The most time-consuming and frustrating obstacle between travelers and their vacation destinations is usually a painfully long wait in an airport security line.
Long security lines caused by significant increases in passenger counts and a shortage of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners are plaguing airports nationwide.
Those lines can end up stretching from the domestic terminal through baggage claim and can increase wait times to over an hour. Some airports are now advising passengers to arrive up to three hours before their scheduled departure times.
Though that can seem daunting, you’re most likely to get through the airport quickly and effectively if you follow this ‘Security Line Survival Guide’ from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
How to avoid the longest lines
- Sign up for TSA Precheck. Everyone has to stand in lines, but some lines are shorter and move faster. The Precheck line moves 2.5 times more quickly than Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson’s regular security lines, the airport said about Precheck. Consider signing up for the expedited security screening program from the TSA by applying online at tsa.gov/tsa-precheck/apply. The cost is $85, and if approved, it’s valid for five years.
- Monitor the lines before heading for the airport. Security line estimated wait times are updated regularly on most airports’ online home pages. It’s not a bad idea to start looking at them days before you fly, or even before you book a flight, so you know what you’re likely to experience and when. At the Atlanta airport, you can also register for Trak-a-Line, which emails you whenever there are changes to the wait times in the period leading up to your flight. (This can come in handy for many travelers, considering the Atlanta airport is the busiest airport in the world.)
- Fly on off-peak days. Fewer people fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays than any other day, so lines are likely to be shorter.
- Go left. Research suggests that since more people are right-handed — and since many of the things we deal with in daily life are set up to be done right-handed — we automatically tend to go right when presented with a choice. If the choice is between security lines and checkpoints to the right or the left, choose the latter.
- If you’re traveling with small children, don’t check yourself in. Instead, head to the check-in counters where a sympathetic agent may send you right to the faster pre-check security line.
Dressing and packing
- Leave the stilettos, take the slip-ons. It’s no longer just about what’s easy to get on and off when you finally reach the screening point; now it’s also about what’s most comfortable to stand in for an hour or more. Consider wearing flat shoes, sneakers or even bedroom slippers if it makes you happy.
- Wear layers, even in summer. Stand in line long enough, and chances are you’ll be both hot and cold at various points. A sweater layered over a tank top or a T-shirt will keep you warm when the line hasn’t budged for 15 minutes and the airport air conditioning is going full blast. But when the combined body heat of 32,000 people packed close together in line gets to be too much, you can remove it. (Tip: Make it a cotton sweater that won’t take up much room in your carry-on).
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- Downsize your usual carry-on and check it. Yes, those checked baggage fees are annoying. But they’re not half as annoying as buckling under the weight of an oversized, overstuffed carry-on bag slung over one shoulder and a laptop case or enormous purse over the other one. If you’re going to be standing for an hour or more, consider checking that week’s worth of clothing, toiletries and snacks that you normally carry on and only take along the essentials for getting through the security wait and the flight.
- For older travelers or anyone unable to stand for long periods: Contact your airline directly before your trip and ask about getting wheelchair assistance.
- If you’re traveling with small children, Consider bringing along a lightweight, fold-up stroller that a child can sit in, at least intermittently. It may lessen the squirm factor and reduce the chances that your child will dart off in line. If you’re really lucky, he or she might fall asleep. Fold it up when you reach the gate, and the agents there may check it for free.
Eating, drinking and being entertained
- Bring snacks. Something about being trapped between the restaurant-rich main terminal and concourses is downright panic inducing: Where is my next meal coming from?! Who needs the extra angst? Plus, you might legitimately get hungry during the long wait to get through security and have no time to buy something afterward and make your flight. Bring along some favorite snacks that can go in and out of your carry-on, but try to avoid salty things.
- Avoid excess liquids. This part should be obvious, but we’ll spell it out anyway: Once you’re in the security line, you don’t want to have to leave it for any reason. That venti Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino or the bottled water the size of your head seemed like a great idea when you were getting in line a half-hour ago. But now you’re still nowhere near the checkpoint and you’re going to have to get out of the line, find a bathroom and start the whole process all over again. Afraid of dry mouth? Pack a roll of Lifesavers.
- Better yet, bring along a watermelon. OK, don’t bring a whole one — even though sharing slices might help you make friends in line. Still, watermelon, celery, cucumbers and strawberries all are excellent sources of hydration and delicious ways to ward off hunger. Bring slices along in baggies.
- Bring something to read or watch while you wait. This is the perfect chance to start reading a novel. Or writing one. Other ideas for staying entertained during a long wait include downloading “Lemonade” or season 1 of “The Walking Dead” beforehand so you can finally find out what everyone else is talking about. You can also catch up on some work, but be considerate of your fellow passengers in line. Use headphones and don’t keep making long, noisy phone calls to Dave in Accounting.
- Fully charge all your devices before heading for the airport. Bring along an extra charger in case you need to juice things back up after getting through security.
- For those traveling with children: Talk to them several days before your trip about the possibility of a long line and help them put together an “entertainment bag.’ Put in books, crayons, animal crackers and other things to keep the whining to a minimum and give them a goal: Once they reach security checkpoint, they can send the bag through the scanner themselves.
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