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5 airport lines you can ditch (and how to skip them for free)

By Sally French | NerdWallet

At the airport, long lines for check-in, security screenings and even getting food can feel like a giant waste of time — and potentially disrupt even the most meticulously planned itinerary.

But with planning, you can skip some of the most annoying lines, and in some cases, get reimbursed if the line-skipping privilege requires an application fee. Here are five common airport bottlenecks and how to avoid them for free or cheap.

1. Check in

It is the year 2024, which means there’s a mobile version of all sorts of travel services. That includes the ability to check in to your flight without standing in line at the airline counter.

Most airlines allow you to check in for your flight directly through their mobile app or website within 24 hours of departure, allowing you to bypass the desk and proceed directly to security if you are flying with only carry-on luggage.

Even if you plan to check bags, checking in online via the airline app or website can help speed up the process so all you will have to do at the airport is print the bag tags at a kiosk and then hand the luggage off at the bag drop.

One way to avoid the checked-bags line altogether is to check your bag at the gate. Many airlines offer complimentary gate-checked baggage services on full flights, but it doesn’t hurt to ask the gate agent even if it’s not offered outright.

This trick doesn’t work if you’re packing common items that can’t go through the security screening, like pocket knives or liquids greater than 3.4 ounces. But assuming your stuff will pass through the security screening and you don’t need it during the flight, it might be worth waiting to check it at the gate.

2. Airport security ID check

An expedited Clear lane at San Francisco International Airport. (Photo by Sally French)

U.S. airport security technically consists of two lines: the line to get your identity checked, and the line to get you (and your stuff) screened.

You can get through airport security fast and skip to the front of the identity verification line with Clear, which is a private biometric screen company operating at more than 55 airports nationwide. Clear says it has more than 20 million members.

Once you pay for a Clear membership (which typically costs $189 per year), you can scan your fingerprints or eyes at Clear’s kiosks instead of having a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent look at your ID. From there, a Clear employee escorts you straight to the physical security screening, allowing you to cut in front of everyone else waiting to have their boarding pass or identification checked.

Though Clear membership fees are high, you might not actually have to pay them. Certain American Express credit cards offer annual statement credits to cover the cost.

3. Baggage screening

The standard TSA screening process can be slow, as most people have to remove their jackets and shoes, plus large electronics, from their bags. But with TSA PreCheck, you can leave your shoes and jackets on — and keep your laptops tucked away.

Most airports have two separate screening lanes for your carry-on luggage — one for TSA PreCheck and one for standard screening. According to the TSA, 99% of TSA PreCheck passengers wait less than 10 minutes (while it’s not uncommon for the standard line to take about 30 minutes).

To access those TSA PreCheck lines, you’ll need to submit an application and pay the fee, which starts at $78 and covers five years of membership. More than 4 million people enrolled in the program in 2023, bringing the total to more than 18 million active members.

There are ways to get TSA PreCheck for free, including holding a credit card that offers TSA PreCheck statement credit or redeeming rewards from certain hotel and airline loyalty programs.

4. Ordering food

At certain airports, Starbucks allows ordering through its mobile app. (Photo by Sally French)

Many airport eateries now offer mobile food ordering, where you can place an order before you arrive, and pick it up before you catch your flight.

Some restaurants, such as Starbucks, offer mobile ordering through an app. Starbucks began rolling out mobile order functionality in 2022, making it possible to order ahead and pay on the Starbucks app at participating airport outposts.

Other airports offer websites or apps that allow you to order food and beverages from participating airport restaurants. For example, the SFO2Go website allows you to order food from one of about a dozen restaurants at San Francisco International Airport. Food is typically ready within about 10-20 minutes.

5. Customs

International travelers returning to the U.S. must pass through a Customs and Border Inspection site before leaving the airport, which typically entails yet another long line.

If you hold Global Entry, which is an expedited clearance program for preapproved, low-risk travelers, you can skip the customs line. Program members get access to specific Global Entry lanes where their photo is taken to verify their membership. The process is generally much faster than the standard line — so fast that you pause only briefly on your way out of the terminal.

To get Global Entry, you’ll need to fill out an application and pay a $100 fee, which is nonrefundable (even if your application is denied). Avoid that fee by paying on one of the myriad credit cards that will cover your Global Entry application fee. Global Entry also includes TSA PreCheck benefits, so if you travel internationally, it’s better to pay the slightly higher fee for Global Entry to get access to both special lanes.

 


Source: Berkshire mont

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