Tired of being stuck in airport security line hell? There is a way out.
Even if you have the patience of a saint and have been able to tolerate the TSA security theater before, you should know: it's getting worse -- much worse.
Airports around the country have seen security checkpoint lines double in size. The TSA is now warning travelers at some airports, such as Chicago's O'Hare and Midway, to show up at their departure airport up to three hours before their flights leave. That can be longer than the flight itself.
And that's when things go well. Hundreds of passengers ended up stranded in O'Hare on Sunday, thanks to endless TSA lines. A few days earlier at Phoenix, more than 3,000 checked bags didn't make their flights because of a TSA screening screw-up. No wonder the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey told the TSA in a letter that "the patience of the flying public has reached a breaking point... we can no longer tolerate the continuing inadequacy of TSA passenger screening services."
Fortunately, there are several ways to get out of this passenger traffic jam.
First, there's TSA Precheck. In reality, you get to go through a shorter, expedited line without taking off your shoes, coat, or belt. You don't need to take your laptop or liquids out of your carry on luggage and you just walk through a metal detector instead of exposing your genitals on the full body scanners.
I recently joined TSA Precheck. Since then I've waited less than five minutes to get to the airport gates even as the hoi polloi take over an hour to get to the same place.
So why doesn't everyone do this? Because getting TSA Precheck is a pain in the rump.
You must fill out a TSA Precheck application and then schedule an appointment at a TSA Precheck center. In my home state of North Carolina, there are only six of them and they're not always open. I ended up driving to Knoxville, an hour and a half (and a state) away to get to mine.
Once there, you must have either a passport or your driver's license and birth certificate. Other documents are acceptable. There, your documents will be checked -- be sure your name is exactly what's listed on your official documents.
Finally, you'll be finger-printed and be charged a non-refundable $85.
If all goes well, you'll be approved in anywhere from a week to six weeks. In my case, it took only a week.
TSA Precheck doesn't work with all airlines and airports. Some smaller airports don't have TSA Precheck lines. A handful of airlines, such as Spirit and Frontier, still don't support it. For most people on most trips, it works and it works well.
There are other programs to help frequent travelers that include the TSA Precheck benefits. The most important of these is Global Entry -- a better option for international travelers and non-US residents. Global Entry includes TSA Precheck's perks and it enables you to move quickly through customs in many US and international airports.
The other difference is that unlike TSA Precheck with Global Entry you get a card. This, I'm told, can help speed your way through airport and custom lines even when they don't officially support either TSA Precheck or Global Entry.
To get Global Entry, you must jump through all the TSA Precheck hoops and undergo a rigorous background check, and an in-person interview before enrollment. There are far fewer Global Entry offices. In North Carolina, for example, there's only one location as opposed to the six for TSA Precheck. The non-refundable fee for Global Entry is $100.
If you travel a lot internationally, my friends with Global Entry tell me it's worth every cent. With a lot of international travel ahead for me, I plan on getting it.
Do you travel a lot between Canada and the United States? In that case you want NEXUS. This will not only help you at international airports, you can also use dedicated processing lanes at land border crossings. Both the US and Canada must approve all NEXUS applications.
For TSA Precheck and Global Entry, you must be a US citizen or permanent resident. Canadians, however, can also get NEXUS status.
Like Global Entry, you'll need to complete an application on the Global Online Enrollment System (GOES). NEXUS applications require a $50 non-refundable fee.
On the southern side of the country, if you're often traveling to Mexico, you need to join Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI). SENTRI costs a little over $122 per person -- but there is also a family rate.
If you only fly once a year to grandma's house, none of these programs are worth the money and the aggravation. But, for business travelers and seasoned travelers, TSA Precheck and Global Entry are becoming travel necessities instead of luxuries.