“Where are your bags?”


I make a point of traveling light. Not because of any hatred for checked luggage or because I hate bags. I figure it is mostly because I’m lazy and so carrying as little as possible means less to schlep around during any particular trip. And so when I cleared immigration at Newark on Sunday afternoon with just my messenger bag and camera bag for an overnight trip it was no different than many trips before. If anything I had overpacked based on the amount of camera gear and electronics I’m traveling with these days. And yet it still appears to have caused me a bit of trouble this past weekend. Waiting patiently(ish) in the queue to exit the baggage claim area I realized that I was in a conversation with the agent, even though I wasn’t really.

Do  you have all your bags??

I was a bit taken aback that he was addressing me while still speaking with the passenger actually at the podium. Capturing the attention of an agent when you’re not directly involved with them generally doesn’t end well. Also, this was the Global Entry lane and the agent was taking time to talk with travelers. That’s another bad sign. And so when it was my turn I was pretty sure I was already in trouble. I was correct.

IMG_5849-001

He asked how long I had been out of the country. Just under 24 hours. He asked where I was coming in from. The flight was from Amsterdam but I never actually cleared immigration there so I’m not sure how it will show in the systems so I was excessively clear in my answer. He was exceedingly not amused.

It took all of about 3 seconds for him to step back from the little podium and ask me to follow him towards the secondary screening area. Fortunately there was no one else in the area – my flight was the first arrival of the afternoon from Europe at EWR Terminal C – so there was not a wait to get an agent to review my story. Except that they apparently like to make people wait just because they can. And so I stood off in the corner (sitting down would likely result in me falling asleep) waiting for my turn with the agent.

After conferring with his colleagues for a few minutes I was finally summoned to the counter to explain my trip. Yes, I flew from Montreal to Newark via Amsterdam. And, yes, I had a reason to do so. I was on the final KLM MD-11 flight which also happened to be the final MD-11 flight in commercial service. I was working. And, yes, it really is something which people are interested in reading about. To his credit the agent knew a thing or two about the MD-11. And I hadn’t mentioned that bit before talking with his so I don’t think we was spending the time before calling me up researching the type. And so we talked briefly about the airplane, that there were 50+ AvGeeks on board for the retirement celebration and that I really was there to write about the event.

IMG_5851-001

He then switched that “polite chit-chat” option off and went immediately back to what did I have with me and what was in my bag. How much cash, anything sharp, the usual bits. And, after going through those questions a couple times, did I want to change any of my responses before he started searching. The search was quick. I suppose that is to be expected when I had almost nothing for them to search, but there was plenty of opportunity for it to go badly as well.

And then I was told I could reassemble my stuff while he finished up some entries in the computer. No word on whether this affects my future Global Entry access or anything else about my travels. And it probably didn’t cause me to miss a train home thanks to NJTransit’s pathetic schedule on the weekends. But it was an interesting experience, one I hope to not repeat any time soon.

And, yes, I probably could have been a bit less open about the specific details of my trip, particularly the not having cleared immigration in Amsterdam part. But I also really have no idea how this trip shows up in their computers and I very much did not want to be in a position where they could suggest I had lied to them. Just not worth it.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

14 Comments

  1. I had a similar experience.. on a mileage run to dubai and back, with only a few hours there in between. (And recent mileage runs to Oman & Bahrain). I was travelling with only a small laptop bag. I was pulled out of line for the enhanced interrogation & groping. My belongings were scrutinized, which amusingly included the agent examining each card and bill in my wallet individually! I’m sure I am on some type of watch list now, but so far it has not affected my pre-check or global entry access.

  2. I had similar situation coming back from weekend MR from SYD, the SFO Agent asked where is my bags? and asked me if I was doing MR when I told him no bag. 🙂

  3. I doubt you have to worry about any problems with your Global Entry. I had a similar experience a couple years ago, although I was told it was a random compliance check. First off the plane, not much luggage…I was directed to secondary screening, but didn’t have to wait for an agent. A little chit-chat, asked me if I wanted to change my answers (no). The CPB agent did a fairly cursory search of my luggage, and then let me go. Maybe he didn’t look hard because of my nonchalance (I had nothing to hide). Anyway, I’ve taken plenty of international trips since without any issues with Global Entry.

    You were probably just profiled for travelling with little luggage, and I’m sure Amsterdam always gets a little more scrutiny than, say, Stockholm, especially when you’re staying a short time. But once they’ve given you the once-over, you’re probably in the clear for future trips.

  4. I did a few same day turns to the Caribbean in a row. I went to Jamaica with a suitcase to bring back as much Rum Cream as I could for my dad. Apparently, it is really suspicious to leave the country for Jamaica with an empty suitcase…. Luckily, Keri (who wasn’t on the other trips) somehow talked us out of it. I think by talking about it too much. He was tired of hearing about the blog and how excited we are 😛

  5. AMS+little baggage = potential drug mules. I’ve been through secondary with GE (due to the fact that somehow my passport data fell out of my profile since I changed passport), and this will not affect your future ability to use GE.

  6. Should not affect future immigration experiences。

    As non American I have had secondary on one trip(taking far longer to clear) followed by no noticeable issues the next trip。

  7. This may also be quota related. CPB have daily and per flight quotas to fulfill. Since you said your flight was the first of the day from Europe and you were most likey one of the first to reach the exit, you probably tripped the random secondary alert.

    CPB told me they frequently secondary some the first passengers to reach the exit off of each flight. I now hang back a little bit if time allows as I was consistently being selected for secondary screening. Being in first with no bags and Global Entry was always making me one of the first passengers to reach the exit and thus tagged for secondary screening.

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