How to Get Through Long Airplane Security Lines Like a Boss


Last Updated: February 24th, 2020

view from an airplane window

In just two short weeks, the holiday travel season will be upon us! But before you can catch up with all your family and friends, fall into a turkey-induced coma while watching a college football game, and devour an entire pumpkin pie for breakfast the next day, you've likely got one major obstacle literally standing in your way: the line through airport security.

Like it or not, most of us who are traveling by plane will have to wait in one of these lines (this should be made clear by the fact that the lines tend to be so incredibly long). This comes complete with the fussy kids, the bag-scooting, and the feeling that you're in a very slow game of Snake (for the kids who are unaware of this great time-passer that came standard on most cellphones in the early 2000s, click here). Soon enough, you get to the only open security checkpoint, flash your ID, and then endure the even more painstaking process of removing your shoes, your belt, your jacket, your laptop, your liquids, and your last shred of sanity from your been-awake-since-4am brain.

But it doesn't have to be that way! Using our step-by-step guide, not only will you become an absolute master of the airport security line, but you'll also drastically reduce the stress that invariably accompanies holiday travel.

Sign Up for TSA Pre✓®

Admittedly, the worst part about the entire airport security line is the inconvenience that comes with the security checkpoint. For most of us, the checkpoint involves nearly security protocol short of a strip-search and a full pat-down. But thanks to the TSA Pre✓® program, you can now get through the security checkpoint with ease. With TSA Pre✓®, airline customers considered "low-risk" are allowed to pass through security without removing a thing - either from their person, or from their carryon luggage. Specifically, you DON'T need to remove the following:

  • Shoes
  • Belts
  • Light Jackets
  • Laptops
  • 3-1-1- Liquids

When you sign up for TSA Pre✓®, you'll be given a KTN, or Known Traveler Number that you can use whenever you book tickets through a participating airline. And when your boarding pass has been printed, the identifier "TSA PRECHK" will appear at the top of your ticket, telling TSA employees that you have been cleared.

Who Offers TSA Pre✓®?

While TSA Pre✓® is offered in over 150 airports nationwide, the program is not supported by every airline; however, several of the major airlines do support the TSA Pre✓® program:

How Do I Apply for TSA Pre✓®?

Applying for TSA Pre✓® is simple:

  1. First, complete the online application, or apply in-person at an application center near you (note, all application centers will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 2015, as well as the day after).
  2. Next, schedule an appointment to come to the application center in-person to complete your application. Successful completion of the application includes the following:
    • Provide two forms of ID: a valid photo ID (driver's license, etc.), as well as a proof of citizenship (birth certificate, passport, etc.)
    • Pay a non-refundable $85 fee. This makes your TSA Pre✓® status good for five years
    • If able, provide the TSA with your fingerprints

Check Your Bags, or Pack Light

However, TSA Pre✓® does not necessarily guarantee you'll be able to circumvent the airport security line, which means if you have your luggage with you, you'll be forced to lug around up to an additional 49 pounds per person until you get on the plane - where you'll have to compete with other airline passengers for that precious overhead bin space. The obvious answer to reduce the stress of carrying (or in some cases, sliding with your foot) heavy bags through the airport, is to check your bags. Unfortunately, as air travel becomes more expensive, more and more airlines are choosing to pass the burden on to the customer through baggage check fees:

Airlines that Charge Fees for Checked Bags

Airline 1st Checked Bag 2nd Checked Bag 3rd Checked Bag Additional Baggage
Delta Airlines $25 $35 $150 $200
American Airlines $25 $35 $150 $200
US Airways $25 $35 $150 $200
United Airlines $25 $35 Individualized Individualized
Southwest Airlines Free Free $75 $75
JetBlue $20 $35 $100 $100
Alaska Airlines $25 $25 $75 $75
Hawaiian Airlines $25 $35 $100 $100
Frontier Airlines $20 $30 $75 $75
Qantas Varies Varies Varies Varies
Emirates Free Varies Varies Varies
ExpressJet Unknown Unknown $50 $50
SkyWest Individualized Individualized Individualized Individualized
Air Europa Varies Varies Varies Varies
British Airways Free Varies Varies Varies
WestJet Free $25 - $29.50 $75 - $88.50 $75 - $88.50
Virgin America $25 $25 $25 $25
Air Canada Varies Varies Varies Varies
Endeavor Air $25 $35 $150 $200
Allegiant Air $35+ $35+ $100 $100
Malaysian Airlines Varies Varies Varies Varies
Gulf Air Free Varies Varies Varies
Asiana Airlines Varies Varies Varies Varies
Sun Country Airlines $20+ $30+ $75 $75
Spirit Airlines Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

If Carrying-On, Don't Pack like You're Never Coming Back

If baggage fees are getting you down, then the next logical option is to carry on; however, many of us think that when we travel home for the holidays that we need to bring everything - shoes, boots, and sandals for every occasion, bulky haircare appliances, electronics, and hygiene products. Why is it that when we go on vacation, we try to take as much of our lives along with us?

Now, obviously, there are some essentials that you cannot travel without, and the definition of "essentials" is different for everyone. So the first thing you need to do is make a detailed list of everything you plan to bring on your trip. Also, ask yourself the following questions:

  • "Can I do laundry while I'm on vacation?" - if so,  you won't need to bring nearly as many clothes.
  • "What activities are planned for this trip?" - this will help you decide what kind and how many pairs of shoes to bring, etc.
  • "Can I go ___ days with ___ ?" - unless your holiday travels involve going to a remote part of the world, chances are you can do without that $1,200 white noise machine.

