Traveling has always come with complications, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it more challenging than ever. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.
The pandemic has changed our lives in big ways and small — and that includes how we travel, particularly how we fly. There are masks, testing requirements, reduced services, closed airport shops and longer lines.
We can’t control most of it, but we can do something about those longer lines.
At airport security and customs at least, we can use expedited services such as TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and CLEAR. I went to travel experts to find out how valuable they are these days with the change in flier demographics (fewer business people, more leisure seekers), lower traffic (we’re still down travelers compared to 2019 stats) and complicated international border rules.
Here’s what they said about each option.
TSA PreCheck is the classic but still luxurious airport timesaving service.
“[It’s] definitely what you want to get to speed through airports as much as you can and skip some of the hassle of having to take a laptop out of your bag and take your belt off and all that other stuff,” said Sara Rathner, travel expert for NerdWallet.
For me, PreCheck isn’t just about the line, although a shorter line is nice. It’s about an extra step out of the equation in travel.
If you don’t have PreCheck already, here’s how it works: Travelers apply online, schedule an appointment at one of the 380-plus enrollment centers to get fingerprinted and go through a background check. Then — if all goes according to plan — pay an $85 enrollment fee and spend the next five years speeding past the normal security line.
By the way, for those debating whether to re-up their PreCheck memberships, the fee to renew dropped from $85 to $70.
If you’re going to be traveling internationally again, Global Entry may come in handy if it’s available at the U.S. airport you normally fly back to. Another perk: It includes a TSA PreCheck membership.
Konrad Waliszewski, CEO and co-founder of TripScout, a travel planning and entertainment platform, has Global Entry, but he hasn’t found much value in his membership.
“It’s only in a few places, and the U.S. border control has gotten much more efficient with their experience anyway,” he said. “So I’ve regularly not saved any time with Global Entry.”
That being said, if your credit card will cover the cost of getting Global Entry (some do for TSA PreCheck, too), Waliszewski recommends signing up to have it as a backup. If your travel credit card doesn’t cover it, the cost is $100 for a five-year membership.
I’m in Waliszewski’s camp. Pre-pandemic, whenever I traveled home from somewhere abroad, I more often than not used Mobile Passport instead. For the uninitiated, Mobile Passport is free to download and easy to work if you’re comfortable using smartphone apps. It allows you to submit your passport and customs information ahead of time, and it streamlines the entry process into the United States.
The only catch is that it’s not available at every American airport. Even in the ones where it’s available, sometimes no one is there to process you, and you may end up back in the normal line.
CLEAR is a much newer, privately owned business at more than 50 airports right now. According to its website, the program uses biometric technology to give enrolled travelers a “faster, safer, touchless way through airport security” by scanning their eyes and face as identification. (They also now have a vaccine passport service.)
While it speeds up the document-checking process at TSA, it doesn’t speed up the screening process. You’ll need to purchase TSA PreCheck or Global Entry separately.
Frequent fliers such as Danny Finkel, chief travel officer for the travel management company TripActions, like using TSA PreCheck and CLEAR together.
Finkel says that pairing has been a lifesaver. For instance, on his hectic day at the Seattle airport when the normal security line stretched out to the parking lot and the TSA PreCheck line looked about 30 minutes long.
“CLEAR pre-check got me in in 10 minutes,” Finkel said.
A CLEAR membership is $179 per year, and members can add on three adult family members for $50 each. Children under 18 can use the line free with a member. You may be eligible for a discount on membership through rewards programs via Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Express.
“The big caveat is CLEAR is not at every airport,” Waliszewski said. “So if CLEAR is in the airports that you regularly travel through, I think the CLEAR plus PreCheck combo is one of the most blissful airport experiences ever.”
The airport can be so unpredictable these days. Any of these line-cutting services may be a godsend one day, and completely unnecessary the next. Your travel style and where you are traveling most may also be part of the equation.
Christian Wolters, chief marketing officer for the tour booking company TourRadar, recently returned from a trip in Vienna, and he didn’t see the need for any extra help.
“From personal experience the lines were so small that even the COVID requirements and checking had little impact,” he said in an email. “My travel through Pearson airport in Toronto and the airport in Vienna was very smooth and I probably got processed more quickly than I ever have.”
For Bridget Lackie, general manager for North America at the luxury travel operator Scott Dunn, the benefits of the services far outweigh the costs. While travel numbers ramp up, they can offer peace of mind and maybe a less stressful airport experience, particularly if you’re traveling with kids or grandparents.
Have a travel dilemma for By The Way Concierge? Submit it here.