people standing in airport line
(Photo: @Leo via Twenty20)

How to Avoid Airport Lines—Sometimes

We’re all hoping we’ll be able to start flying on trips again in 2021. And flying trips mean airports, which, in turn, mean long lines. Nobody should be surprised to encounter a long line at an airport: Lines come with the territory. You find the worst of the long lines at four points of your trip through the airport:

  • During check-in for your flight, and if you’re checking a bag
  • At TSA security checkpoints
  • When boarding your flight
  • At Immigration on returning to the U.S. from foreign trips

Avoiding Airport Lines

You can sometimes avoid or bypass at least some lines, but you may have to pay for the convenience.

Flight/Baggage Check-in

I know of no organized way to avoid those long lines when you’re checking in for a flight in person at the airport. At some airports, airlines are attacking the in-person check-in line problem by installing a variety of tech solutions, most notably automatic kiosks and smartphone apps. Where they’re available, they help a lot, but whether they’re available depends on each airline at each airport. You just take what you can get. And check in online whenever you can.

A more certain way to avoid the longest lines at check-in is to fly in a premium class or earn elite frequent flyer status. At most airports, most airlines—at least the big ones—provide special priority lines for those folks. If you qualify, you get the special treatment, but buying a premium ticket or earning status costs a lot of cash. Bonus: normally, if one family member qualifies, the entire family goes along.

Security Screening

Typically, airport security screening involves two sub-lines: First, passing a “gatekeeper” at the entry to the security checkpoint screening area for your terminal; second, lining up to dump your stuff into a bin during the actual screening. Two “membership” programs allow you to bypass or reduce both delays at some airports.

  • TSA’s PreCheck system gives enrolled travelers access to dedicated screening lanes where they can leave shoes and belts on and keep laptops and liquids packed in a carry-on at more than 200 U.S. airports. At far fewer big airports, TSA PreCheck also provides access to dedicated gatekeeper lanes. The dedicated screening is an advantage, but a relatively small one. Dedicated gatekeeper lines are more useful. Nevertheless, I see numerous reports of circumstances when the PreCheck lanes were longer than the regular lanes.
  • PreCheck operates through airlines: Once enrolled, you get a “trusted traveler” number, which you then register with each airline you fly. Entry eligibility is shown as a special notification on your boarding pass, not any card you carry. Currently, more than 70 U.S. and international lines participate.
  • Another program, Clear, allows you to bypass those gatekeeper lines completely at 36 large U.S. airports. Instead of the regular airport line, Clear users enter a separate line (marked by a sign) that is typically very short. Once screened by a Clear agent, you go directly to a TSA screening line without passing the gatekeeper at all. A byproduct benefit is that Clear also operates screening bypass lines at a few major sports and event venues such as stadiums and arenas.

You can also try to time your flights to avoid the busiest times of day at airport security screening checkpoints. The TSA has an app that crowdsources checkpoint wait times at airports around the U.S.

Boarding

You can avoid, or at least minimize, the boarding crunch one of the same ways you avoid long check-in lines: Premium-ticket holders and elite status passengers get priority when boarding most aircraft. Otherwise, Southwest and some other single-class low-fare airlines sell early boarding for up to $50 or so per flight.

Immigration

Wait times at immigration stations in the United States can get really long, especially when your flight arrives just after a bunch of other flights and the lines snake around through the entry area. Global Entry lets you bypass those long passport control and immigration lines. Instead of waiting—sometimes for hours—in a long line to present your ID to an immigration agent and have your passport stamped, you instead scan your passport and your handprint at an automated kiosk, answer a few on-screen questions, and receive a printed slip that lets you bypass the agents’ desks and head directly to baggage claim and exit. Global Entry is available at more than 70 U.S. airports, plus a few international airports with U.S. pre-clearance. 

Don’t confuse Global Entry with the similar-looking entry kiosks like Mobile Passport Control at many U.S. airports. Those just let you avoid filling out paper customs declarations and answering routine questions; you still have to line up for an agent.

How to Enroll in TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, or NEXUS

TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, and NEXUS (an expedited-processing program for travel between the U.S. and Canada) require you to gain “trusted traveler” status, which requires a screening application process that starts with an information form, and also includes a personal interview at an enrollment center and submission of biometric data:

  • By itself, PreCheck costs $85 for five-year validity. In a traveling family, each adult needs to enroll, but kids 12 and under can tag along with an adult member. 
  • Global Entry costs $100 for five years, and enrollment automatically includes PreCheck. Unlike PreCheck, however, each family member—including infants—must have a separate trusted traveler number.

To start enrollment in either program, create a profile at ttp.dhs.gov. Several premium credit cards credit PreCheck or Global Entry costs back to your account. 

NEXUS costs $50 a year, with no charge for kids under 18. Although nominally focused strictly on travel to/from Canada, NEXUS does include Global Entry and PreCheck. But enrollment is more of a hassle, typically requiring personal interviews with the entire family in both the U.S. and Canada. 

After a brief pandemic shutdown, the Trusted Traveler enrollment program reopened in September. But NEXUS remains closed due to the ban on U.S.-Canada travel. No matter what program you’re considering, apply as early as you can: As far as I can tell, applications are processing slowly.

Clear is a private operation. Enrollment requires providing extensive documentation; it costs $179 per year for one person, with add-ons for additional family members, but it frequently offers promotions. Currently, it’s giving six months “free,” although you probably won’t be using it for much of that time.

Is it Worth it?

Paying up to $100 per person for a five-year enrollment can get pretty expensive for families, and Trusted Traveler enrollment interviews can be a hassle. Although less expensive, enrollment in NEXUS is even more hassle. And at $179 for a single year, even with discounts for additional family members, Clear can be a difficult extravagance to justify. In all cases, the options look better if you travel multiple times a year. If not, you maybe just have to cope with the long lines.

More from FamilyVacationist:

Ed Perkins
Ed Perkins is a longtime consumer advocate and reporter. He spent 25 years in travel research and consulting and was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004). He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union. Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America,” "The CBS Evening News," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.