TSA screening at airports has become more efficient and less obtrusive, plus we no longer need to worry so much about scanner radiation potentially harming us.
But just because the TSA is not as terrible as they once were doesn’t mean they’re now good. And just because lines to go through security seldom now snake through the airport concourses and even out of the building, that doesn’t mean you’re not still up for some unknown semi-random amount of delay – invariably more than five minutes, rarely but occasionally growing to perhaps even 50 minutes.
There are a number of ways to improve and speed up the TSA experience these days. They all cost money. Which is the best choice for you, giving you the fastest and least hassle as you go through the screening, and costing you the least amount of money? This article considers all seven of your options.
Up to Four Lines to the Check Point
Depending on the airport and time of day, you might notice as many as four different choices of line to stand in while waiting to get to “First Base” – the document checker who looks over your boarding pass and ID.
These are :
- First Class
- PreCheck (and other eligible “Trusted Traveler Programs”)
Now don’t go thinking that the shortest line is also the fastest way through the entire process, because there are a couple of further factors in play here.
The first factor is how many document checkers are processing each line. Simple math – a line with ten people and one document checker is going to be slower than a line with 50 people and 6 document checkers.
However, in general, the time it takes to get to and through the document checking process is usually shortest for Clear members, then for PreCheck members, then perhaps for first class and lastly/longest probably for regular travelers.
In January 2020, the TSA advises that 95% of PreCheck passengers waited less than 5 minutes, whereas statistics for normal travelers varied widely depending on airport and time of day.
Getting to the document checker is just the first part of your experience, and the easiest part.
The second part is what happens after you have had your documents (ie boarding pass and ID) checked. Like the classic “do you turn left or right when getting on the plane” differentiation that awaits you a bit further on, there are two very different experiences going through the TSA checkpoint. One is for PreCheck members (which includes assorted other “Trusted Traveler” program members too, but not Clear members), and the other is for everyone else.
The PreCheck Experience
We love PreCheck. As already explained, it has a sometimes very much shorter line to wait for document checking, and then, when you get to the security screening subsequently, the experience is as close to a pleasant positive and even enjoyable experience as is possible.
Going through PreCheck screening is very much nicer than going through the regular line. Instead of having to take many more items out of your pockets, shoes and belts off, then going through one of the whole body scanners and raising your hands over your head while it scans you, you simply walk through a standard metal detector. That speeds things up, and things are further improved because it is plain the metal detectors are not set at their most sensitive level. This means that in most cases belts and shoes won’t sound an alarm, and you usually don’t need to take them off.
The PreCheck line is also more tolerant in terms of what you need to unpack out of your carry-on – laptops can stay in your carry-on, for example. It is our sense that the people monitoring the X-ray screens as your bags go through the machine are on less of a hair-trigger alert, and are more willing to use a measure of common sense rather than demanding every last unknown be treated as a mysterious weapon of mass-destruction.
PreCheck is available at over 200 airports in the US, although not necessarily at every security screening checkpoint in their featured airports.
The long list of airports, impressive as it is, is not every airport, but it is pretty much all the major airports and most of the secondary airports. For example, in Washington, Seattle, Spokane and Pasco have PreCheck service, but the lovely new Paine Field in Everett does not. In Montana, Billings, Bozeman, Kalispell and Missoula offer PreCheck, but Helena does not.
The PreCheck service is generally open for most of the time the airport itself is open, although in off-peak times the TSA might reduce the number of checkpoints offering PreCheck.
One other consideration. PreCheck requires that both you and the airline you are flying belongs to the program. It only works with some airlines, because the airline has to share your travel data with the TSA in order for the TSA to pre-approve your status prior to each flight. Normally this is totally “behind the scenes” and requires nothing from you, and your boarding pass is issued automatically with “TSA PRE” or some similar designation on it to indicate you can use the PreCheck service.
But some airlines – particularly international airlines – have chosen not to participate. Currently, 73 airlines do participate, including all the major US carriers and most major international carriers. But if you’re flying assorted other airlines – for example, Air New Zealand or Hainan (to name but two) you’ll be disappointed and when going through security to join flights on non-participating carriers, you’ll have to use a regular line, even though you are a PreCheck member.
