If you’ve been to an airport lately, you may have noticed that travel is back in (nearly) full swing. Transportation Security Administration officers are screening just about as many people as they did in 2019.
With the anticipation of crowded checkpoints, crowded gates and even more crowded Starbucks kiosks, you may want to prepare for your next trip by figuring out how to cut through those crowds. Since the advent of programs such as TSA PreCheck and Global Entry more than a decade ago, more pay-for-play services have emerged. But before you take that leap, make sure you’re getting the right service for you.
Here’s a rundown on which ones are best for each kind of traveler.
1. TSA PreCheck: For the generalist
TSA PreCheck is the classic pick for cutting airport security lines. For $85, a five-year PreCheck membership grants travelers access to a separate line from the masses. Depending on how popular the service is where you’re flying, that can help you get through security a lot faster.
And PreCheck has other perks. “You don’t have to deal with the process of taking off your shoes or taking out your computer or whatever,” says John Rose, chief risk officer for the travel management company Altour, who has logged more than 3 million flight miles during his career. “It’s just amazing for your efficiency.”
Rose also vouches for PreCheck because it is widely available, even being found at small regional airports.
Travel journalist Ramsey Qubein – another million miler – encourages checking to see if your credit cards cover the cost of PreCheck (and other Trusted Traveler programs) as a perk. You may not have to shell out to sign up.
2. Clear: For the frequent flier
If PreCheck isn’t enough, consider Clear. The privately owned service uses biometric technology to give enrolled travelers a “faster, safer, touchless way through airport security,” its website says, by scanning eyes and faces.
“It’s incredibly easy to get; then you don’t have to show your IDs,” Rose says. “My whole family has Clear, and we love it.”
Because Clear speeds up the document-checking process at TSA but doesn’t speed up the screening process, you may want to consider getting TSA PreCheck, too. As Qubein puts it: “It expedites you through the already expedited lane.”
One drawback: Clear isn’t at every airport. However, it also can be used at other places, such as stadiums and arenas, so “Clear can significantly improve the speed of you getting into a venue,” Rose says.
If it’s not at the airports or venues you visit the most, it may not be worth the investment. A Clear membership is $179 per year (it’s going up to $189 on May 19), and members can add three adult family members for $60 each. Children under 18 can use the service free with a member.
Before you buy it outright, check to see if you are eligible for a discount or a free membership through rewards programs via Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and several credit cards.
3. Global Entry or Mobile Passport: For the international traveler
After a long flight home from traveling abroad, “there’s nothing worse than taking a long time at customs and immigration,” Rose says.
Skip the dreaded immigration queue by downloading the free Mobile Passport Control (MPC) app from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (the old Mobile Passport app no longer exists).
The service gives travelers access to an express lane that is often much shorter than other options. Once you download the app on a smartphone or tablet, you upload your passport and flight information, answer some standard customs questions and take a selfie. Then you’re ready to cut just about everyone else. You can check the CPB website to find which airports have MPC.
When MPC works according to plan, it’s a dream. “But there have been holes in its network lately,” Qubein says, noting that he has encountered airports with closed MPC lanes. Despite the inconsistency, Qubein still uses it whenever possible.
Another option to speed through immigration is Global Entry. The program offers its own line stocked with special kiosks for international travelers to expedite their entry process. Rose strongly advocates for this line-cutting program, which costs $100 for a five-year membership and includes a TSA PreCheck membership. (Many credit cards include Global Entry rebates, too.)
Like MPC, it’s not available at every airport and “may not be worth the time and effort in signing up if you only travel once or twice a year overseas,” Qubein says.
4. Online-ordering apps: For the hangry
Sometimes you get lucky and there’s no issue grabbing a coffee before takeoff. But when you’re experiencing rush-hour jams, grab your smartphone. Every big chain from Starbucks to Dunkin’ to Chick-fil-A has an app that enables mobile ordering for a quicker pickup experience. There are also airport-specific apps such as Grab and AtYourGate.
5. Airport-specific services: For big spenders
When money isn’t an issue, you can pay your way to an even faster airport experience.
One way is through your airline. “There are paid services offered by airlines like American and United that will expedite you through the airport using priority-access lines and escorts to the gate,” Qubein says. “But this may only be worth it for celebrities who want privacy or inexperienced travelers that may need help navigating the airport.”
You can also check if your airport works with traveler concierge companies such as Perq Soleil, Royal Airport Concierge or Air General.
For a price that varies depending on your location and needs, an Air General agent will meet you at your car to escort you through check-in and security and to your gate. You can request a quote for your booking on Air General’s website. It should cost approximately $240 for three hours of service for up to four travelers, a representative for Air General said.
Available at more than 500 airports around the world, Royal Airport Concierge offers rates that also vary by location and the time of the flight. They generally range between $250 and $450 to smoothly escort a group of up to four people through a U.S. airport. Outside of the United States, the company uses fast-track lanes to bypass normal airport security. Travelers can get a quote by calling the company’s toll-free number: 1-866-769-2590.
Perq Soleil’s arrival and departure assistance is available at 300 airports and 150 countries. Staff can help travelers with expedited TSA check-in by taking them through alternative lines. Prices change depending on the airport and time of flight. For example, two hours of service at Reagan National Airport between 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. costs $250 for four travelers. The service at Boston Logan International Airport is $360, and at Los Angeles International Airport, it’s $350. Request a quote for your travel day by emailing email@example.com.
On the extreme end, there are services such PS at the Los Angeles International Airport. The company has its own terminal where travelers are treated to private security and customs clearance (and snacks) before being driven to their commercial aircraft via BMW. Appealing to the rich and famous who would like to maintain a low profile, PS does not come cheap — $695 per use and $4,500 for an annual membership.
6. NEXUS: For the Canada-adjacent
Anyone traveling regularly over our northern border by air, land or sea should apply for NEXUS, a program that gives members expedited crossing between the United States and Canada. The $50 membership lasts five years and has the same benefits as TSA PreCheck and Global Entry (even on the Canada side).
If you’re traveling in a group by car, everyone in your party has to have NEXUS to use the special lanes. In the airport, you can split up and head to the kiosk on your own. Another drawback is that getting membership requires an in-person interview “and most of the locations for these interviews are near U.S.-Canada border crossings,” says Sam Kemmis, a travel expert at NerdWallet. “So if you don’t live near or frequently travel through a northern border crossing, it’s probably not a good fit.”
Per the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, once you’re approved for NEXUS, you can use their “dedicated processing lanes at designated northern border ports of entry, NEXUS kiosks when entering Canada by air and Global Entry kiosks when entering the United States via Canadian Preclearance airports.” It also works at marine reporting locations along the border, should you also enjoy traveling by boat.