Hacks For Working Those Long TSA Lines

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You've probably already heard horror stories about unusually long TSA security lines at airports, which may only get worse as the summer travel crush adds more travelers. Passengers have been stranded overnight at airports and thousands have missed their flights.

Homeland Security says it's trying to fix this by adding more employees and keeping the ones the TSA already has, but perhaps a better strategy is to privatize security at some airports. After all, foreign governments have long used private security screeners, and their procedures are approved by the U.S. Let's get some competition in the mix and keep private screeners to the highest standards.

Meanwhile, here are some strategies to make sure you don't miss your flight.

Making the flight begins with you

Get to the airport super early, obviously: at the very least two hours before boarding for domestic, three to four hours for international. But it depends on the airport and when you're flying; at Miami when the cruise ships come in, even two hours might not be enough. New York area airports are suggesting three hours during busy times even for domestic flights.

If you hate waiting at airports this might be a good time to splurge for an airline lounge day pass. American, for example, charges $50 for a one-day pass.

We can all help in other ways, too. Make sure you're "clean" long before you get to the security line, that the bottle of Merlot you got during your Napa tour isn't lurking in your carry on. Obey the 100 ml/three ounce liquids and gels rule or you bag will have to be re-scanned, further delaying the line. Ditch the heavy metal: shoes with shanks, belts, watches, phones. Not following the rules makes the lines go even slower.

Here's a radical thought: check your bag. Southwest Airlines allows two free checked bags, or get one of the numerous airline credit cards that entitle you and traveling companions free checked bags. Fewer bags to scan would mean faster lines.

Or maybe the airlines should waive checked bag fees during this crisis, as a couple of legislators have suggested. A sort of fuel rebate. It would help them too because they wouldn't have so many angry stranded passengers to deal with.

Another choice you can make: fly from less busy airports. If you live on Long Island, fly from Islip rather than from JFK, for example. Long Beach usually has shorter lines than LAX, and so on.
Or try to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday when airports are less busy. Some times of the day (such as midday) are slower than during the morning and evening rush, so lines should be shorter.

TSA PreCheck and Global Entry

But perhaps the best advice you already know: sign up for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. I prefer Global Entry because it includes PreCheck and it's good for five years for a $100 fee. Some premium credit cards, such as the Amex Platinum Card, reimburse the fee and Orbitz Rewards platinum members get PreCheck for free.

The TSA needs to do a better job advertising this program. The UK has a program to speed immigration lines and they hand out brochures when you arrive. Why doesn't TSA get the word out?

The only problem with PreCheck is that at some airports the special lines are only open for a few hours a day, again because of staffing shortages. But not only are the lines much shorter than regular TSA lines, you don't have to take out your laptop and liquids, and you can leave your shoes and light jacket on.

Buy your way to the front

Another hack: Buy priority access to TSA lines such as JetBlue's "even more speed," which gives you expedited lines through TSA. United has a similar program called Premier Access, which starts at $15. Delta calls it "Sky Priority" and it's available at select airports.

And although this isn't for everyone, if you really want to make your plane on time and you fly Delta, their VIP Select Service is offered at LAX, JFK, San Francisco, LaGuardia and Atlanta. For $250, on top of any Delta fare, you get escorted to the front of the TSA line and even get a transfer between flights via a private car service on the tarmac, plus other VIP perks such as Skyclub lounge access (book via Delta's VIP phone line at 855-235-9847). American has a similar program but it's only available to business- and first-class passengers.