Airport security lines are a great place to meet federal employees, check out the newest shoe fashions, and—if you’re a lawyer—bill by the hour. But otherwise, they’re no fun. Below, several strategies for minimizing your time in line.
1. Be Flexible About When You Travel
The TSA used to publish statistics on airport security wait times. But in 2009 they realized this was useful, so they stopped.
Fortunately, several sites took snapshots of the most recent data. For example, this page from the Orlando Sentinel has the 2009 wait times for most US airports, broken down by terminal, date, and time.
When you have flexibility, use this data to avoid booking travel during the busiest dates and times.
2. Be Prepared
Security regulations tend to change once every year or two, and you can check the most recent ones here. If you travel only occasionally, here are some of the current rules that may differ from what you remember:
- Before going through security, have your boarding pass and a photo ID in hand. Once the TSA has checked them, you can put them both away; you no longer have to show your boarding pass again when going through the metal detector.
- Don’t bring liquids in containers larger than about 3 ounces, but do put all the liquids in a bag. When going through security, put the bag in a bin.
- Put your laptop in its own bin (separate from its case), unless you have a “Checkpoint Friendly” case.
- Loosen your shoes and belt before you get to the front of the line so you can quickly put them into a bin. If you’re wearing a jacket, sweater, or hoodie, do everyone a favor by taking it off before you reach the X-ray machine.
A final piece of advice: the “man purse”/messenger bag can be an incredibly swift way to travel. Just remove your laptop, and then dump the contents of your pockets (wallet, keys, pocket protector, etc.) into the messenger bag and place it on the belt.
3. Be a Frequent Flyer
If you do all your flying on one airline and its partners, you’ll get “elite” security privileges at many airports. (Typically, you have to fly at least 25,000 miles in a year.)
This usually lets you jump to the front of the same line everyone else uses, but sometimes it means you’ll have access to a completely separate line full of frequenters who fly quickly through security. Unfortunately, this can actually be a curse at large “hub” airports; with so many frequent flyers, it can actually be faster to go through the plebeian line.
4. Don’t Automatically Go to the Closest Line
At large airports, there are often multiple security lines that go to the same place—but the signs don’t always tell you that (e.g. the US Airways security lines in Boston). If your line looks ridiculously long, ask someone official-looking (a TSA rep, gate agent, etc.) if there are any alternate lines.
Pro-tip: At some airports, certain terminals are connected behind security. That means—depending on the TSA’s mood—you may be able to clear security in a different terminal than the one you’re flying from. (Useful to know in San Francisco, for example; the United domestic terminal is usually overwhelmed in the early morning, but the International terminal it connects to is quiet.) Check out your airport’s website before flying (specifically the “transfers” or “connections” page) for information on so-called “airside connections.”
Your time is valuable and while there are more fun places to be than sitting at your gate, running from the clutches of airport security to board on time isn’t a lot of fun either. Here’s the guide for showing up at your gate with James Bond timing.
The Easy Stuff
Google for “<Airline Name> Checkin cutoff”
This’ll find the minimum amount of time the airline will allow between checking in and the plane departing (e.g., Continental.com’s guidelines).
Rather not search? Go to SeatGuru.com, select the airline you want, and then click the “Check-in” tab at the top.
If you’re going global, go early
This often-repeated advice has some truth to it: arrive earlier for international travel. It’s not just because you have to deal with more shenanigans (e.g., passport checks), but also because the airlines require it. You’ll notice in the Continental.com page above, for example, that flying out of Micronesia has a cutoff of 90 minutes before departure (if you’re checking bags), as compared to much lower in the US.
Avoid checking bags if you can
You won’t have to check in as far in advance, as evidenced by the cutoff times above.
Online instead of in line
If at all possible, check-in online and print your boarding pass at home (or have it on your smartphone). That’ll give you the freedom to arrive even after the check-in cutoff.
Delayed flights don’t mean you can delay
Airlines may not look kindly on you arriving after the check-in time for the flight *had it not been delayed.* There’s a reason for this: delayed flights sometimes get un-delayed. So suck it up and arrive on time even for delayed flights.
Public transit isn’t perfect
Subways, buses, and the like can break down, or have construction, or strike, etc. This is particularly a problem in cities that have good public transit links to their airports, like Boston and SF, because you can come to rely on them and then they fail.
Sometimes public transit isn’t running early enough or late enough to get you to your flight. Example: You can’t realistically catch a 6 AM flight from Logan Airport and take the T to get there.
Be wary of the roads, too
Granted, driving/cabbing can suck too due to construction, accidents, traffic, or just bad timing. Try getting a cab in downtown NY around 4pm (when shifts change) for a flight out of JFK.
Check-in agents can save your butt
Even if you miss the checkin cutoff, some agents may be receptive to checking you in anyway if a) the flight still has room, b) you can plausibly make it through security in time and c) you’re not checking bags. It especially helps if you have “status” with the airline for having flown them or their partners a lot in the past year.
It’s tempting to be in a foul mood, but if you can put on a smile, you’ll often be surprised with how receptive people can be — especially given what they’re typically subjected to.
Know your options
In advance of your flight, see what other flights are available so you know how badly you’re screwed if things don’t work out. Be extra-conservative if you’re on the last (or only) flight of the day to where you’re going. Here are some mobile apps to help.
Worst case: there might be a policy for that
If you miss the flight despite your best efforts, some airlines have a formal or informal policy that may help you: http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/blog/3801610/the-flat-tire-rule-remnant-or-rescue/
Got tips of your own? Share them in comments!