Packing the essentials, plus some luxuries, can be further complicated by your airline's carryon bag restrictions. Thankfully, there are a few strategies you can employ to make the most of your limited carryon bag space:

Vacuum Bags

One simple strategy to maximize the space in your carryon bag is to use vacuum-sealed space-saving bags. These bags essentially seal out all the excess air from your clothing, thus reducing the amount of space they take up.

Pros Cons
You can greatly reduce the amount of space taken up by your clothing, towels, etc. The plastic will also protect your clothing from any inadvertent spills or container breaks that happen during your flight. Vacuum bags may cause wrinkling. Also, this technique doesn't necessarily reduce the weight of your clothing, so while you can probably fit more into your bag, you'll need to be extra conscious of how much weight you'll be packing.


The Burrito Technique

You might also consider tightly rolling up you clothing as a way to save space. Simply layer like clothing (all your shirts, all your pants, etc.) upon one another, and roll them together. The added benefit to this technique is that you can prevent delicate clothing from getting wrinkled during your flight.

Pros Cons
This technique prevents wrinkling, and is an excellent way to organize shirts, pants, socks, and unmentionables. It also gives you a realistic expectation of how many clothes you can take, without going over the airline's weight restrictions on carryons. Unless you wrap your clothing rolls in plastic or some other protective covering, they are at the mercy of whatever accident or spill takes place in your bag. You also won't be able to pack quite as many clothes, etc. in your bag this way.


Dress for Speed and Utility, then Comfort

One of the most important decisions you can make in preparation for your trip is what you're going to wear on the flight. Many of us, when we get dressed the morning of our flight, are usually thinking about those uncomfortable airplane seats and the cold airplane cabin - we want to wear something warm, and something that won't be too constrictive. We think of comfort first; however, few of us consider the airport security line when planning our wardrobe. And if you don't dress for the security line, the chances of you sitting in one of those stiff airplane seats freezing your butt off could be significantly lowered.

Dressing for Speed and Utility

Let's assume for a second that you didn't sign up for TSA Pre✓®, and you'll have to remove your shoes, belt, and jacket. While you're in the line, you'll also need quick access to your photo ID, your passport, and maybe even some cash if you're eating in the airport. If the airport security line is putting your arrival time to the gate in jeopardy, follow these tips to cut down the time spent in security:

Avoid Shoes You Have to Untie/Tie: The only situation in which Crocs are socially acceptable is the airport security line. You can easily slip them off and back on (and they make standing for several minutes incredibly comfortable). But if you don't want to go that far, simply wear sandals or flip-flops (weather permitting), or comfortable shoes that you can take on/off without messing with the laces. Athletic shoes are also a good option, because if you're running late, it makes sense to have shoes you can run in.

Avoid Belts: Now, not all of us can get away with wearing sweatpants in public, or certain circumstances may require you to wear more formal clothes. But avoiding the extra steps required by the TSA security will earn you a little time to change your clothes on the other side of the checkpoint, or when you land.

Turn Your Jacket into a Second Carryon: One word: pockets. Wearing a warm jacket with several pockets can do a lot of things for you. First, it provides you with quick and easy access to your necessities - cell phone, wallet, boarding pass, etc. - and it also acts as an additional carryon, into which you can pack several other items, like a water bottle, snacks, or personal electronics.

The Fanny Pack: Before you laugh, the fanny pack is the ideal travel item, especially if you're flying. It provides compact point of access for all your important items. And like a jacket, it's easily removable for when you're going through security.

A Few Final Tips

Now that you've packed correctly and dressed for the occasion, there are a few more travel tips to complete your security line education:

Check In Online

I once had a layover in Seattle on my way up to Alaska. The layover required an overnight stay, and I thought I had everything planned out. I stayed in a hotel only a half mile from the airport. I had the shuttle ready, and everything packed perfectly. My plan was to reach the airport an hour ahead of my flight, get through security, and get on the plane. Easy. Unfortunately, I was not the only one on the shuttle, and I ended up getting to the airport 45 minutes early. And when I went to the kiosk to check in, I was informed, to my horror, that the time for checking in had passed - by 10 minutes. It didn't matter both myself and their outgoing plane were still at the airport, and would be for another 45 minutes. I had missed my time, and would have to board the next flight.

Most airlines give you a maximum of 24 hours to check in, and will let you do so online. Some of them will even text or email you a QR code which takes the place of your ticket. But none of that will matter if you don't check in until you're at the airport. Checking in online saves you from several potential disasters, like long lines at check in, flights becoming overbooked, or in my case, a minimum check in time.

Leave Early*

Speaking of unforeseen obstacles, make sure to give yourself plenty of time when going to the airport. The concept of "*early" means something different to everyone, but here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Most airlines recommend you arrive to your airport at least 75 minutes before your departure time (for domestic flights).
  • If you're flying international, you should arrive two to three hours before your departure time.
  • If possible, use a shuttle service: yes, you'll likely pay $20 or more for the shuttle service, but on the bright side, you won't need to pay the airport to park your car, and you won't need to deal with traffic. Shuttle schedules are designed to give you plenty of time to both get to the airport and through security. They're often worth the cost if you're in a hurry.

Don't Be Rude

Last tip: don't be rude. Listen, the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. More likely than not, your travel situation will not be unique. Hundreds of fellow airport passengers will be traveling with children, will be running late, will have forgotten at least three or four essentials from their carryon, and may even end up missing their flights. But the best way to handle airport security lines like the travel expert you now are is to be courteous to your fellow passengers. Take out an extra bin for the guy behind you. Let the elderly woman go ahead of you in line. Cooperate with airline and TSA employees.

Remember, these people are giving up time spent with their families over the holidays so that you can enjoy time with yours.

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