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Why TSA PreCheck is a better idea than ever

If you’re flying this holiday season, the program offers benefits for coronavirus-wary travelers


(Illustration by Katty Huertas /for The Washington Post)

With the holiday season approaching, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly advising people to stay home amid a surge of coronavirus cases, many Americans are grappling with the question of whether to carry on with their scheduled travel plans. AAA is predicting a 10 percent drop in travel this Thanksgiving, but that still leaves tens of millions of Americans planning on taking flights and road trips to see loved ones.

For those still planning on going home for the holidays by plane, now may be the best time to invest in TSA PreCheck if you haven’t already. Here’s what you need to know about joining the program during the pandemic.

Why TSA PreCheck matters more now

Once upon a time, PreCheck was primarily appealing because it helped travelers get through airport security as quickly as possible. Now that perk is even more appealing as coronavirus-wary travelers want to avoid spending time in line around strangers.

“What we have seen is that wait times in general are in the neighborhood of five minutes or less, and PreCheck can go even quicker,” says Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.

Additionally, it helps travelers avoid touching more common surfaces than necessary, as PreCheck lets you wear your shoes and light outerwear through metal detectors and keep more items inside your carry-on bag.

“You can keep your electronics, your 3-1-1 liquids and aerosols, and your food items in your carry-on bag,” Farbstein says. “When there’s a pandemic, that’s even more important.”

How and when to apply

According to the TSA, the online application process should take travelers about five minutes to complete. Once your application is approved, you’ll set up a 10-minute in-person appointment at an enrollment center where you will complete a background check and fingerprinting.

Should all go well, you will be given a Known Traveler Number that grants you access to the airport TSA PreCheck line. The $85 membership lasts for five years.

Traveling for the holidays? Apply sooner rather than later. “Typically, it takes only about a week to get your Known Traveler Number,” Farbstein says.

If you need help with the application process, or have questions about the program, travelers can call 855-347-8371 on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., or email TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov.

But remember, not all PreCheck screenings are contactless

Even if you get TSA PreCheck, you may still get stopped at security for various reasons. TSA officers have the discretion to ask passengers to undergo additional screenings, like if something you are wearing keeps setting the metal detector off or you have something particularly suspicious in your carry-on bag.

If you are confused about what you can take in your carry-on bag in general, review TSA’s searchable “Can I Bring” database. The database is available online and on TSA’s free mobile app. A word of warning to gamers or those traveling with a gift for a gamer this holiday season: Video game consoles may need to be unwrapped for additional screenings, so you may want to check your bag.

And not everyone is eligible for the program

TSA PreCheck is not available for every traveler. There are a number of disqualifying offenses that may prevent someone from obtaining membership.

Many of those offenses won’t apply to most people — like being convicted of espionage or conspiracy to commit espionage, or the one for fraudulent entry into a seaport — but you should still review the TSA website to make sure.

Travel during the pandemic:

Tips: Safe holiday travel | Coronavirus testing | Sanitizing your hotel | Using Uber and Airbnb

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on plane | Fly or drive | Best days to fly

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Foliage finder | Art road trips

Camping: First-time | Camping alone | Meal planning | Glamping | National parks

Places: Hawaii | Machu Picchu | New York | Private islands | Caribbean | Mexico | Europe