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TRAVEL: Lines, Precheck, and Global Entry

An advertising banner on the TSA website.

Even before recent political events, US air travel had some problems with lines. TSA lines. They’re not likely to get better while the federal government is in the middle of a hiring freeze.

Almost a year after chronic understaffing and 2+ hour screening lines at Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago airports made national headlines, delays have shrunk significantly – thanks in no small part to an infusion of staff by an embarrassed Transportation Security Administration. The problem? There are still peak travel periods at airports around the country where a nominal 15-minute wait can spike to more than an hour, with cascading problems. 5:30 am might not seem a peak travel time to you, but surprise! You should have gotten there 90 minutes earlier. You just missed your early morning flight.

Throw in the chance of traffic and airlines seemingly eager to tack on rebooking fees, and you have a recipe for traveler stress. That relaxing weekend getaway just became the opposite. What’s more, the TSA’s high rate of screening staff attrition and hiring in the federal government are expected to have broad consequences throughout the United States. The general alleviation of lines at MSP could be a very temporary thing as local TSA headcounts trickle to pre-infusion levels.

So what’s a traveler to do? Besides dedicating umpteen hours of buffer travel time (already exceeding the length of many short flights and sending many road warriors on drives to Madison, Bismarck, and Chicago), the best option for most is to invest in the golden ticket to the TSA PreCheck line.

What is PreCheck?

TSA PreCheck (or TSA Pre✓® if you prefer) is officially a timesaving measure that allows you to submit your information for advance evaluation by the Transportation Security Administration. It is related to, but not entirely the same as, as the random TSA PreCheck upgrades that you might find printed on your airplane ticket.

The TSA advertises TSA PreCheck saying, “With a 5 year, $85 membership, you can speed through security and don’t need to remove your: shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and light jackets.” Put another way, for $17/year and some paperwork, you can avoid most of the hassle, cold floors, and periodic humiliations of the experience. There is certainly an elitist component to this – the “more than 4 million enrollees” referenced by the TSA represents approximately 1.25% of the U.S. population – but as clubs that you can afford to join, it’s not a bad deal for a solo traveler. It’s an admittedly handy but imperfect solution for a very imperfect travel screening system…and it beats buying beers at airport prices to destress.

How much time does it save? The TSA website states, “In December 2016, 98% of TSA Pre® passengers waited less than 5 min.” How does that compare to your last experience with an airport line? Sounds like a slam dunk, right? Maybe the extra insurance you need to take the light rail to the airport, rather than that last-minute cab rush?

If you do purchase TSA PreCheck, remember to use your Known Traveler number when booking plane tickets. If you’ve already bought a ticket or forget to add the number, don’t worry – you can do so at the airport ticket kiosk. You can even add it and then reprint your boarding pass.

The Global Traveler Card Upgrade

If you’re considering TSA PreCheck and there’s an even a small chance of your traveling internationally, spring for the Global Entry card instead. This gets you all of the benefits of TSA PreCheck, plus expedited re-entry when returning from overseas, especially when traveling across a land border. (You’ll still need your passport, but you can waltz back from Mexico or Canada faster than a passport card permits.) $100 for 5 years ($15 more than regular PreCheck), highly recommended.

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