On the list of places you want to be, the airport security line probably ranks somewhere between a crowded Wal-Mart and prison. But while a trip through checkpoint tedium is inevitable for those who wish to fly, the journey doesn't have to be a long one. A few simple strategies will help you get through airport security faster than you can say "pat down." Here are 10 tips to make the screening process go by in a flash.
Join TSA PreCheck
Flyers eligible for the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) PreCheck program may experience faster, smoother screening at select domestic airports. The expedited security isn't guaranteed, ever. (The TSA likes to keep things more secure by avoiding any sweeping promises of devil-may-care screening.) But for the most part, PreCheck travelers get to leave their shoes on and their laptops in their bags, bypassing some of the traditional TSA procedures and getting through the system a lot faster.
Those eligible for TSA PreCheck receive a special invitation from airlines they fly frequently. Didn't get the offer? Those who join Trusted Traveler Programs like Global Entry or NEXUS can sign up for PreCheck as well. You'll have to cough up a good amount of personal information when applying (essentially, you'll be pre-screened), thus trading a modicum of privacy for the privilege of less time spent in the airport security line.
Watch the Security Agent
The shortest line does not always equal the shortest wait. Instead of barreling toward the scantier security queue, watch for the line that's moving the fastest. Take a look at the security agent manning each line, and choose the one that's hustling travelers through with the greatest speed and efficiency.
Join a Frequent-Flyer Program
Though awards tickets can be hard to come by, other benefits that come with frequent-flyer programs—namely, a better security experience—sweeten the deal. Elite-status travelers (and their companions) often get access to exclusive, andfaster, security lines at airports. Philosophically, we're not saying this is exactly fair. But it's there for those who've earned some kind of special status from an airline.
Get an Upgrade
An unexpected upgrade could come with the added bonus of expedited security, whether you're a frequent flyer or not. Those aforementioned expedited security lines for elite members are available, in most cases, to those flying in first or business class as well.
One can always ask the person at the check-in counter, politely and directly, for an upgrade; it never hurts. Other options: Purchase an upgrade the old-fashioned way or with frequent-flyer miles, or even bid for one, depending on with which airline you're flying. Additionally, discounted upgrades are sometimes offered at electronic check-in kiosks. If you're in a huge rush, it might be worth that extra $50 to advance to business class and hustle through security.
Know the 3-1-1 Rule
Unless you've never seen the inside of an airport or haven't flown since before 9/11, you likely know the TSA fundamentals and have some understanding of the 3-1-1 rule: Liquids and gels must be in containers of 3.4 ounces or less, and these containers must be in a single quart-size zip-top bag.
But the gel part is where things get tricky. What, exactly, constitutes a gel? According to the TSA, gravy, jams, jellies, lotions, salsa, peanut butter, spreadable cheese, and cranberry sauce are all gels, and therefore must be in those little containers or bust. Cakes and pies are okay (though most pie fillings seem pretty gel-like, if you ask me). And cheese viscosity is highly variable. A good rule of thumb: If you could squeeze it through a pastry bag, don't bring it. See a list of gel-like substances that are not checkpoint-approved here.
Wrap when You Get There
Especially around the holidays, it's important to remember that wrapped gifts, while not officially prohibited, could get torn open at the checkpoint. According to the TSA, "If a bag alarms our security officers, [they] may have to unwrap a gift to take a closer look inside." An agent tearing opening your presents like a kid on Christmas morning is sure to slow your progress through the checkpoint, not to mention undo all your hard work.
Don't pack so much in your bag that you have to sit on it to get it closed. If the TSA elects to open your bag, you'll waste time (and hold up the security line) gathering the overflowing contents and trying to get that zipper closed as a crowd of impatient passengers looks on.
An organized bag will cause less confusion when going through the X-ray scanner, too. A mess of wires and bundled clothes is more likely to get flagged for extra screening than a bag with folded, neatly stacked items. The TSA recommends that travelers pack items in layers and place " shoes, boots, sneakers, and other footwear on top of other contents in your luggage." The agency also advises, "Don't stack piles of books or documents on top of each other; spread them out within your baggage" to facilitate X-ray scanning.
In addition to having your boarding pass and ID on hand to show the security agent, pack the items you'll need to take out quickly—like your laptop and your zip-top bag of liquids—in an easy-to-grab spot at the top of your carry-on bag. (Unless you're carrying a checkpoint-friendly laptop bag, you'll have to take your computer out of your luggage and put it in a bin for screening.)
This one may seem obvious, yet every airport security line appears to have some travelers who scramble to fish out laptops and zip-tops the moment they step up to the X-ray machine. Don't be that guy.
Dress for Success
First off, empty your pockets (coat and pants). Spare change, keys, and any metal frippery that may be jangling around in your pockets will set off the metal detector and invite extra screening. If you can, don't wear any body piercings through the metal detector. Jewelry that sets off the alarm is cause for additional screening—in private if necessary. Belts with metal clasps also set off the alarm (and must be taken off at the checkpoint), so wearing an outfit without a belt could make things a little easier.
Since shoes must be kicked off during screening at U.S. airports, remember to wear easily removable ones if possible. For more on this, see Nine Things Not to Wear on a Plane.
There's an App for That
The TSA has an excellent app; with it, you can type the name of an item in a "Can I Bring?" field for instant answers. It also features security wait times, plus a guide to TSA rules for travelers. The free app is available for iPhone and Android. Get more information at TSA.gov.
-- Caroline Costello