Three-hour lead time and luck are keys to avoiding TSA slowdowns this summer

You know that part of your vacation where you hold your breath and hope for the best? It used to happen just before the plane landed, in that precarious moment between heaven and earth. But lately, it’s been taking place on terra firma, when you arrive at the airport and you’re confronted by a Transportation Security Administration screening.

For good reason. A few months ago, the TSA announced that screening with a full-body scanner would no longer be optional for some passengers, meaning there’s a better chance than ever you’ll be forced through one of the machines. What the agency euphemistically calls a “random and unpredictable” security screening adds an aspect of fear and uncertainty to an already fear-inducing and uncertain process.

And then there are the long lines, which have been blamed on cutbacks related to the TSA’s PreCheck program. The agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems incorrectly predicted that more passengers would sign up for its trusted traveler program, so it cut staffing by 10 percent. The result? Record lines. The TSA says it’s taking steps to reduce the wait times.

The coping mechanisms have evolved in the past few months, so if you’re a frequent air traveler, you probably already know a lot of the following strategies, at least subconsciously. But with the summer travel season about to get underway, you may find yourself face to face with a TSA agent, unsure what to do. Travelers can avoid that fate with a little planning and a few insider strategies.

First, give yourself time. Lots of time. Josh Nathan, a professor at the Art Institute of Colorado, allows himself three hours to get through the TSA screening in Denver. That’s no typographical error. It’s advice he would pass along to anyone who’s thinking of flying this summer. “Plan for three hours, and be delighted if you make it to your airplane,” he says, adding, “If that departs on time, you feel like you won an unpublicized lottery.”

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Why so long? Nathan reports that the Denver TSA, once one of the most efficient of the agency’s operations, has randomly closed checkpoints. A few weeks ago, the airport made headlines when TSA wait times exceeded one hour. To calm angry passengers, airport staff reportedly handed out bottled water, parceled out candies and brought in therapy dogs to soothe frayed nerves.

There are shortcuts, but they’ll cost you. Sonita Lontoh, a San Francisco technology executive and frequent flier, recommends paying $100 for a five-year membership in the Global Entry program, which also gives you TSA PreCheck eligibility. And the PreCheck lines, which allow you to get screened without removing the computer from your bag, taking off your shoes or passing through a full-body scanner, are significantly shorter.

“It’s much faster,” she says. For example, on a recent flight from Orlando, the difference between using the TSA PreCheck lane and the regular lane was more than an hour. How does she know? A colleague without PreCheck went through the regular line, and she didn’t see her until shortly before their flight began boarding.

There are other ways to cut the line. In Orlando, for example, you can also use Clear, a private biometric screening system. It costs about $15 a month to belong to Clear, which can be used at a number of airports in cities including San Francisco, Dallas and Baltimore (but not Washington). Neither Clear nor Global Entry are practical solutions for infrequent travelers, though.

What you wear this summer matters, says Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, a travel agent from Venice, Calif., who has advised countless clients on how to handle the TSA. With the agency beefing up security in the wake of various terrorist threats, you don’t want to wear anything that could slow down the process.

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“Don’t wear shirts or pants with extraneous pockets, buttons, zippers, or anything with sequined bling on it,” she says. “These items tend to appear suspicious on the scanner, which is programmed to flag anything out of the ordinary.”

Unfortunately, it’s possible to follow all of this advice and still fall afoul of the TSA’s random and unpredictable security. Kimberly Marcus, an educational consultant from Alfred, N.Y., thought she had done everything right when she showed up for her recent flight at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tenn.

But an alarm sounded when she stepped through the scanner, and an agent ordered her to submit to an “enhanced” pat-down.

“An agent felt up my leg until she met resistance,” she says. “Several times. The agent also felt across the front of me with her fingertips. This routine is not at all routine or acceptable to me, and I found what would be sexual assault in other contexts to be very disturbing and upsetting.”

And that’s the problem with the TSA this summer. The expert advice works, but not every time. Which is to say, you can show up three hours early and still miss your plane. Trusted traveler programs don’t always send you to the front of the line, and you could still get a once-over by an agent and a possible delay. You can wear all the right clothes and still set off alarms.

