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NerdWallet: How the smartest travelers avoid waiting in lines

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This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet

Why is standing in line so aggravating? After all, there’s little tangible difference between waiting in line and hanging out near a departure gate. And still, one feels almost subhuman, and the other totally fine.

Whatever the root psychological cause, standing in line can be a major hassle for travelers. About 626 million passengers passed airport security in October 2022, according to the Transportation Security Administration, which would form a line long enough to reach the moon.

Yet waiting in airport security and other lines is almost completely avoidable. Savvy travelers know how to skip the most frustrating lines and — most importantly — how to avoid paying to do so. Here we share some of our favorite line-skipping and budget-saving tips.

Airport security

Little sends a traveler’s heart sinking faster than the sight of a snaking airport security line.

If this past summer is any indication, airport security lines could get slammed this holiday season. Almost half (46%) of travelers plan to fly this holiday, more than the 40% in 2021 and 33% in 2020, according to a survey of 4,000 people by PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers.

There are generally three ways to avoid these lines, though the way they interact and overlap is not always clear.

TSA PreCheck

TSA offers a PreCheck program for U.S. passengers. Members get several benefits when passing through airport security:

A separate checkpoint, available at most airports. According to the TSA, 90% of wait times were under five minutes in October 2022.

Fewer restrictions at checkpoints. Members don’t have to remove their shoes or light jackets or pass through body scanners.

Children are automatically included. Travelers age 12 and under can join a TSA member in the expedited lines.

PreCheck costs $78 for five years of membership, which works out to $15.60 per year. But there are plenty of ways to offset the PreCheck fee, including many travel credit cards that will reimburse it. You can also use some travel points and miles to pay the fee, but that isn’t always the most economical method.

Also see: How to choose the best seat on a plane

Global Entry

You know that long line that takes forever to move when trying to return to the U.S. from another country? You don’t have to wait in that one, either. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program allows pre-screened passengers to use self-service kiosks when passing through immigration.

And here’s the thing: TSA PreCheck is included with Global Entry membership (but not the other way around). You might be scratching your head, wondering why anybody would sign up for TSA PreCheck rather than Global Entry. Truthfully, there’s a lot to consider when deciding between the two programs.

See the table below for a full breakdown. Basically, travelers who don’t travel internationally much and don’t want to deal with the hassle of an in-person interview should choose TSA PreCheck. Everyone else is probably better off with Global Entry.

TSA PreCheck

Global Entry

Length of membership

5 years

5 years

Application fee

$78 ($70 online renewal)

$100

Enrollment centers

380+

100+

Access to TSA PreCheck security lane

Yes

Yes

Can bring minor children with you (12 & under)

Yes

No, child must have their own membership.

Access to expedited U.S. Customs lanes

No

Yes

Best for

Domestic travelers

International travelers

Clear

Yes, there’s one more option, though it’s actually an add-on to the previous options. Clear is a private company that provides biometric screening at many airports, and lets passengers skip the beginning of the security line (up to where they check your I.D.)

You can have Clear membership without TSA PreCheck membership, which means you’ll still have to take off your shoes. Or you can combine them both for an even faster line (at participating airports).

The big catch is the price. Clear costs $189 per year (not every five years, like the two other services). Though it’s easy to find discounts and credit card offers that will knock this price down.

Be sure to read: These are the airlines with the most delays and cancellations

Rental cars

It’s frustrating to get off a long flight, take the shuttle to the rental car facility and then get stuck in a long line at the rental car counter. Yet even this line, like most others, can be skipped — usually for free.

Avis Preferred. In many locations, simply signing up for Avis’
CAR,
-2.25%

loyalty program lets you skip the line and pick up a car directly from the lot.

Hertz Gold Plus Rewards. It might sound fancy (and expensive) to earn “Gold Plus” status, which lets you skip the Hertz
HTZ,
-0.70%

rental car counter altogether, but it’s also free.

National Emerald Club. This free loyalty program tier lets you grab a car from the “Emerald Aisle” (get it?) when booking a midsize or larger car.

Some travel credit cards and airline and hotel elite status programs also offer higher levels of benefits with these rental car loyalty programs. But if you’re just looking to skip the line, all you need to do is sign up.

Hotels

There are two lines that frequent travelers know to skip when staying at a hotel. (There’s nothing anyone can do about slow elevators, though.)

Check-in

Most hotel loyalty programs offer special lines for elite status members. While these status levels aren’t free, like those for rental cars, they can usually be earned from branded credit cards, many of which carry low fees.

Failing that, more and more hotel brands are now offering mobile check-in, which is just what it sounds like. You can use your phone to check into your room and even unlock the door. For example, the Marriott Bonvoy app features contactless check-in, so you can pass right through the lobby and its line of worn-out travelers.

See: When is a hotel better than an Airbnb?

Checkout

This tip is the simplest of the bunch. At most hotels, you don’t have to wait to check out. You can just drop your keys in a box at the front desk, check out with your phone or (in many cases) simply walk out. This is especially helpful when checking out late, to avoid the line of afternoon newcomers.

The bottom line

Nobody likes standing in line when traveling (except, apparently, those people who stand around the gate before their boarding group has been called). Yet many of the worst lines are completely avoidable.

Signing up for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry is the most labor- and money-intensive of these options, but membership lasts five years and eliminates a huge amount of hassle. And rental car loyalty programs and hotel mobile check-in apps are free.

But believe us: Hitting the hotel elevator button several times does not make it show up any faster.

More From NerdWallet

How to Get Good Airbnb Reviews as a Guest, According to Hosts

Air Travelers: Slow Down and Embrace the Long Layover

Airbnb Is on the Outs — Or Is It?

Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: skemmis@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.

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