Think you’ve seen crowded airports? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet! The heaviest travel season of the year – the Holidays – is on the way and, if this summer is any indication, it’s going to be a monster. Which means you need a plan to get through airport security.
A Record Breaking Summer
If you went anywhere in the USA in the days leading up to and including the Fourth of July, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it was a tad more crowded than usual. In fact, the Transportation Safety Administration reports that the last week of June was their busiest week. Ever. That Friday alone saw 2.67-million people passing through the TSA lanes.
Typically, the holidays are the busiest season for flying. In fact, the current record-holder is the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2004, when there were 2.71-million souls traversing America’s airports. So if this summer was a record breaker, and the holidays are usually even more crowded…
We’re in trouble.
How to Beat the Record Books
Really, we think it’s great that so many people are traveling. Recently, it’s risen about 4% per year, thanks to a growing economy. The down-side, of course, is that the TSA is often ill-equipped to handle even below-normal days in a timely, orderly fashion. To make matters worse, those additional 4%-ers are not seasoned travelers ready to take on the challenge of airport security.
That means we need to take preventive measures to make sure we slip through security as quickly and quietly as possible. At very least, we should not be the ones holding up the line with our morning tub of yogurt and pockets full of change! Instead, we’ve collected some time-tested tips to help you fly through airport security, even during the holidays! (Note: We said you would fly through security. We can’t say the same for everyone ahead of you.)
Are you ready? Let’s learn…
How to Be an Airport Security Kickass Ninja!
Step One: TSA PreCheck
Is it worth taking the time to apply for TSA PreCheck? YES! Here’s why:
TSA PreCheck lets eligible, low-risk travelers enjoy expedited security screening. The program is available at participating U.S. airport locations and for most international itineraries. (TSA.gov)
So what does that mean? Once enrolled, you have access to available TSA PreCheck lanes. This is the First Class section of airport security! (Minus the wine and amenity kits, unfortunately.) In these lofty lanes, travelers don’t have to remove their shoes, belts or light jackets/sweaters. You can leave your laptop and your baggy full of gels and liquids in your luggage. Serious time and hassle saver.
Even if you don’t apply for TSA PreCheck, you may be granted access randomly. Always check your tickets.
- TSA PreCheck lanes are not available at every airport, and are not always open.
- There is still a chance you’ll be randomly selected for additional screening.
- It’s also worth noting that, due to increased numbers of PreCheck-qualified passengers, sometimes it can take longer to work through that line than the “normal” security. As always, check your options.
Those exceptions mean that, even if you are enrolled in PreCheck, you need to be prepared to join the masses in the non-Pre lanes. It’s true, it can happen to the best of us. But that’s okay because we’ll be prepared to breeze through like professionals. Right?
Step 2: Packing for Speed
Whether you’re flying with just a backpack, or rolling that carry-on, too, you can take steps to reduce the chance of spending extra-special time with the TSA. Regardless of your luggage type, how you pack can make or break your security lane speed record.
Gels and Liquids
You know the rules here: Gels and liquids must be in 3.4-oz / 100-ml or smaller bottles, inside one clear plastic bag the size of a 1-quart Ziploc bag. Aerosols (like shaving cream) and pastes (including lipstick) follow the same rules.
To get through airport security quickly, have your liquids bag in an outside pocket that you can quickly remove and place in a bin. Also, be sure you don’t slow down security by having “contraband” in your backpack. Peanut butter and jelly? Those are gels, kiddo. Eat up before security! There are some other odd things that can flag as a gel or liquid, so…
Our airport security rule of thumb: When in doubt, leave it out.
As people travel with more and more electronics in their carry-ons, we’re seeing more of them getting stuck in security for extra screening. You have to admit: A couple of gadgets with some wires and batteries would (or should) make anyone look twice today. So how can you streamline this to get through security quickly?
We like to put all of our gear* in one bag that we can pull out if needed. This helps an extra screening go more quickly, and we don’t have to rummage through our bags to pull things out, and put them back. *We travel heavy, and said gear typically includes a GoPro, tablet, smartphones, sometimes a small drone, camera flash with batteries, etc.
Another tactic we’ve seen employed with success is to spread things out. It can be easier for agents to identify a phone, charger, and batteries if they’re not bunched together. This works best with a few gadgets so that, if you are flagged for screening, you only have to dig through your bag to find one or two things.
Room at the Top
When packing your carry-on, leave a little room at the top, or in a large outside pocket, for everything else. For example, if you’re wearing a sweater, you may be asked to take it off. Savvy travelers are proactive; they stuff that sweater into their carry-on before they even get in line.
Step 3: Get to the Airport Early
Honestly, we stumbled upon this tip sort of on accident: show up for your flight extra early. As in, first flight of the day early. This is by no means a shoe in but, more often than not, really early flights are not as full. Fewer people on the plane means fewer people in airport security. (This might also explain why the cheapest flights are often the earliest.)
Even if you’re not flying out with the sunrise, it pays to get to the airport early. The airlines say you should arrive 60 to 90 minutes before your flight, or two to three hours for an international flight. If everyone is following that advice, it may pay to be contrarian. If they say 90 minutes, show up an extra 30 minutes earlier. Worst case scenario: You have extra time for a pre-flight cocktail.
Another strategy that works well at smaller airports is to show up between flights. (There is no “between flights” at busy airports like Atlanta Hartsfield.) Really, it’s just showing up early for your flight, but not so early that you encounter the crowds for an earlier flight. You can also crawl the airport looking for gates without flights coming up, where the lines will be smaller. Just remember that you’ll have to walk all the way back to your gate.