Of course, nothing can prepare you for a prison-style pat-down at the hands of a TSA agent. And nothing can guarantee you’ll avoid it, either. But if you take a few precautions, you can come close. Don’t forget to breathe.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • AAGK

    I understand we need to arrive early, but add in the airline delays, overbooking, etc and it could take 10 hours door to door from NY to Florida. At what point does the TSA realize it is severely understaffed. If it doesn’t have the manpower, it needs to do more to make this job desirable. Also, the emphasis on products like pre-check seem misplaced. Instead, more resources should go towards speeding up the process for everyone. Airports no longer facilitate transportation. Instead it’s a bunch of people standing around, missing flights.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    And, of course, the TSA has never stopped a single incident of violence, and the long lines create new (and much easier) targets for the wicked and malevolent. So long as the cockpit has a bathroom and steel door, I suspect we would actually be safer with simpler screening that went faster, because the lines would be shorter and less vulnerable.

  • RightNow9435

    Let’s see—1hr drive to the airport with parking time included…the 3 hr “allowance” for the TSA “security theatre”…a 2 hr flight(counting a few short delays)….then 1 hr after you arrive to get your bags and rental car. That’s 7 hrs….about the same amount of time it would take to drive 420-450miles, and you avoid the TSA and have your own car to drive. Hence, no reason for flying anything under 750-1000 miles

  • joycexyz

    Why should we be pressured into paying for a pre-check? Obviously, some of us are more equal than others–if they can pony up enough money. And that bit about water, candies and therapy dogs??? I am normally a pretty calm person, but I would have been tempted to pour the water on someone’s head, pelt him or her with the candies, and (I hate to say this–I’m an animal lover) kick the therapy dogs!

  • bpepy

    I have just gotten back from a trip that involved going through security at IAD, SLC and ABQ. Not once was I required to wait an inordinate amount of time or was hassled by the TSA. It’s not always terrible!

  • LeeAnneClark

    While it’s wonderful that nothing bad happened to you, this does not negate the thousands upon thousands of reports of horrific experiences at the hands (literally) of the TSA…including my own. You are lucky. Yay. Some of us have not been so lucky, and have been treated like criminals and viciously assaulted for no reason other than wanting to fly on an airplane.

  • cscasi

    Probably true. However, some people who wanted to cause harm may have decided not to do so because they would have to go through the TSA checks and decided not to. So, we really do not know if TSA has never stopped a single incident of violence.

  • cscasi

    Where have you seen these thousands upon thousands of these reports? While I admit that there are some passengers who have had a bad experience (or at least one they claim was bad), not everything goes perfectly well. I have been checked several times in various airports here in the USA and overseas, but not to the extent that I felt I was abused. Times have changed and we have to do our best to adjust to it. There are a always a few in any occupation who don’t do/perform as they are supposed to, but I believe they are in a real minority. All I can speak to is what I have personally observed and or been though in the past dozen years or so since TSA has been around.

  • DepartureLevel

    Three hour lead time ???? Why ? How about making it 5-7 hours in advance ?….some may feel inclined to camp out in terminals. Why are we (anyone of us) subjected to this nonsense ? When was the last time they caught a terrorist at a checkpoint in the USA? Right, no one can remember if they tried. Elderly passengers, handicapped, young children, families – all subject to this shoe parade harassment. We taxpayers will be paying for more TSA new hires when come September the TSA staffing levels will not be needed and we will see even more (“Thousands Standing Around”). More TSA = more boredom = more power-tripping jack-booted cop wannabes. As much as it infuriates me, my rule is now FOUR HOURS, yes four, because I have to be my own advocate in case things go awry. I keep my head down, avoid unnecessary eye contact and have to allow extra time for others ahead of me with a “problem” so that I might get to my gate a little less stressed and maybe get a cup of coffee (but usually I would need a highball). Ugh (x one million) !!!!!

  • bpepy

    I’m very sorry for your bad experience (and I agree that it was very bad!), but I think that a lot of bad experiences are somewhat the fault of the travelers, going in with the attitude that the TSA is out to get them. I travel quite extensively and have never encountered hostile TSA agents, but I comply with their rules, am polite and friendly, don’t make any kind of fuss and everything goes smoothly. Maybe I’m just lucky!

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