributed to this article.