Step 4: Dress for Success
Without going into great detail, let’s take a look at your airport attire, head to toe:
- Unless worn for religious purposes, if you wear a hat, you’ll have to take it off. Easy peasy, but it’s one more thing to keep track of.
- Scarfs & Pashminas
- Scarfs are mostly okay to keep on. Pashminas and shawls are hit and miss, and often fall into the “light sweater” category. Since you might have to take it off, best to stash it in your bag until after security.
- Bulky Outerwear
- Heavy or puffy jackets will have to come off, as will overcoats, ponchos, and basically anything too concealing.
- Light Sweaters & Jackets
- If you’re a child or senior, and sometimes in PreCheck, you can keep a light sweater or jacket on. Otherwise, take it off in advance and put it in your backpack or carry-on.
- Belts, watches, bangles, bracelettes… Some can go through security just fine (plastic, fabric, non-ferrous metals, etc.) while others set off the detectors. We like to pack them all until post-security just so they don’t become an issue.
- Once again, children, seniors, and those in PreCheck get a pass on shoes. For everyone else, you’ll have to take them off so slip on shoes and socks are the way to go. You really don’t want to take time with laces but, if you do wear lace-up shoes, plan ahead and loosen them up before you get in line. If you must wear sandals, bring some socks if you don’t want your bare feet on that floor.
Did we leave anything out? Hit us up in the comments with your additions.
Step 5: Before You Get in Line
By the time you get to the security line, the only things that should be in your hands are your passport and boarding pass. We’ll give you a pass for also having your travel partner’s hand in yours. (It’s comforting and reassuring…and a little bit romantic.)
Stash Your Jacket. And…stuff.
As we mentioned, you may have to remove outerwear, headwear, some watches and jewelry, and belts. Knowing that, you should have a bag you can stuff all of that stuff into, and then slide into your carry-on before you get into the security line. (Hence the advice to leave some room in your bag.)
For bonus pro points, don’t even wear that stuff to the airport if you can help it. That’s not to say you should leave it at home! Just pack them into your carry-on, and put them on post-security. We pack small bags with jewelry, keys, and change into an outside pocket. A small-size packing cube holds our sweaters and jackets, belt, and a change of shoes if needed. A quick après-security stop to accessorize, and we are literally ready for the runway. Or Starbucks; whichever comes first.
Note: Those who are 75 and up, 13 and under, or enrolled in TSA PreCheck can leave their sweaters/light jackets on.
Empty Your Hands and Pockets
In the words of Men Without Hats*, everybody look at your hands. Are they holding things? And what’s in your pockets?
Find one place in your carry-on or backpack to stash anything you don’t immediately need: cell phone, keys, handbag, cash. We say one place because you don’t want to have to search all over for these things later. Ideally, you’ll have a small bag you can put these into (or you can grab one of the provided quart-sized bags), and then place that in the empty carry-on space we mentioned earlier.
So, why not just put them in the bins? Here’s why: $867,812 was left behind at airport security in fiscal year 2016. (You might as well just send your cash to us. We promise NOT to leave it behind.) TSA’s Lost & Found is bulging with electronics, toys, keys, knick-knacks, and more. Surprisingly, only about 20% of what’s left behind makes its way back to its rightful owner.
Again, this should happen before you get into the airport security line, or even before you get to the airport if you can. It just makes life easier. For more tips on getting yourself through security quickly, read How to Speed thru Airport Security.
*If you were born after 1985, ask your parents to show you how to do The Safety Dance. Better yet, just go here.
What NOT To Do in Airport Security
By now everyone should know that you don’t joke about bombs, hijackers, matters of national security, or Salt Bae while going through security. Sure, TSA screeners have a sense of humor, but that stuff’s just not funny. (Okay, Salt Bae’s a little bit funny.)
Other things NOT to do if you want to speed through security:
- Wear those awesome lace up boots.
- Yes, they look cool, but unlacing and lacing are the last things you want to be doing at the airport. Remember, slip-ons are the footwear of security lane champions.
Note: Seniors over the age of 75 and kids under 13 may leave their shoes on.
- Stash your passport and/or boarding pass in your bag.
- You’re going to need those. Keep them handy. However, once your identity is confirmed, you can put them away.
- Don’t pull everything out of your carry-on.
- Most electronics can stay inside your carryon. Same with snacks, so long as they are not gel-like. (Think applesauce or yogurt.)
- Leave your laptop in your bag.
- According to the TSA, “you will be asked to remove personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone from your carry-on bag and place them into a bin with nothing placed on or under them for X-ray screening.” This can, but usually doesn’t include tablets and “phablets.” We have seen people argue about their security-friendly backpack, but we’ve never seen them win. Save yourself the headache and place your laptop in a bin of its own.
- Get in the right lane.
- Some airports are getting very picky about which lane you’re in. If your tickets don’t say First or Business Class, don’t get in that lane. If you think they’ll just wave you through anyway, you’re mistaken. Your punishment will be waiting in line again.
- Also, don’t get in the TSA PreCheck Line just because you can.
- Take a look at other lines and get in the one that’s moving the fastest. Provided, of course, you’re entitled to.
Sure, you can hope the airport security line isn’t too bad, but hope is not a strategy. We now have a plan in place:
- Enroll in TSA PreCheck
- Get to the Airport Early
- Pack for Speed
- Dress for Success
- Don’t wait until you’re in line to get ready.
What strategies do you use to get through security – and the rest of the airport – quickly and with your sanity in check? Please share your tips in the comments below.