Though the Transportation Security Administration complained about Congress cutting its budget as air travel surges, Memorial Day travel proved far less of a headache than anticipated.
But don’t count on good luck all summer. The TSA’s efforts to mitigate crowds last weekend involved overtime staff and increased canine support, which likely aren’t sustainable for the cash-strapped department.
Here are eight ways to maximize your odds of speeding through security regardless of whether the TSA can keep up its winning streak. Expedited access can come cheap, but it won’t come free, however.
For $10-$15: Buy an expedited security pass
Some carriers offer expedited security access as an add-on when you’re booking your fare; it’s called Even More Speed on JetBlue (from $10) and Premier Access on United (from $15). The programs aren’t available at all airports, though-that’s because the airlines must set up a separate security line just for pass holders-so check on availability before departure.
For $25: Check your bags
Nixing your carry-ons will get you through security faster only if the TSA is deploying bomb-sniffing canines at your home airport. It’s worth rolling the dice if you’re flying through the country’s busiest hubs (think Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta Hartsfield); there, passengers without bulky bags are the most likely to get pulled out of line for a quick sniff and a faster trip through.
For $85: Get PreCheck
We’ve yet to hear a single frequent traveler say they regretted spending money on PreCheck, the trusted traveler program that automatically puts travelers in the fast lane for every domestic flight. And now that your odds of getting randomly selected for the fast lane are dwindling, there’s more urgency than ever to sign up. If that’s not enough reason to get on board, consider this: Last month, PreCheck expanded to a handful of international airlines, so passengers on Aeromexico, Cape Air, Etihad Airways, and Seaborne Airlines can also benefit from expedited access credentials. Sign up at www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck/apply; the approval process takes a few weeks and requires an in-person interview.
It’s also worth spending an extra $15 for Global Entry, which involves the same application process and lets you breeze past the customs and immigration lines when you’re returning from international trips. Membership for either program lasts five years; once you have it, be sure to enter your Known Traveler Number on all flight bookings to make sure you get the perks you’ve paid for.
For $179: Sign up for Clear
Sports fans might recognize this expedited security program for its presence at ballparks and arenas nationwide; now the company offers expedited security service at 13 airports from Miami to San Francisco. (Find the full list at https://www.clearme.com.) Because the program is still small, there’s virtually never a line. Enroll by filling out an online application and verifying your identity in person; once you’ve paid your annual dues, a simple fingerprint scan will whisk you past security. It’s especially worthwhile for families, as kids under age 18 can join for free.
For $450: Have the right credit card
According to Sean McQuay, NerdWallet’s Credit Card Expert, the best credit cards to get you through security are the Platinum Card from American Express, the Citi Prestige Card, and the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard. All three include statement credits for PreCheck and Global Entry, he says. Another thing they all have in common: a $450 annual fee.
For $800 and up: Splurge on an upgrade
VIP seats make for VIP benefits, but every airline doles out the perks differently. American and United offer expedited security lane access for business- and first-class passengers; Delta offers the service only to travelers in its exclusive Delta One cabins (a step up from first class). Don’t count on getting upgraded for free unless you’re at the very top of the status chain; airlines are generally holding out for paying customers these days.
For $1,950 and up: Take a private jet
You don’t need to own a private jet to fly on one. In fact, the private aviation market is undergoing an uncharacteristically democratic transformation. Among the entry-level options is privatefly.com, where you can reserve anything from a three-seat Cessna to a full Boeing 737. (Expect to pay $1,950-$2,500 for short regional flights, like those from New York to Philly or New York to Boston.) The membership-based JetSmarter is another good option; it offers unlimited free flights on its network of private jets for an annual cost of $10,000; it’s like a carpooling service for Gulfstreams.
For more than $2,000: Invest in elite status
Once you’ve hit the middle tier with almost any airline loyalty program, you’ll automatically be waved through to the expedited security lanes at participating airports. Getting to that point isn’t always easy, but there are some shortcuts. You can ask any major carrier about status matching if you’re willing to consider changing your airline allegiances; this can give you temporary elite benefits while you work on securing status the more legitimate way (with qualifying flight segments and dollars spent, that is). Another approach: Sign up for a co-branded credit card and take advantage of sign-up bonuses. If you hit minimum spending thresholds, generally starting at $2,000 over the course of three months, you’ll be on an accelerated track toward VIP status-but you’ll still need to book a few flights to seal the deal.