There was a time when airports had very little security. By the late 1960s, terrorists recognized how vulnerable civil aviation was. Skyjacking reached a crescendo of 40 attempts on U.S. planes in 1969, forcing the implementation of new security measures designed to protect the flying public.
But it wasn’t until the catastrophic events of 9/11 that the U.S. government created a single federal agency tasked with protecting air travel, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Before the TSA, airport security was entrusted to private contractors.
Now the TSA runs security in all airports across the country, and with intensified security comes longer lines. Below we explore some ways to minimize the wait and frustration of this necessary inconvenience.
Perks for the Select Few
One way to avoid or at least mitigate the airport security lines is to fly business or first class. You get more than just a comfortable seat and a good meal when you fly in a premium cabin, you also get access to expedited security lines. These lines are always shorter and faster.
Every airline offers different perks for different elite status levels. Most include priority security screening. However, unless you fly a lot, it can be difficult to achieve elite status.
Speedy Security for the Masses
What to do if you’re not a premium class traveler or an elite status holder? If you’re willing to pay a few dollars, you can avoid the lines too. Even if you only fly two or three times a year, it’s well worth the investment.
TSA Precheck’s expedited screening is available in many airports across the country. The lines are shorter and faster, and passengers are not required to take off their shoes or remove computers or liquids from their bags.
Up until now, many passengers have enjoyed these benefits for no additional cost. To introduce the program, TSA randomly picked members of airline frequent flyer programs and allowed them to use the TSA Precheck lines. This is coming to an end and soon will only be available to individuals who have signed up for Precheck or another Trusted Traveler program.
For $85, you can register for TSA Precheck. You must first pre-enroll on the TSA website and set up an appointment to be fingerprinted. The process is easy, and the fee is good for five years. There is one drawback: your spot in a short Precheck line is not guaranteed. According to the TSA’s official rules, access is still random, and you might occasionally be asked to use the regular line. That’s frustrating, especially since you pay for the privilege.
Global Entry is a more comprehensive program that, in addition giving you access to Precheck lines, also speeds the immigration process when returning from an international destination. Since Global Entry assigns you a Known Traveler Number, you won’t need to apply separately for TSA Precheck.
While Global Entry costs slightly more at $100 for 5 years, it also gives you more benefits and a shot at getting in the short line.
Nexus is a program designed to give travelers between the U.S. and Canada expedited processing. Sentry expedites crossing between the U.S. and Mexico by land, and also includes access to Nexus lines when crossing into Canada. Importantly, both programs are eligible for TSA Precheck.
At $50, Nexus is not only half the cost of Global Entry, but also cheaper than TSA Precheck. Sentry, on the other hand, costs more at $122.50. Nexus may be a good lower cost alternative, but Sentry is best avoided unless you frequently drive to Mexico.
What Is CLEAR?
CLEAR works a bit differently than the other programs. After scanning your fingerprints or iris, members are sent to the front of the security line, even skipping in front of TSA Precheck passengers.
There are several drawbacks to the program, though. First is the cost. It is easily the most expensive, charging $175 annually, though every additional family member is only $50. CLEAR also only works at some domestic airports, including:
- Baltimore (BWI)
- Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
- Denver (DEN)
- Houston (IAH and HOU)
- Las Vegas (LAS)
- Orlando (MCO)
- San Antonio (SAT)
- San Francisco (SFO)
- San Jose (SJC )
- Westchester County, NY (HPN)
- Miami (MIA) starting in spring of 2015
Lastly, the program does not give you all of the benefits of belonging to TSA Precheck. You’ll still have to take off your shoes and remove your computer and any liquids from your bags. If money is no object, having both CLEAR and TSA Precheck would give you the quickest screening experience in select airports.
CLEAR offers a six month free trial for Visa Signature cardholders. After the trial expires, it will automatically renew unless you cancel it. If you don’t cancel, you’ll receive a promotional price of $60 off the annual membership fee for 12 months.
Credit Cards that Cover the Cost of Expedited Security
There are a few credit cards that will cover the cost of applying for Trusted Traveler programs. If you travel often, it may be worth getting one of them for this worthwhile benefit. The cards include:
- American Express Platinum
- American Express Centurion
- Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard
- Citi Prestige
- Chase Ritz Carlton Rewards
Whatever option you choose, there is no reason to spend more time in the airport than you absolutely have to. Check in for your flight at home, then use one of the above programs to shorten your time in the security line. If you end up with a little extra time, try relaxing in an airport lounge before your flight.