Dramatically cut your wait times with these insider tips
Earlier this week, roughly 450 American Airlines AAL, -0.09% passengers trying to fly out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport missed their flights due to serious TSA screening checkpoint delays. And this is just the latest in a series of security-related slowdowns that have caused thousands of consumers to miss their flights.
For its part, the TSA plans to hire roughly 800 more officers and get more people to work part-time and overtime. But the TSA union says it will need 6,000 more staffers to fix the problems, which have been caused by an increase in fliers and tighter security measures.
For consumers planning to fly this summer, this news, no doubt, creates alarm. After all, spending the afternoon inching forward in a jam-packed security line only to then be forced to remove shoes, empty pockets, toss shampoo and endure a TSA pat-down is enough to make anyone irate.
Of course, most consumers know that TSA PreCheck — which allows vetted fliers to use special, typically speedier lines — is a good option to help avoid the lines, and there is evidence that it’s popularity is catching on. As of April 26, more than 2.5 million people had enrolled, up from a little over 2.2 million on March 1st, according to the TSA.
But there other, lesser-known ways travelers can avoid long airport security lines.
Don’t travel on a Friday afternoon
On average, security lines on Friday afternoons between about 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. local time are the slowest, as wait times tend to double then, according to custom data run for MarketWatch by WhatsBusy.com, a site that tracks airport security wait times for consumers.
“That’s the tail-end of business travel for the week and the start of a lot of personal travel,” explains Jordan Thaeler, the president and co-founder of WhatsBusy; this confluence of factors creates longer lines. The firm analyzed security line wait times for the 20 busiest airports in the nation to make this analysis.
You may also want to avoid traditionally busy travel days like the day before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
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Get Global Entry (in some circumstances for free)
You’ve probably heard about TSA PreCheck, which costs $85 for five years and allows flyers departing from the U.S. to go through security quickly without having to remove their shoes, laptops, belts and light coats. The TSA says that about 99% of TSA PreCheck passengers wait in security lines that are under five minutes.
But most experts recommend you get Global Entry — at least if you ever plan to travel abroad — as it gives you the perks of TSA PreCheck status, plus easy entry into the U.S. from abroad (you’ll enter the country through automatic kiosks that scan your passport and fingerprint rather than long customs lines). It costs $100. “It’s drastically quicker,” says Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com.
George Hobica, the founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, says Global Entry is “the best way” to beat long lines. “The other day I flew in from Vietnam to LA and not only was the immigration line at LAX endless, but the line at customs was also huge,” he says. “It took me about two minutes to get through both lines because I have Global Entry; otherwise I’m sure I would have been waiting an hour or more to get through both lines.”
Some consumers can get Global Entry essentially for free by buying it using certain American Express AXP, +1.21% credit cards, including its Corporate Gold Card, Consumer Platinum Card, Corporate Platinum Card, Business Platinum Card and Centurion Card all of which give you a $100 statement credit when you pay for Global Entry. Of course, you need to pay your balance in full and make sure the annual fees are worth it for you.
Fewer people have heard of Clear — a program available in 13 airports including San Francisco, Denver, Las Vegas, and Houston that speeds you through airport security (it promises consistent wait times of less than 5 minutes) — but some experts say it’s worth the $179 a year price (you can add family members for $50 each).
“Clear can save you time,” says Kelly. “It’s in a limited number of airports but if you’re based out of one of those airports, [consider it],” he says. Plus, Clear is adding expedited access to sporting events to its roster.
With Clear, rather than waiting in a line for an agent to scan your boarding pass and ID, you instead place your finger and boarding pass saved to your smartphone into a Clear kiosk (you can watch a video of how this works here), and then you can go right to the screener machine (the same one that everyone else uses). Clear is typically faster than the TSA PreCheck line, a spokesperson for the company says, because the PreCheck lines have become more crowded as more consumers use the service. The TSA points out that Clear consumers — though they do get to go to the front of the travel document check line — still have to go through the same screening machines that everyone else does, and notes that 99% of TSAPreCheck passengers wait in lines less than 5 minutes.
Become an elite flyer (or upgrade to be one for a day)
There are perks to staying loyal to one airline, namely all the benefits you get with your elite status. One of the big ones is the priority security lines, which tend to be faster and shorter than the lines that regular Joes have to stand in.
“If you can stick to one airline, that does pay off when it comes to security lines,” says Travelzoo senior editor Gabe Saglie. “They have dedicated security lanes for their premier or elite flyers that are almost always considerably shorter.”
But even if you aren’t an elite flyer, you can still pay to get into those short security lines. Saglie says that when you upgrade your seat — say to get extra legroom or to move towards the front of the plane — you can sometimes get priority security line status as well. Sometimes, this can cost as little as $25, though that varies depending on the airport and where you are flying.
Get savvy about which line to choose
Often, travelers pour into whichever security line is closest to their airline’s check-in area, but that can be a huge waste of time, says Kelly. Instead, before you get to the airport, look at the map online if it’s available to figure out where alternate security points might be and/or simply ask when you are there.
Sometimes, they won’t let you through a line in an alternate terminal, says Kelly, but if you have an excuse like that you are meeting a client, they might. You may have to do more walking this way, but for many, that’s a lot better than standing still in line.
Pick your airport wisely
Most consumers don’t think about avoiding security lines when they’re booking their flights, but it can be smart to. If you have the choice of a smaller airport or a larger one, you may want to choose the smaller one if you want to avoid long lines, says Hobica.
(This story has been updated.)