If you’ve been reading the news, you’ve seen pictures of insane TSA wait times and heard stories of people missing their flights. Vox has a nice article detailing some of the issues involved. With summer coming and air travel expected to be as high as it has ever been, here are five ideas for minimizing your wait times and making your time at the airport a little less stressful – especially if you’re traveling with your family and young kids!
1. Sign up for Global Entry or TSA Precheck
Before 9/11, security was a lot less involved. You didn’t have to take out your liquids, laptops didn’t exist, and you could keep your shoes on. For a price, you can go back to those times. If you’re a parent with kids, I’d strongly recommend making the investment.
You may have seen the TSA Pre lines at security; depending on the airport there might be one line at each security checkpoint, certain security checkpoints dedicated to TSA Pre, or only certain checkpoints/terminals with the TSA Pre lines.
TSA Precheck lines move much more quickly than the regular lines and can save you a ton of time. The majority of those crazy lines you’ve been seeing in pictures? The regular line. The TSA Pre line is much shorter.
You can apply for the TSA Precheck program for $85. As long as there are no major red flags, you should be approved and breezing through shorter lines with less hassle. You can apply here. After applying you will have to make an appointment for an interview but walk ins are welcome so you should be able to get TSA Precheck pretty quickly. Children under 12 can go through the TSA Precheck line with you at security.
Global Entry costs $100 and lasts for 5 years. This gives you expedited immigration and customs when returning from a foreign country and also comes with TSA Precheck. If you are going to travel internationally even a few times in the next five years, this is eminently worth it and a better deal. My wife and both my children have Global Entry (even babies need to have it for expedited immigration and customs), we often get through customs and immigration before our bags even arrive at the baggage claim.
If you’re trying to sign up for one of these programs before summer travel, note that Global Entry interviews are notoriously hard to get on short notice – best practice is either show up and pray they will allow a walk in (not official policy) or double check the appointment website hourly since appointments open up all the time. If one of your family members has an appointment, you should be able to sneak the whole family in provided the officer on duty isn’t feeling too ornery.
I can personally attest: having TSA Precheck (for us, through Global Entry) has been a real stress saver at the airport! This is the #1 thing you can do to avoid busy lines, so I will use the most words on it. It won’t guarantee a smooth or short security experience, but I have never had a bad TSA Precheck experience in the four years I’ve had it.
2. Pick the right day to fly
If you’re traveling with your family this summer, it’s probably because your kids are on school vacation. Assuming you have flexibility, one way to avoid huge security lines is to book your flights when the airport is less busy.
In terms of days to travel, if you fly on a Tuesday or a Wednesday that is probably your best bet. Business travelers are crowding the airports Sunday, Monday, and Friday, so those are the busiest days. If the airport is crowded, security is going to be crowded and that’s when you’re going to see those huge lines. Avoid those weekends!
If you do have to fly on the weekend, less people fly on Saturday (since they try to take advantage of the entire weekend), but it still could be crowded so be careful.
3. Pick the right time to fly
Again, common sense can help you figure out when the best time of day to book your flight. Most people are flying in the morning around breakfast or at night around dinner. If you can book a trip for the middle of the day (11AM-3PM or so), there are going to be a lot less people flying and thus a lot less people at security. Even on a Monday or Friday, you’re probably not going to see those monster lines if you’re flying at midday.
Of course, if you are a parent, especially with young kids, you’re going to have to balance that with your kids’ schedules (see my previous post about questions to ask when flying with a baby). For us, flying at midday is great – our preschooler is a pro at napping on planes at this point (she flies a lot) – so we fly just a bit after lunch during her regular naptime.
Even if flying midday isn’t the best for your kids, you can ask yourself whether it’ll be more stressful waiting in line with them for an hour if you live near a particularly busy airport. Parenting is hard!
4. Prepare your kids for the process and teach them to go through it themselves
My aforementioned 3 year old daughter has flown enough that at this point when she plays airport at home she sends herself through the TSA (hmm…should I be concerned?). She knows what security is, that bags go on the belt, that her stroller goes on the belt, that pockets need to be emptied, etc. She even carries her own backpack and puts it on the belt at the airport.
You can talk to your kids at home about the security process at any age. Let them know what will be expected of them. If your kids are young, you can make the security process feel super important (it is!) and talk to them about what they are going to do, most will find that fun. If your kids are school aged, you can make it a game/competition – best behaved/most efficient at security gets to sit with mommy!
If your kids are teenagers…well, just tell them not to be too surly and to remember to take their headphones out of the ears and phones out of their pockets before they get to the x-ray machine.
Bottom line: the more your kids are prepared for the security process, the less stressed the family will be as a whole.
5. Pack lightly
This is hardest for young parents, but take a long, hard look at what you are carrying on to the plane at home the night before you fly. I’d venture to say we fly with less stuff now with two kids than we did on our first flight with our daughter at 2 months. Obviously every parent is different, but I will say that as you get more and more experience flying with your kids you will gain a better understanding of what you need or don’t need on the plane with you.
The less stuff you have going through security, the faster you’ll get through and the less stressed you’ll be! Getting through security with a minimum of stress is all about efficiency. Once you get through security, if there’s something you really need, just buy it. It might be worth it for the stress.
The best thing you can do to maximize the odds of a simple TSA experience is get TSA Precheck or Global Entry. Barring that, you can still make life easier by flying at the right times. Like anything in parenting, preparing your kids for the process and setting the right expectations will really help you get through the line smoothly. But the best thing you can do? Fly so much that you and your kids are pros about getting through those longs lines together! Happy trails!