How to prepare for, and bypass, holiday airport lines

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You’ve probably heard that Thanksgiving eve is the ‘busiest day of the year to fly.’ But it may not even be the busiest day of the next month!

It’s true that the skies are generally bustling on Wednesday of Thanksgiving week — according to the Federal Aviation Administration, it was the 27th busiest day of 2013 by flight volume, and 37th busiest in 2014. That’s more active than 90% of all other days during the year. But the next big holiday could have it beat. The Thursday and Friday before Christmas were among the 16 busiest days for air carriers in 2013. And last year, they were the busiest two days.

Get through those airport lines faster this holiday!

* The FAA defines ‘air carrier’ as ‘Aircraft with seating capacity of more than 60 seats or a maximum payload capacity of more than 18,000 pounds, carrying passengers or cargo for hire or compensation.’

Put simply, all the stories about crowded airports are just getting started this holiday season. If you’re flying somewhere before the year is up, especially on one of the hectic holiday travel days, you’ll want to know how to minimize the time it takes to get from check-in to the gate.

Read more: The #1 rule of cheap travel

How to minimize your wait time at the airport

Sign up for expedited screening

TSA PreCheck is the most prevalent expedited security process available to bypass those long lines at the airport. And if you don’t have it, there’s still time before Christmas to sign up.

Applicants must visit an enrollment center to complete the process. Access the Department of Homeland Security’s website to find the center nearest you, make an appointment, and be sure to bring the required documentation to your screening. After applying, the TSA says it will notify you within two to three weeks of your status.

‘Once cleared, you will receive notification via first-class, untraced mail with your known traveler number, which you then use to fill in the KTN section on airline reservations and profiles.’

The cost is $85 for five years, but it provides you with expedited security at more than 150 airports nationwide. The four major carriers — American, Delta, Southwest and United — use it, as well as several others.


A related time-saver to TSA PreCheck, albeit less widespread, is CLEAR, which allows travelers to skip the in-person inspection of your ID and boarding documents. CLEAR members go straight to a special kiosk that scans your boarding pass and fingerprint or eye. Once verified, a CLEAR representative escorts you directly to the physical screening of your person and luggage. (And if you have TSA PreCheck, you can obviously skip this, too.)

CLEAR, however, is pricier than TSA PreCheck, at $179 per year. It’s available in only 13 U.S. airports, but five of those are in Texas, including Houston and Dallas/Ft. Worth.

Cover your bases before and during check-in

  • Before: Check in to your flight online, pay for checked baggage in advance (if you have to check a bag), and have your boarding pass(es) with you and ready to go when you arrive at the airport.
  • During: If your airport has multiple security lanes or even locations throughout the main terminal — many do — seek out the fastest one, instead of just going to the one straight ahead. And while it’s courteous to place all your items on the conveyor belt quickly, do it carefully, too. It’s a bigger waste of time to walk through the metal detector twice because you forgot to put your keys in a bucket than it is to double-check all your pockets.

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