Note also that the PreCheck service applies only to flights from US airports. Other countries don’t participate.
To become a PreCheck member, you first fill out a simple online application, then you need to attend an in-person interview/background check/fingerprinting and document check. Most of the PreCheck airports can do this.
PreCheck costs $85 for a five year membership. When you renew, you usually do not need to have another airport interview.
What do First Class Passengers Get?
Some airlines pay extra money to the TSA so that passengers they designate as VIPs (ie first class ticket holders, perhaps elite level frequent fliers, usually also business class on international flights, but not premium economy) get the privilege of a shorter line to wait in prior to getting to the document checking point.
That is a good thing, for sure. But it doesn’t always work as well as it should. We have sometimes been in the first class TSA line only to notice that people in the regular line are moving through it more rapidly – indeed, in such cases, there are usually mass “defections” from the first class line when passengers notice this and switch to go through the normal line!
Plus, the “shorter” line privilege, such as it may actually be, only helps you to the document checking point. It doesn’t help you further when you are then directed to the regular security screening.
If you are both a first class passenger and a PreCheck member, you should generally use the PreCheck line, because it usually takes no more time to get to the document check point, and then you have the much nicer PreCheck security screening experience.
So, is there any measure of sense in paying extra for a first class ticket so as to get faster security screening? No, not at all.
What About Clear?
Clear is a private program that allows you shorter lines to the document check point, and instead of being document checked by an agent at that point, you do a biometric check at a Clear check station to prove that you are you (based on a retina scan and fingerprints).
This saves you a bit of time getting to and past the document check station, but at that point, you go to the regular security line unless you’ve also signed up and paid for the TSA PreCheck program (or another qualifying Trusted Traveler program).
Keep in mind also that the lines for PreCheck members to get to document checking are usually short, and that the biggest benefit (in our opinion) is a faster and easier process through the security check, so all you’re getting for your Clear membership is two or three or maybe four minutes less time in line prior to the document check point.
Furthermore, Clear is only in operation at a very few number of airports – 34 in total (PreCheck is available at more than 200). If you live in a city served by a Clear participating airport, and you mainly travel to other Clear participating airports, perhaps the few minutes saved each time might add up to a sufficient number, but for the vast majority of us, the program offers little or no value.
There is one more subtle benefit, both to Clear and only slightly less so to PreCheck. It removes most of the fear that when you get to the airport, you’ll suddenly find yourself with an unexpectedly long line to go through security. Instead of needing to build in a generous allowance of “just in case” time, you can cut down how much time you plan to arrive at an airport prior to your flight.
Clear does not operate all day. Mind you, PreCheck is sometimes not open all the time the airport is open either, and Clear does generally offer fairly extensive hours, but perhaps an hour a day or more less than PreCheck. Again, if you have typical flights you regularly take, and they’re very early or late redeyes, you should check if Clear actually operates when you need it.
Clear costs $179/year. Note that whereas the government programs are priced for five years, Clear is an annual cost. So it is just over ten times the cost of PreCheck. So not worth it, in our opinion.
This is the Clear website.
What About the Other Trusted Traveler Programs?
Homeland Security offer a total of five different “trusted traveler” programs, with varying degrees of requirements to qualify, varying costs, and varying benefits in return.
One of them is massively better than PreCheck, and also less expensive. Another costs only a very little more and is also better for most travelers.
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At most airports, PreCheck (and the other qualifying Trusted Traveler Programs) is available and gives you the double benefits of less time waiting to go through security screening, and a much easier process through the security screening. It is easy to apply for, and at a cost of $17/year ($85 for a five year membership), it only takes a few flights a year to make it worth its cost.
Some of the Trusted Travel Programs offer additional benefits, and one in particular not only offers more benefits, but costs less than PreCheck. This is discussed in the special Travel Insider Supporter Supplement, visible above if you are already a Supporter, and which would be revealed instantly if you now choose to join.
The Clear service is only available at 34 airports. It speeds up the time it takes to get to and go through document checking, but does not qualify you for the PreCheck easy security inspection process. It costs $179/year, and in our opinion, can not be justified as a beneficial service/expense by most travelers.
We love the PreCheck benefits we get, and strongly recommend PreCheck or one of the enhanced Trusted Traveler programs.