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Airport Tips for Faster Service Without TSA PreCheck and Other Perks | Frommer's - Yuri A / Shutterstock

Airport Tips for Faster Service Without TSA PreCheck and Other Perks

Get through the airport quickly and comfortably, even without TSA PreCheck or credit card perks, using these handy tips and tricks—most of which won't cost you a thing. 

A lot of advice out there for getting through airports quickly and comfortably involves enrolling in paid programs like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry (or even CLEAR), carrying the right credit card, taking shelter in an airport lounge, and earning airline elite status.

But the time and expense required to do all of that can add up, and some travelers—especially less frequent travelers—may decide that, for them, those programs don’t make sense. 

If you’re not an elite, card-carrying, line-skipping lounge member, how do you still get through the airport as cheaply and headache-free as possible? 

Here are a few alternatives even if your travel profile, wallet, or loyalty account doesn’t have any bells or whistles to speak of.

What to do if you don’t have TSA PreCheck 

One of the biggest pain points for many airport-goers who don’t pay for “Trusted Traveler Programs” is the TSA security checkpoint. Lines at airports can back up, especially during peak travel periods. 

TSA PreCheck, which costs $78 for 5 years, and the even more premium CLEAR program ($189 per year) speed up the security screening process for verified members. But even if you don’t enroll in either program, you won’t necessarily have to brave the longest lines—if you plan in advance.

MyTSA app

For starters, download the free MyTSA mobile app. That way, you can track from your phone current wait times at your airport and see what things may look like on your upcoming travel day.

For instance, let’s say I’m planning to go through Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) between 6am and 7am on a Friday. The app warns me that wait times in the standard TSA lanes are typically between 30 and 45 minutes during this time. So I know I’ll need to get to the airport early.

(Screenshot of standard security wait times on the MyTSA mobile app)

CLEAR’s Reserve

While a CLEAR membership generally costs $189 annually (though certain travel credit cards will reimburse you), the company also provides a free service that lets you book your spot in the security line in advance online (provided your airport has the service). 

Here’s how Reserve works. 

First, you select your airport. Let’s go with Orlando (MCO). 

(Screenshot of North American airports that have CLEAR's free Reserve service)

Then enter your travel information, including date, destination, and airline, and select your flight.

(Screenshot of CLEAR's free Reserve service)

You can then enter your party size, up to 10 people.

(Screenshot of CLEAR's free Reserve service)

Finally, select your checkpoint and appointment time. You can arrive 10 minutes early or late.

(Screenshot of CLEAR's free Reserve service)

Reserve is available at select U.S. airports, including Denver (DEN), Los Angeles (LAX), Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), Newark, New York-JFK, Orlando, Phoenix (PHX), and Seattle-Tacoma (SEA), as well as at several other airports in Canada and Europe, such as London’s Heathrow (LHR) and Amsterdam's Schiphol (AMS).

Fast-track options from airports

A handful of U.S. airports offer their own options to speed through security. Los Angeles is piloting LAX Fast Lane in Terminals 7 and 8, where anyone can reserve a spot in line up to 3 days in advance at no additional charge. 

Seattle-Tacoma offers the similar SEA Spot Saver.

New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) has B-Fast, a paid skip-the-line program that costs $15 for an appointment at least an hour in advance. Or if you find yourself in a jam and need to get through the line pronto, you can pay $20 for instant skip-the-line privileges.

(Screenshot of LaGaurdia Airport's skip-the-line B-Fast service)

Fast security access from airlines 

Some airlines have faster security options you can earn through trip add-ons or higher-priced seats.

Oftentimes, you’ll find these at airports or terminals where the airline operates a major hub.

For instance, with JetBlue’s “Even More Space” extra legroom tickets, the carrier offers “Even More Speed,” providing customers with a dedicated, faster security lane at certain airports where the airline has a major presence (think New York, Boston, etc.) 

Similarly, an airport security shortcut is one of many add-ons that some budget airlines like Spirit let customers tack onto their bills.

But are these extras worth it? The more you pay for one-time, faster trips through security, the better off you would have been just getting TSA PreCheck. 

Pay $30 for three round trips over 5 years, for example, and you’ll surpass the $78 that TSA PreCheck costs for 5 years of unlimited access to faster security lanes.

What if you don’t have Global Entry?

Global Entry is an incredibly handy tool for frequent (or even semi-frequent) international travelers. 

At $100 for 5 years, the program allows verified, paid members access to an ultra-fast experience at customs after arriving back home in the U.S. from an international flight.

The program also includes full TSA PreCheck access.

But if your plans to travel internationally are few and far between, you might decide you don’t need a Global Entry membership (current application processing times can take up to 11 months anyway). 

There’s still a way to avoid the longest passport lines—and without paying anything. 

Mobile Passport Control 

Free to use, Mobile Passport Control (MPC) allows U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Canadian visitors to complete much of the identity verification and customs declaration process via mobile app.

After submitting your travel details and passport information, you’ll complete your customs declaration on your phone and take a verification selfie.

Then you’ll get a QR code. Once you arrive back in the U.S., get in a designated MPC line with your passport, present the code to a Customs and Border Protection agent to finalize the inspection, and you're on your way. 

How to improve your experiences with airport parking and dining

On busy travel days, popular food and drink spots at the airport can be mobbed with crowds, especially at coffee shops early in the morning.

This is where, once again, technology can be your friend.

Mobile concessions ordering

Some airports, such as Dulles (IAD) in the Washington, D.C., area, now have mobile concessions ordering. In some cases, like at LaGuardia, you might be able to have food delivered right to your gate.

My favorite trick to skip the line for a cup of coffee: Your Starbucks app works at many airport locations.

As Starbucks lines often snake around the concourse in the morning, I prefer to plug in my order via the app for a mobile pickup. Then I’ll sit at a table or in a chair near the location until my order is ready, usually within just a few minutes.

Online parking reservations 

As for parking, don’t wing it. If you’re going to drive to the airport, reserve your spot in advance online. In addition to lowering your stress levels, booking a spot ahead of time comes with a discount—in some cases a major discount—at many airports.

What if you don’t have airline elite status or credit card benefits? 

If you’re traveling without the perks that come with travel credit cards and airline elite status—which include skirting fees for checked bags and seat selection as well as early boarding to secure a spot in the overhead bin—your best bet is to do your homework ahead of time. 

Read up on what your airfare includes, and what it doesn’t.

If you’re thinking about flying with a budget airline, research all the fees you might be on the hook for before buying so you can factor those charges into your overall trip budget and avoid expensive surprises at the airport. 

Pay for what you can in advance; on some ultra low-cost carriers, bag fees and the like often spike closer to departure.

On other airlines, if you’re flying in basic economy consider whether you’re allowed a full-size carry-on bag for free (on United or JetBlue, the answer is likely no).

Even if you don’t have a credit card with the airline you’re flying, don’t forget about any other cards you do have that might include reimbursements for ancillary airline fees. If you don’t use those benefits often, that one summer vacation or holiday trip can be a great time to take advantage of the perk.