May 03, 2023

How to Avoid Long Waits at Airport Security This Summer

By Ramsey Qubein

Summer is here and so is the crush of passengers, including many first-time fliers, at the airport. That means crowded gates and snaking lines—especially at the airport security checkpoint.

In that regard, this summer could present a unique challenge, according to Catherine Chaulet, a frequent traveler and president and CEO of Global DMC Partners, a destination management firm. Like last year, many airports are still facing staff shortages, which can cause backups at the security queue as well as at check-in counters and help desks. Chaulet had a recent travel snafu at London Heathrow where security and ticket counter lines were so bad due to limited staffing that airport representatives were asking people to return home or leave the airport.

Fortunately, there are strategies to help reduce the amount of stress in the security line. Here are six tips that can help you navigate airport security this summer—and maybe even leave you with some extra time to visit your favorite airport lounge.

TSA PreCheck is an undeniable time saver for frequent fliers since it means not having to remove shoes, jackets, or laptops. But its popularity can also be a problem, with these lines sometimes snaking as long as the standard checkpoint lines. You can manage security lines more quickly if you cut the lines all together. We don't mean cut in front of people without reason, but rather by using Clear, which is available at more than 50 airports. Instead of having to show ID, you scan your iris or fingerprints and move immediately to the head of the line. If you have PreCheck, you go to the front of that lane, too.

Clear memberships have an annual $189 fee, but United Premier 1K and Delta Diamond Medallion members get it for free. Other elite members in those airlines’ programs receive a discount, and if you have The Platinum Card from American Express, you’re eligible for a fee credit. Even better, Clear offers a free trial period. If you only travel once in a while, you may want to sign up to benefit from this service without having to pay for a full year. Just make sure the airport you are flying from has a Clear lane in your airline's terminal because they aren't at every checkpoint.

A handful of airports, like New York JFK and Phoenix, let you pre-reserve a time to go through security. The Reserve powered by Clear service means you won't have to wait and can pass through the regular line at your pre-chosen time. It's even available at six airports in Europe.

If you’re traveling in the premium cabin, have airline elite status, or are traveling with kids, some airports have dedicated lanes that allow you to get through to security faster. If you don't see one, ask if there is one available. And don't assume that all security checkpoints in an airport are equally busy. In airports with multiple security checkpoints leading to the same terminal, ask about lines at another entrance. Hub airports like Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, and Philadelphia, among others, may have long lines at one screening checkpoint, but walk to the next one, and you may just breeze through.

Once you check in, make sure PreCheck (if you have it) appears on your boarding pass. Sometimes a reservation snag prevents it from appearing properly, which will cause a delay when going through security. A ticket agent can try to re-enter the Known Traveler Number into the reservation. After all, if you paid for it, you might as well benefit from the time savings.

You may have been behind "that person" in security whose bag is full of restricted items—sewing scissors or oversized liquids—while wearing every alarm-inducing piece of jewelry imaginable. To avoid similar woes, review what you’ve packed (or may have forgotten that is already in your bag) before getting to the checkpoint. While some screeners may let certain things slide, others may not, and different countries play by their own screening rules.

Before placing anything in your carry-on, do a scan of all its pockets and compartments to ensure they’re all empty and no TSA-prohibited items have been accidentally left inside.

Avoid packing full-size containers of foods like peanut butter, yogurt, and applesauce in your carry-on. While not entirely liquid, these foods fall into the category of creams and gels and therefore are limited to the 3.4 ounce 100ml rule. The only exceptions are for parents traveling with infants needing to bring food or formula on the plane.

Chaulet also recommends that if you’re checking bags, always place a change of clothes in your carry-on just in case your other luggage gets lost.

Early-morning departures may be popular with those that want the best chance at avoiding a flight delay, but it is also one of the busiest times at the airport. All of the planes that overnighted at the facility will be departing early in the morning, and lines are sure to be long. This can be especially true on a Monday morning when many business travelers are flying out. On the other hand, Sunday morning may be less busy. Many airports list the current or expected wait times at different checkpoints on their website. Take a look at those wait times a few days prior to have an idea if lines are generally long when you are flying.

Even if you must wait in line, use that down time to prepare for reaching the security scanner. Have the right documents ready to show, and if you need to remove jewelry, watches, belts, or items from your bag, have that ready to go so you don't waste time (or hold up others) at the machine. Some of the newer bag-scanning machines at many airports don't require removing anything from your bag. Ask ahead if you need to before you discombobulate.

Try to stay positive, even if the wait is taking longer than expected. Chaulet says she that while she waits she tries to lighten the mood, sometimes wearing a sweater with the words "Champagne please," embroidered on it, which spurs conversation and creates a laugh with others in line.

There are numerous services where you can pay to have your bags collected from your home and delivered to your destination. This no-fuss option means you won't even have to deal with bags at the airport, saving you check-in time and reducing any carry-on luggage you may have otherwise brought with you. LugLess is a popular option for domestic shipping and sister company Luggage Forward can handle bag delivery farther afield.

No matter how long you have to wait, Chaulet reminds travelers that "patience is key," and it's important to be courteous to airport security staff, who are also struggling with the same issues themselves.