Picture the scene, you’ve just arrived at your hotel in an unfamiliar city after a long flight. You put your suitcase on the bed and slowly turn the numbered wheels of the three-digit combination lock. You press the button to get access to your case but nothing happens. The metal zipper tags remain firmly trapped in the lock’s clasp…
Getting locked out of your luggage is something that happens to even the most seasoned travellers at some time or another. Luckily the ubiquitous, TSA approved, 3-digit combination locks used by brands such as Samsonite, Eastpack, Antler and American Tourister are easy to open without damaging either the lock or the case and without any special tools.
By following the steps described below, you will be able to quickly open the lock and re-program the code to a new 3 digit combination which is easier to remember.
How to Unlock Your Suitcase When You Forgot the Combination
If you look closely at the lock from above, you will see that to one side of the 3 numbered thumb-wheels there is a small disk (see photos below).
I have found that the best way to see the disks is by using your mobile phone’s camera.
Select the video camera and shine the flash down into the lock then zoom-in to see the disks more clearly.
Starting with the first thumb-wheel of the lock, turn the wheel one click at a time until you see a notch in the disk as shown in the photos.
Once you have lined up the notch of the first wheel you then repeat the process for the second and third digit until the notches of all three wheels are lined up (see the photo of the blue suitcase).
Once all three notches are lined up, turn the suitcase so you can see the numbers.
Note, this is NOT the combination code.
Write down the numbers on the first line of a blank sheet of paper.
On the next line add 1 to each digit.
Repeat this 8 more times until you have a list of 10 3-digit numbers as shown in the photo below.
Try the codes one at a time until you find the one which opens the suitcase.
Once the case is open you can change the combination for one which is easier to remember.
With practice, the entire procedure takes less than 2 minutes.
Video: How to Quickly Open Your Suitcase Lock When You Forgot the Code
When writing this article I used 2 different suitcases, both of which are fitted with TSA approved Travel Sentry combination locks. The locks are slightly different models but the procedure is identical.
I made the video using the older, blue, suitcase because the notches in the green plastic discs are easier to see than the notches in the black disks of the red suitcase.
The code which opened the red suitcase was 2 clicks away from the position with the disks lined up. The code which opened the blue case was 8 clicks away.
If none of the codes which you have written down work you should check that you lined the notches up correctly. As can be seen in the video, there are normally two positions where the notches are visible. Make sure that all 3 notches are lined up in the same position. You can see that in the video I lined up the disks at the right-hand position.
How do Combination Locks Work?
The 3-digit combination locks used on suitcases are designed so that you can change the combination to a unique code which only you know.
To do this, you have to first set the lock to the current combination. You then press a small button (normally using a ballpoint pen) which frees the numbered thumb-wheels from the locking mechanism (currently in the open position).
You can then turn the 3 numbered thumb wheels independently to a new combination before pushing the larger button (the one which is used to open the lock). This re-connects the numbered thumb-wheels to the locking mechanism, activating the new code.
The method described above relies on the fact that part of the locking mechanism itself is visible (the notched disks next to the thumb-wheels). This makes the number shown on the knurled thumb-wheel pretty much irrelevant. Once the disks are aligned you simply need to rotate them around until the lock opens.
What Are TSA Approved Locks?
The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) is a US federal government agency responsible for the security of travellers that was created in response to the September 11 attacks.
All luggage is scanned before being loaded into aeroplanes and if any prohibited items are detected it will be opened by airport staff and the items removed.
TSA approved locks, identified by the red diamond shaped Travel Sentry logo, can be opened using master keys. The locks are often incorporated into suitcases but TSA approved padlocks are also available.
If your suitcase can’t be opened with a master key then, if they need inspect your luggage, airport staff will open it by force, cutting off padlocks etc.
In theory the keys are only available to airport staff but in reality anyone with a 3D printer can print out their own master keys.
Is it Really worth Locking my TSA approved Luggage Lock?
As we have seen, the 3-digit combination locks fitted to most modern suitcases offer very little or no security. At best they stop your suitcase from opening accidentally during transit, preventing your dirty laundry from spilling out on the baggage carousel.
Some suitcases (including the red suitcase in the photos) have small metal hoops incorporated into the zip-pullers allowing you to use a padlock to lock your suitcase. Although at first glance this may seem to add a second level of security, in reality, it’s a waste of time. As shown in this video, zip closure suitcases can be opened quickly and easily using a ballpoint pen.