Traveling in the age of COVID-19 is stressful without the added pressure of long security or passport control lines. While patience is always essential for navigating the airport, there are a few tried and true tricks and tips to help travelers fly through security. Here are some favorites.
Trusted Traveler Programs: TSA Pre-Check, Global Entry, and CLEAR
TSA PreCheck and CLEAR will get you through security faster when you fly domestically from an airport in the U.S., while Global Entry will expedite your journey through passport control when you return from a trip abroad. Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck membership, so if you fly at least two or three times each year, it’s worth the time and investment to sign up for these programs.
How it works
Global Entry provides U.S. citizens and citizens of some foreign countries expedited reentry into the U.S. using kiosks at passport control. ID holders skip the reentry paperwork and long processing lines, although you will interact with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent. Enrolling in Global Entry requires an application, interview, and a $100 fee. It often takes months to get an interview appointment (made longer by COVID-19 restrictions), so the lull in travel is the perfect time to sign up for the program.
TSA PreCheck gives approved passengers an expedited security experience in hundreds of U.S. passports. Add your known passenger number to your airline reservation, and TSA PreCheck is automatically added to your boarding pass. Having TSA PreCheck means going through security with your shoes on, electronics in your carry-on, and your belt around your waist. TSA Pre-check costs $85 for a 5-year membership, and TSA claims that 99% of TSA Pre-check members wait less than 5 minutes to go through security.
CLEAR confirms a passenger’s identity through biometric data and uses fingerprints and iris scanning to speed up the identification process. CLEAR is currently available at 40 airports around the country and costs $15 per month. Participants sign up for the service online and provide their biometric data at CLEAR kiosks at participating airports.
U.S. Customs and Border Control Mobile App
The U.S. Customs and Border Control is using an app to streamline the reentry and traveler inspection process. The App is free and doesn’t require pre-approval to use. Download the Mobile Passport app from the Google Play or Apple App Store and take a trip (you still need your passport). When you arrive home, you’ll fill out a “new trip” questionnaire and submit your answers. Once approved, you’ll receive an “Encrypted Quick Response” (QR) code to present at passport control. Kind of a skip-the-line for passports. Travelers who successfully use the authorized App will no longer need to complete a paper form or use an APC kiosk and may experience shorter wait times, less congestion, and more efficient processing.
Check Your Flight Status
Many people wait until they arrive at the airport before checking the status of their flight. That mistake can cost you time, money, and a little bit of your soul. Download the airline app on your phone for up-to-the-minute flight changes due to weather, including delays, warnings, and cancellations. It may even tell you about opportunities to change your seat (no middle seats ever!). Airlines will also text you flight status updates (sign up on the website). Check the flight status before you leave home and again once you arrive at the airport because sitting in the airport for 10 hours (or driving back home) is no one’s idea of fun.
If the worst should happen and your flight is canceled, be prepared. Add the contact number for your travel advisor, travel insurance, and the airline to your cell phone so that you can spring into action. While everyone else is jostling for position at the gate trying to find a flight, you’ll have an ally on the phone working on your behalf.
Always do this, no exceptions! If you’re bringing a carry-on (no checked bags), you’ll save tons of time, and if you’re traveling with children, you’ll (most likely) get seats together. Without a checked bag, head straight to security with the boarding pass on your phone or printed from home.
Another tip is to set a reminder on your phone to check-in 24-hours before your flight (when most airlines allow guests to check-in). If you’re flying an airline without assigned seats, the earlier you check-in, the better your chance at a good seat and keeping your family together (unless you’re traveling with teenagers, then it’s your call).
Prepare Your Documents
Before you get in line to check-in, have all of the required documents in-hand. That means a driver’s license or passport and credit card if you need to pay for a checked bag. Now, have every member of your family do the same.
Weigh Your Luggage
If you suspect your bag might be overweight, find out before you reach the check-in counter (and have open/repack your bag and expose your unmentionables to the masses). Many airports have scales in the check-in area or weigh it on the bathroom scale before you leave.
Download MIFlight or a similar App to check the wait times at airport security around the country. Using crowdsourced information, the App provides current wait times and terminal maps from 100 U.S. airports.
Look for the most efficient security personnel rather than the size of the line. If you’re in a hurry, steer clear of families with young kids or who people who like they haven’t flown since the Clinton Administration. Jump in line behind a frequent-flier business-type for the fastest, most efficient security line experience.
Stay organized, and security will be a snap. If you’re traveling with children, practice for airport security at home and tell children how to answer questions from TSA agents (fellow travelers will thank you). On their own, your offspring’s answers might be cute and funny, but remember, TSA doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Store your phone, passport/ID, boarding pass in the front pocket of your carry-on. Make sure your pockets are empty and your laptop is easily accessible for screening. When you reach the bins, it’s shoes and belt off, laptop and toiletry baggie out and in a container. Listen to instructions and don’t argue or complain. Is it better to be right or to make your plane?
Too much stuff in your carry-on, pockets, or purse leads to a backup at airport security, and could result in a secondary screening from TSA agents. Lighten up, think through how you want to spend your time in the air and bring only what you need. Will you read that 1,000 page book or are you more likely to watch a movie? If the answer is maybe (about the book), leave it at home. That said, a few items will help you race through security, including slip-on shoes, a reusable, see-through bag for your toiletries, and a bag that provides easy access to your laptop or other electronics.
Check Airport Parking Online
Many airports provide parking lot status updates online. Knowing this information before you leave home will save you time and, potentially, a lot of stress. The parking lots closest to the airport will likely fill up during peak travel times. Explore parking lots away from the airport to save money, but make sure to add extra time to travel from the lot to your terminal.
Safely On the Other Side
Once through airport security, double-check the departure monitors to confirm the gate and departure status. Go to the gate and verify with your eyes that everything is correct, only then should you wander about picking up unusual magazines you never usually read and buying giant bags of M&Ms. If possible, stay close to the gate (especially in bad weather), to hear last-minute announcements like gate changes or delays. If delay or cancelations occur, keep your cool, airline employees are just like everyone else, and kindness and patience will go farther than anger and hostility.
Before we know it, we’ll be traveling again and flying the friendly skies to visit family and friends.
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Just in case you missed it…
REAL ID Extension and Expired Licenses
Beginning October 1, 2021, every air traveler 18 years of age and older will need a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or another acceptable form of ID to fly within the United States. Are you wondering if you have a REAL ID license? Look for a star located in the upper corner of the card, which signifies a REAL ID. Contact your state RMV to find out more about Real ID requirements.
Many state Registry of Motor Vehicles closed in March 2020 because of COVID-19 restriction. TSA will accept a license that expired after March 1, 2020, for one year after the expiration date as identification at a security checkpoint.