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How to make the family vacation airport experience less of a nightmare

POSTED: March 9, 2017 8:52 a.m.
Amy Iverson/

Flying with children can be a nightmare. But there are easy, high-tech ways to drastically cut wait times and make the airport experience much nicer.

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If any of you have ever taken your family on an airplane for a vacation, you know what a headache the airport can be.

The Transportation Security Agency has hired more officers and brags that the majority of fliers wait no more than 30 minutes to get through security. But as any parent knows, 30 minutes zigzagging through the security line with toddlers can seem more like a lifetime in purgatory.

Maybe you give your biggest puppy eyes to the TSA agent, hoping they will allow your family to go in what looks like a fast lane. Once in a while, they lift up that black vinyl belt and let people slip into that line that seems to be zooming past. But that is happening less and less.

A TSA spokesman recently told Time, “In the future, we intend to only have enrolled or pre-vetted passengers, or those screened by K9s, in the expedited screening lanes.”

And so, it is time.

For less than $20 per year, you could always be in that jet-setting fast lane, and slash your average security wait time. Last month, 97 percent of people participating in the TSA’s PreCheck program waited less than five minutes.

In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security started the Trusted Traveler program where airline passengers go through an in-depth security check prior to ever buying a ticket. Then, when that person needs to go through airport security, some big time perks help them breeze through.

TSA PreCheck passengers are NOT forced to remove: shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or light jackets. I was sold the minute they told me I got to keep my shoes on.

It takes about five minutes to sign up online and schedule an appointment at an enrollment center (located at most airports and several other locations). The in-person interview is mostly verifying questions you answered online, but also includes a fingerprint scan and will take about 10 minutes.

Completing the five-year enrollment will cost you $85 and will include kids under 12 who are traveling with you. Check this complete list for credit cards and loyalty programs that will foot the enrollment fee for you.

It will take two to three weeks to receive your Known Traveler Number (KTN) that you should then register with any frequent flier programs you use (19 airlines participate in the PreCheck program). Then, each time you fly, your boarding pass will indicate you are part of the PreCheck program and you gain entry to that special fast lane.

Make sure it’s on the boarding pass; agents won’t let you in the expedited lane without it. While the official rule is that each person 13 and older must have their own KTN, the agents sometimes let that slide.

On our way to Hawaii last year, the TSA official allowed my husband, two teens and my younger son in the PreCheck lane with me, even though I was the only one with PreCheck status. The $85 was worth it for that trip alone.

I wish I had done a little more research before signing up for TSA PreCheck, though, because I would have spent an extra $15 and gone for Global Entry. Maybe you don’t fly internationally very often, but in the past few years, I realized I travelled to Mexico, Canada and the Bahamas. Global Entry does for international travel what TSA PreCheck does for domestic flights.

The best part may be that you don’t have to fill out those blue customs forms when coming back to the United States. Instead, you use a kiosk that does everything electronically and quickly. It takes your picture, scans your fingerprints, and prints out a receipt that you hand to a customs agent on your way out. I will definitely do this when my PreCheck expires in a couple years.

As I flew home from Denver a few days ago, I was happily moving through my TSA PreCheck lane, feeling sorry for those in the normal security line, when I looked over and saw yet another, even faster line. Every so often a person would zoom past me in this third lane reserved for Clear members.

I found out Clear is yet another airport shortcut option (only at 22 airports so far) that eliminates the requirement for a real live person to check your boarding pass and identification. A kiosk scans a user’s fingerprint or iris and they jump in front of everyone right to the metal detectors. It costs $185 per year and seems like it would be worth it for a very frequent flier to specific airports.

Every time I encourage people to sign up for TSA PreCheck, other PreCheckers get angry because they want it to remain a well-kept secret (about 4 million people are currently signed up). Complainers say that the more people who enroll in PreCheck, the longer we’ll all have to wait. But it’s too good to keep to myself. So join in and come with me to the land of shorter security lines, just as long as you’re behind me in the line.
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