The Truth About Luggage Padlocks

For those who have traveled frequently over the years, most seem to end up with a collection of travel locks of all different shapes and sizes. Key locks, combination locks with triple or quad numbering, TSA approved locks or even cable locks featuring key and/or combination types. Perhaps even a carabiner lock can be found amongst your personal collection.

Some may consider the humble travel lock as one of the first lines of defence when it comes to protecting the contents of a suitcase or any other type of checked luggage. But do they really provide any benefit at all when traveling? So what really is considered the best way to secure your luggage?

I decided to take a look at the types of locking systems including their advantages and disadvantages in determining the best type of luggage lock to meet the needs for any traveler. Whether traveling locally or overseas, the security of your property and possessions are an important part of ensuring a happy and enjoyable travel experience.

Luggage locks are primarily used to prevent luggage being opened inadvertently or by accident. Unless affixed correctly to a piece of luggage, these small locks serve little or no purpose aside from providing a possible deterrent value to any potential thief. Some locks are pre-built into pieces of luggage, or they may be an external lock configuration or in a strap style.

Luggage locks, by their very size and definition provide little or no security value as they are easily tampered with, coupled by the fact the shackles are of a low diameter making them easily cut with pliers or bolt cutters. Locks manufactured using the pin tumbler lock design usually only contain around three to four pins due to their compact design, making them easily vulnerable to lock picking using something as simple as a hair clip or a paper clip.

Unfortunately, it's not just thieves who may be rifling through your luggage in the United Kingdom for example, British border officials secretly search through thousands of items of checked luggage each year. Officials say these types of searches are a necessary part of maintaining security in the war against terrorism, crime and drugs, and they are not obliged to disclose to passengers they have been 'inspecting' their bags.

Personal items stored inside passenger luggage may also be inspected including medical records and private correspondence. For the most part, passengers understand and accept that it's a necessary part of life these days in order to maintain the safety and security of the traveling public.

At some airports, there appears to be a lack of consistency and procedural conduct on how and the frequency of such searches should be conducted. At Luton Airport, staff have undertaken searches without seeking prior approval of management who are required by law to sign off on all luggage searches conducted.

Record keeping too seemed to be lacking at Edinburgh, Luton and Manchester airports, which found on inspection, search record books failed to detail the signature and name of the person authorizing the search. Rules set down by the Home Office state that any searches conducted of material containing confidential personal information required authorized written approval by a senior manager together with the Surveillance Commissioner.

In the Unites States the chances of a passenger's luggage being subject to a random search is far greater than that which occurs in the United Kingdom. Unlike the UK officials undertaking searches of luggage in the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), places a notice inside a passengers luggage to advise them their luggage has been opened and searched.

From the perspective of passengers, it's really irrelevant who has compromised their luggage - the fact is most feel their personal space has been 'invaded' with many viewing the policy as a personal breach of privacy. Worse still, is when a passenger realizes not only has their luggage been 'ransacked', they may have been a victim of theft too.

On discovering you have been a victim of theft there are generally two ways this can be reported. Firstly, if you are still at the airport when you discover an item or items from your luggage have been stolen, report the theft immediately to your airline and the TSA or country equivalent before departing from the airport and file a claim with the airline on the spot. Secondly, if you have arrived home or at your destination only to discover upon opening your luggage, that you have been a victim of theft, contact your travel insurance company to determine the steps required and capped claim limit on the stolen items.

For items of any value a report should immediately be filed with the local police, this is mostly required by all insurers as part of the claims process. Once a claim has been filed with your insurer you will receive a letter of acknowledgment which advises any additional steps you may be required to undertake in support of your claim.

Some claims can take up to six months before being investigated, and claims where local police are involved may typically take longer to process. The important thing is to remain patient and courteous during your interactions with the people who are tasked with investigating and ultimately processing your claim.

TSA Approved Lock Systems

In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requires access to luggage without the passenger being present to undertake a physical inspection of the items inside the baggage without the need to cut off or destroy the lock. One company, Travel Sentry founded in 2003 developed a lock system that is accepted and recognized by the TSA and a number of other agencies around the world including Canada, Finland, Austria, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, Israel and Switzerland.

