Often, airline travelers have to navigate a labyrinth of check-in and security lines before boarding their airplane or reentering the country after a trip abroad. How bad can it get? During the 2016 College Football playoff tournament, Sky Harbour airport in Phoenix, AZ instituted a “3-2-1” recommendation: Flyers should arrive at the check-in counter a full three hours before their flight; they should be in the security line at least two hours before their flight; and plan to be at the gate at least one hour before your flight.1 Seems like a long lead time. Is it really necessary?

Here are five ways to avoid the worst lines at the airport.

1. Apply for Global Entry

Global Entry is a security clearance program operated by the U.S Customs and Border Protection agency that grants approved travelers expedited entry into the U.S. after an international trip. Global Entry membership also includes access to the TSA Pre® program, which offers streamlined security screening for international and domestic flyers.

TSA Pre✓® allows you to bypass long lines, and members are not required to take off jackets and shoes, or remove laptops and liquids from luggage at security. There is a $100 application fee for Global Entry (which includes TSA Pre✓® access) and membership is good for five years.

2. Join CLEAR

In addition to TSA Pre✓®, a company called CLEAR can help you speed through security. CLEAR members can quickly verify their identity before reaching the TSA security screeners using fingerprints or eye scans. Once verified, members can skip to the front of the security line. Best of all, CLEAR members can still access expedited TSA Pre✓® security screening if they belong to both programs.

CLEAR is available at a handful of airports throughout the United States and is expanding by launching partnerships with major airlines. Delta, for example, will offer discounted membership to its elite flyers. Membership is $179 a year for an individual and $50 for each additional family member 18 years and older.

3. Arrive prepared

To avoid lines at airline ticket counters, arrive at the airport as prepared as possible. Print your boarding pass at home or get it sent to you electronically so you can go straight to security if you are not checking luggage. If you do need to check a bag, you should still check-in ahead of time and make use of the “bag drop” line, if your carrier operates one. These lines exist expressly to tag baggage.

4. Consider upgrading to first class

The latest trend in the airline industry? Instead of pricing first-class tickets out of reach for most passengers and reserving upgrades for frequent travelers, airlines are offering aggressively discounted first class upgrades at check-in. On short flights, an upgrade could cost less than $100, but still includes priority check-in and boarding privileges that can expedite your trip through the airport. To maximize your chances of receiving these offers, check in online as early as possible, typically 24 hours before departure.

5. Utilize early boarding privileges

When you board late, you not only have to wait in line, but you also might find the overhead bins full and be forced to check your bag. However, most airlines offer some form of early boarding for various types of passengers. For example, priority boarding may be available to travelers who are injured, pregnant or disabled. In other cases, early boarding is offered to families traveling with small children or active duty service members in uniform. And of course, those with elite status in an airline’s frequent flyer program will receive priority boarding. In many cases, you must present yourself to the gate agents in advance in order to be eligible for these privileges.


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