Flying Within the Next Five Years? Do This Now

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There's no reason to get to the airport three hours early or wait in stupendously long TSA lines.

Air travel is really taking off.

The industry predicts 231 million Americans will take to the skies this summer, a 4 percent increase from last year. All those travelers have been straining security screening at airports nationwide, with some airports in recent weeks suggesting passengers arrive up to three hours before their flight.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are a number of strategies to reduce the wait, but the simplest and most reliable way is to get either TSA Precheck or Global Entry. Here’s a look at both programs.

TSA Precheck

Precheck is run by the Transportation Security Administration, the folks who do the screenings at airports. The cost is $85 for five years, or about $17 annually, and the process is fairly simple. You fill out an application, either online or in person at a TSA office. It’s pretty straightforward. It asks things like your addresses over the past five years and questions about felony convictions.

Some felonies, such as treason, murder or dealing in explosives can result in a lifetime ban from the program. Most other felonies only preclude you from the program if you were convicted in the last five years. There’s a complete list here, so if you’re concerned, review them before applying.

After submitting your application, you’ll use the same website to schedule an in-person appointment. While there can sometimes be a wait of a month or more, it will probably be quicker. (The reporter in the video above only had to wait a few days after for an appointment in Miami.)

Depending on where you live, you’ll likely find multiple potential interview locations, including the local airport. If you’re in a hurry, check every location to see which has the earliest appointment.You’ll need to bring ID – a valid passport, a driver’s license along with a birth certificate, or a number of other options.

Once there, you’ll meet with a TSA rep who will ask you a couple of questions, check your ID and scan your fingerprints. You may receive a confirmation letter on the spot, or it may come in the mail within two to three weeks. That confirmation will contain your Known Traveler Number,

Once you have that number, you’ll use it every time you book a flight. Even if you’ve already booked a flight, you should be able to check your itinerary online and put the number in. When you print your boarding pass, it will have the TSA Precheck symbol on it.

It’s critical to include the number before you check in for the flight, however. You can’t just show a card with your number on it after arriving at the airport. No TSA Precheck authorization on your boarding pass, no precheck line, no exceptions.

What TSA Precheck gets you

In exchange for jumping through these hoops, you’ll breeze through security. The line is shorter and moves faster, since you can leave your shoes, belt and light jacket on, and you don’t need to remove your liquids or laptop. You might also go through a simple metal detector rather than the body scanner.

If you are traveling with children age 12 and under, those children can use the precheck line if their parents have gone through the process. At 13, they must have their own Known Traveler Number.

Global Entry and other programs

The Global Entry program, run by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, has a similar application process, right down to the fingerprinting. It costs $100 and, like TSA Precheck, that fee covers you for five years. As with the TSA program, you’ll get a Known Traveler Number and will be able to use the TSA Precheck line to breeze through domestic security. In addition, when you’re returning to the U.S. from abroad, you can use what amounts to an express line going through customs and passport control.

Customs and Border patrol has two other programs, NEXUS and SENTRI, which can be worth looking into if you live along the Canadian or Mexican border and drive over frequently. NEXUS allows expedited entry into the U.S. from Canada, while SENTRI allows it from Mexico. However, if you have one it works for the other. Typically, these are used in land border crossings. It’s important to note that everyone in the car must be in the program to use the “express” lanes.

Global Traveler gives you all the benefits of these programs as well.

Similar, but separate

It’s important to note that while similar, Global Entry and TSA Precheck are separate programs. Filling in the application for one won’t help with the other. If you apply for TSA Precheck, then decide later you should have used Global Entry, you’ll have to start from scratch.

That’s why most travel experts will tell you that if there’s even a slight chance you’ll travel internationally, spend the extra $15 and go with Global Entry.

Have you joined any of the precheck programs? Share your experiences below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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