In all, the system is used in over thirteen countries including six hundred airports, with over 1.2 billion passengers using the system annually. The system has since been licensed by over 500 companies globally. At the time of writing, there are a total of seven TSA approved locks in use today represented as - TSA001 to TSA007. Each system has a universal master key allowing those with the ‘key’ to access luggage where the lock is fitted without causing damage to the lock itself.

Any bag opened by the TSA, is left with a ‘calling card’ inside. Bags are checked at random or if deemed suspicious. Whilst the TSA don’t reveal the number of bags inspected annually, one security official has estimated the figure to be approximately 4% within the USA.

After the terrible attack in the US on September 11, 2001, the then Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta designated a team of specialists to create a set of Travel Sentry Approved Standards. The system was trademarked, and the now familiar diamond logo appeared on the locks. All factories manufacturing locks using the trademark and logo pay an annual fee for licensing, together with a ‘cost per lock’ fee including businesses which import or distribute the product into the Unites States.

The range of TSA locks includes those molded into the luggage itself, combination or keyed style. Safe Skies Locks is one example of a company producing a range of TSA approved locks for sale.


In November 2014, The Washington Post published an article about the TSA’s baggage handling which was accompanied by a photo of all seven of the TSA master keys. While the photograph was later removed, it remained in some syndicated news copy. Worse still, when on August 22, 2015 Twitter user Luke Rudkowski posted the image of the keys via his account.

The photograph spread quickly, providing a template for those wishing to produce their own TSA master keys using 3D printing techniques or other methods. Consequently, the reproduction of keys, coupled with ongoing and proven allegations of theft by TSA employees, these locks provide little or no security value for those seeking to secure their valuables. As you will soon learn, any type of locking system is virtually useless against those wishing to steal from you while traveling.


Padlocks date back to the Roman Era 500 BC – 300 AD, and comprise a shackle which is affixed to the body of the lock containing the mechanism. Typically, the shackle is a ‘U’ shaped loop of metal that is used to encompass the item to be secured. Most padlocks today use either a pin-tumble or a warded-lock mechanism to secure the shackle into the body of the lock.


Padlocks come in many different styles ranges and colors, however quality should always be the first consideration when choosing a suitable travel padlock. A high-quality padlock can be considered by some to be a valuable addition to any piece of luggage either carry on or checked luggage however, it’s best use is in providing a visual cue as to whether the luggage has been tampered with.

Combination Lock:

Combination or Rotary combination locks do not require the use of a key, instead using a sequence of numbers symbols or letters which are retained by the owner of the lock to open and secure it. The first recorded combination lock was excavated in Athens dating back to the Roman period.


A relock trigger is the main design component of a combination style of lock, allowing the lock to engage or disengage when the internal dial spindle is punched through. A spring-loaded lever or plunger engages the bolt then the back cover is dislodged from the lock casing.

Single Dial Lock:

Often used to secure lockers, this type of lock uses a single dial which interacts with a number of internal parallel discs, known as cams. The lock is opened by alternating the rotating dial clockwise and counter clockwise, with the selection of each numeral. These types of locks are considered to be relatively easily defeated in a short period of time.


Unfortunately, all of the above locking systems used for ‘securing’ luggage provide little if any secure advantage when fixed to luggage or suitcases. The locking mechanisms built into suitcases are also easily defeated purely by the fact that any search on the Internet, can avail a person with an ability to default the lock system should the combination be forgotten by its owner.

So what is the best way to secure a suitcase or piece of luggage when traveling? Bags are frequently defeated using a number of methods including compromising the zipper of the luggage using an item as simple as a ball point pen.

Consequently, any type of locking system should only be considered to be of benefit in providing its owner with a visual verification to determine whether or not the luggage has been tampered with.

Fixed Locking System:

A fixed locking system is used to prevent a thief from re-sealing the zipper teeth on luggage. By securing a lock or cable ties to a fixed point on the suitcase, it makes sliding the zipper tabs around the case to reseal the zipper impossible to achieve, minimizing the risk for the traveler and escalating the risk for the thief.

A fixed locking system is really the only way in which luggage or suitcases can be secured sufficiently enough to deter thieves.


Valuables including jewelery, money and electronic items should be packed into carry on luggage and taken on board. When on board and aircraft, be sure to stow any carry on luggage in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you.

Place all carry on luggage in a location where it’s easy to sight and not directly overhead, where it’s impossible to see what’s going on above you.


Sandra Hawkins

Subscribe to

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox.

or subscribe via RSS with Feedly!