By Sally French
Long airport lines during a holiday travel season that coincide with a pandemic are ruthless. That is, for most people. But you are not most people.
You’ve turned to the Nerds, and we know not only how to avoid lines at airport security, but how to avoid paying for the privilege.
Apply for TSA PreCheck
TSA PreCheck is one of a few government-run trusted traveler programs, designed to allow members to use expedited security lanes at more than 200 U.S. airports. With TSA PreCheck, you can speed through security without removing your shoes, laptops, belts or jacket.
How to get (and pay for) TSA PreCheck
To get PreCheck, you’ll start by submitting an online application before moving on to an in-person appointment at a Transportation Security Administration Enrollment Center. If approved, you’ll get a Known Traveler Number , which you’ll then enter whenever you book a flight. That typically gets you the TSA PreCheck logo on your boarding pass, allowing you to enter the expedited TSA PreCheck line.
TSA PreCheck typically costs $85 and is good for five years, but there’s a good chance you might not even have to fork over $85 for it. There are more than a dozen credit cards that cover the TSA PreCheck application fee as a member benefit. While most of these cards have annual fees, the benefits can generally outweigh the costs for most semi-frequent travelers, especially if you were going to pay the $85 application fee out of pocket anyway.
Apply for Global Entry
Global Entry is everything that TSA PreCheck is and more. If you have Global Entry, you’ll automatically also get TSA PreCheck and all of its benefits. On top of that, you’ll get to avoid the general customs line when returning to the U.S. from abroad.
With Global Entry, you simply scan your passport or U.S. permanent resident card at a Global Entry kiosk, complete the customs declaration form, scan your fingerprints and move onward onto U.S. soil. This can be a major time saver when the customs line is long at busy airports or during high-volume travel periods.
How to get (and pay for) Global Entry
Global Entry is more powerful than PreCheck, but the application process is also longer and more expensive. To get Global Entry, you’ll start by submitting an online application upon which you’ll likely receive conditional approval. The next step is scheduling an interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center, which is typically found at international U.S. airports. The challenge is finding appointment availability, so avoid being picky about timing and snatch one up immediately. It is not unusual for appointments to be booked several months in advance.
The Global Entry fee is a heftier $100, but many of the credit cards that cover TSA PreCheck will also offer to cover Global Entry. However, many of these credit cards will cover one, but not both, so it’s almost always a better idea to apply for Global Entry versus simply TSA PreCheck, especially if you have any international travel plans in the next five years.
Apply for Clear (maybe)
If Global Entry and TSA PreCheck are the pizza party, then Clear is the box of pineapple pizza. Some people sing its praises, and others just don’t get it.
Clear uses biometric data (either a fingerprint or iris scan) to identify you rather than manually checking your photo identification, allowing you to cut the line and go straight to bag screening.
But unlike the former two programs that put you through a completely different security screening process than everyone else, Clear doesn’t actually get you into any special airport security lines. It simply gets you to the front of the screening line.
If you don’t have TSA PreCheck, then Clear can be immensely helpful in cutting the general security line. But for most travelers, it likely makes more sense to have TSA PreCheck if you can only choose, or afford, one.
If you have both TSA PreCheck and Clear, then you not only go through the TSA PreCheck lane but get to cut the PreCheck line — if there is one. TSA PreCheck lines are typically short. In September 2021, 96% of TSA PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes, according to the TSA.
Then again, if you’re one of the 4% who finds yourself in a line longer than that, then you might benefit from Clear, especially at large airports like New York-JFK where PreCheck lines can still involve a wait.
Clear is somewhat limited, with availability at only about 50 U.S. airports, making this program more worthwhile if your home airport is served by Clear. Clear is also used in some stadiums and venues, which could prove to be a valuable benefit for frequent concertgoers or sports fans if your local stadium or arena also uses it.
How to get (and pay for) Clear
A Clear Plus membership is $179 a year. Members of certain airline loyalty programs get discounts on Clear memberships, and some credit cards offer full or partial statement credits to cover the cost.
Purchase upgraded airfare with priority lane access
Some airlines allow you to purchase upgraded tickets that get you access to exclusive security lanes. You won’t find these at every airport or with every airline, but they can be worth paying for during busy times like the holidays.
For example, United’s /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL -0.84% Premier Access speeds you through not just airport security because of its exclusive security lanes, but also grants you access to dedicated airport check-in lines and priority boarding. Prices start at $15 per ticket.
Southwest’s /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV -0.32% version is called the Fly By Lane, which grants you direct access to the front of the ticket counter and security checkpoints at select airports. Get it by purchasing a Business Select Fare, which is essentially the Southwest version of first class, or by holding either A-List or A-List Preferred Southwest elite status.
Check with your airline to see if it offers similar expedited security access.
Also see: Where to find the cheap airfares
The bottom line
If time is money, then you can be saving it. Whether it’s membership to security clearance programs or a higher class of airfare, it’s possible to pay money to skip the line. But if you hold certain elite status or credit cards, you might be entitled to such line-skipping privileges — and skip paying for them, as well.
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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SAFmedia.