Getting Past the Lines at the Airport

There are lots of lines at the airport. Lines to check-in. Lines to get in another line to get through security. Lines to board the plane. Lines to get off the plane. If you’re traveling internationally, there are lines to get through customs and immigration. I love my elite status because it helps me get through lines more quickly. Even when I have the time, their a nuisance. But elite status isn’t the only option. I’ve made a short list of some of the best options for avoiding or expediting most lines at the airport. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

Get elite status

Elite status often gets you to the front of the line. Many airlines do have different lines for different tiers, so top status will get you the fastest service. However, even the lowest tiers frequently get access to the priority security line. As U.S. airports roll out the TSA’s new, faster PreCheck program, airlines get to recommend customers for this special screening and elite customers are asked first if they would like to enroll.

Get a co-branded credit card

Most airlines have a co-branded credit card, which sometimes come with perks like expedited boarding and check-in. Though the benefits are limited, they are easy to obtain without all the flying needed for elite status. You’ll often find yourself ranked after elite customers but before everyone else.

Get Global Entry

Global Entry is an immigration program from the United States that allows “trusted travelers” to undergo a rigorous background check and interview to expedite immigration and customs. Passengers visit a kiosk upon arrival, declare any items they may be carrying, and can usually continue without any further intervention. Some people are randomly chosen for regular screening, but they get to go to the front of the line.

If you aren’t traveling all over the world, a more limited service like Nexus, for those traveling across the U.S.-Canada border, may be sufficient. But it doesn’t save much. I say pay up for Global Entry just in case. There are also ways to avoid paying the fee, like being a top-tier elite with United Airlines or having an American Express Platinum Card.

Sit in a premium cabin

Many of the priorities given to frequent flyers are automatic for those traveling in a premium cabin. These include dedicated check-in lanes, premium security checkpoints, and first priority when boarding. Some airlines even offer their best customers vouchers to go through dedicated immigration queues or will escort them personally. It’s not as expensive as it used to be to get into the front of the plane. If you’re traveling close-in and the cheap economy tickets are already gone, a discounted first class seat may only be $50-100 more. Instant upgrades are offered at booking and check-in. And some full-fare economy tickets have the option to upgrade instantly to first class (assuming upgrade space is available).

If all else fails, be first

Being the first to book your ticket gives you better selection of the remaining seats if you must sit in economy class. Familiarize yourself with your airline’s boarding order. For example, many airlines will board from back to front, so pick a seat in the back to board earlier and secure space for your luggage. Pick a seat near the front of the cabin to exit first and get to immigration before everyone else.

See this page on SeatGuru for information on boarding procedures by airline.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Chris

    Regarding Global Entry and Nexus: As of Feb 2012 all Nexus members are able to use Global Entry free of charge. For anyone who is close to the US-Canadian boarder, you are much further ahead getting Nexus rather than Global Entry. It is half the cost and you get all the benefits of Global Entry along with the benefits of expedited immigration and customs clearance in Canada. See http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/trusted_traveler/nexus_prog/ge_kiosks.xml

    • Scottrick

      Yes, but: (1) you can’t use your Nexus card to get through immigration; you need to use your passport and (2) you have to go through additional background checks before your Nexus membership makes you eligible for Global Entry.
      http://www.globalentry.gov/faq.html

      • Heffa

        With nexus…
        1. You scan your passport in the Global Entry machine instead of the card. Works great and quick
        2. The extra process was online only. No interviews etc.