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.”