The airport security check is one of the main reasons that you need to arrive early at the airport.
It’s easy to find yourself queuing up for ages in order to get to the front of the security check line. Even if we ignored for a moment how frustrating the actual process was, it still doesn’t even come close to the amount of discomfort you would face if you ended up missing your flight because of it.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, a queue is a queue and even though you may not be able to completely skip it, there are certain tricks you can adopt to speed up the wait time.
Don't expect a miracle way to get done with the security line in 30 seconds even though it's peak hour.
But follow those tips and you're sure to spend as little time as possible at the security check of the airport.
Except if you have this one thing printed on your boarding pass, which I mentioned at the end of this post. Then, you're screwed.
1. Pick the shorter line
While this one may seem fairly obvious it still is very applicable. Most airports have two or more security areas and the ones closer to the flight gates that see more traffic are usually busier. This may take you further away from your gate, but picking the less busy check-up point at the airport security check can save you precious time.
In larger airports, at peak hour, there is usually a member of the airport staff responsible for orienting you toward the shortest line. Finding it then becomes a no-brainer.
2. Avoid the bottleneck effect at the beginning of the queue
People tend to search for their ID and boarding pass just before they get to the queue and you will often see a spread out group that causes a bit of mayhem at the beginning of the line. Make sure you zig-zag through the crowd to get yourself in a waiting position.
If people stop to look into their luggage for their travel documents, feel free to go in front of them! That's why you should...
3. Prepare your ID and boarding pass in advance
Make sure to have your passport / ID and boarding pass ready before you even get to the waiting line so that you can easily avoid the bottleneck and be swift when presenting your documents to the traffic officer.
Knowing how to pack your carry-on is one of the most valuable skills a traveler can have. Honestly, this can determine how good or bad a travel experience you're going to have. As I explained here, make sure that both your travel documents and electronics are easily accessible so you can get them in and out of your carry-on quickly.
4. Take a screenshot of your boarding pass or download a digital version
If you’re planning on using a digital copy of your boarding pass it pays to make sure that you have offline access to it. It’s smart to take a screenshot of it or download a copy just in case for whatever reason you lose access to the web at any given point. Even if you have a printed boarding pass, I always recommend to have a digital copy of the rest of your travel documents. TripIt is a great app that centralizes all your travel info in one place - you can upoad your boarding pass and a copy of your passport and have them with you at all times.
Before reaching the security agent who will check your boarding pass, make sure to increase the luminosity of your phone to the maximum: the scanner at the airport might not work if your screen is too dark and you will lose precious seconds in the settings.
5. Have your laptop and carry-on liquids ready for inspection
Don’t wait till you get to the top of the airport security check line to start looking for your laptop and liquids which you’ve stored at the bottom of your luggage. Instead, after you've double checked what you're allowed to bring in your carry-on, pack them last on top of everything else so they’re nice and handy.
Ideally, you want to use a separate compartment for your electronics and your travel documents. Note that your laptop, tablet and phone must not be turned off: the officer might ask you to turn them on.
6. Don’t bring any liquids, gels and aerosols over 100ml.
You are not allowed to bring any gels, liquids and aerosols that are more than 100ml. The only exemption is if you are traveling with a baby and the liquids are stored in a baby bottle, if they are medications, breast milk or baby formula.
Should you forget a bottle in your luggage, expect having to wait for a security officer to inspect your whole case, something not only very time consuming but also fairly uncomfortable in terms of your private belongings.
7. Take your jacket, belt, watch, etc. off in advance
Similarly to what we mentioned in 5, preparing in advance pays off, take your jacket, belt, watch and any jewelry that may set off the metal detectors before you reach the scanners and you will end up saving a few extra minutes.
Make sure that when you reach the conveyor, you use a separate basket for your electronics and for your jacket, belt, watch, jewelry (and sometimes shoes).
8. Pick your time and date carefully
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, avoid peak hours like the plague. In the morning and evening, airports are packed with business travelers: during the week, book flights in the middle of the afternoon.
Or, and it's actually not only a great airport tip to avoid queuing up at the security check but also to save money on flights, fly early in the morning (flights before 7am) or late in the evening (red-eye flights, leaving after 10pm). Saturdays are also a good day to fly out on as a lot of people will leave on Friday and return on Sunday thus leaving the airport less busy.
9. Avoid contraband
This should go without saying but avoid bringing any items that will not be permitted on the plane. If you are unsure of what those items are, you can always check the company and airport websites online. Failing to do so will result in your things being thrown out and in some cases may even lead to questioning.
If you want to get an idea of what you cannot bring, check out the Instagram account of the TSA (Transport and Security Administration). You wouldn't believe what people try to pass through security!
10. For US passengers: sign up for TSA Pre-Check
Unfortunately, this one is only applicable for US citizens and active elite members of any partner airlines’ Frequent Flyer Programs. After signing-up to TSA Pre-Check, you are allowed to keep your shoes, belt and laptop at security. This will help you save time at the airport security check.
International travelers can also sign up for Global Entry, which comes with the same benefits as TSA Pre-Check, plus an expedited custom screening when entering the US.
The 4 Letters You Can't Fight
If you notice the letters "SSSS" on your boarding pass, you are pretty much screwed. The acronym stands for "Secondary Security Screening Selection" and guarantees that you'll be asked to step out of the line to go through a full examination.
When you try printing out your boarding pass at home and only get an error message, this is the first sign. You won't be able to print it on your own at the airport either: you will need to go at the counter, where they can check your ID as well.
As you reach the security check, you'll go through an x-ray machine and an enhanced pat-down. Your carry-on will be thoroughly inspected (they will empty it and look into every compartment.
The TSA claims that you can be selected randomly. Passengers on the US government's No Fly List or on the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s Do Not Board List are the most likely to get the 4 letters printed on their boarding pass.
There is nothing you can do about it. If you were unable to print your boarding pass at home because of a "technical error", arrive earlier at the airport, just in case, because the plane won't be waiting for you. That means that you could be denied boarding and still not be eligible to a flight compensation.
Final Words on Beating the Airport Security Check Queue
You've be warned right from the start: a queue is a queue and there are no way of completely avoiding it. The best thing you can do is apply the tips you just learned, and your passage at the airport should be as smooth as it can be.
Think about those tips next time you're reaching the security check at the airport!
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