(recently published in USA Today)
As federal officials continue to tweak passenger security screening at U.S. airports, more people could avoid hassle if they joined programs that let them use expedited lanes at checkpoints.
Better yet, there are ways to get that privilege without spending a dime. For example, some premium credit cards reimburse the $85 application fee for TSA Precheck or the $100 fee for Global Entry. Membership in these federal background-check programs lasts five years before you need to reapply.
Travelers who use the fast lanes typically say they’ll never go back, says Joe Brancatelli, a business travel writer and founder of travel site JoeSentMe.com. That’s the case even for infrequent flyers, he adds.
“I don’t think I can overstate the value of these programs,” he says. “And the more you travel, the more valuable they are.”
Over the summer, tightened airport security rules meant travelers in standard checkpoint lines had to remove electronics larger than cell phones from carry-on bags and place them in a separate bin for X-ray screening. Travelers in TSA Precheck lanes could leave electronics in their bags.
But the bigger advantages of the speedy security lanes are shorter waits and less intrusive screening; you can leave your shoes on, for example. In September, 96% of TSA Precheck passengers waited in line less than five minutes, according to the Transportation Security Administration. To date, more than 5 million people have enrolled in the program, which is available at 200 airports via 37 airlines.
Which program to choose
Global Entry costs $15 more and is less convenient to apply for: It requires a passport and an interview, available at fewer locations than TSA Precheck. But Global Entry includes TSA Precheck and offers expedited entry through U.S. customs when you return from a foreign country.
The cost difference — just $3 a year on average — probably isn’t that much of a factor, but convenience might be. Those who have a passport and live near a Global Entry interview center — typically larger airports — should consider that program. If you don’t live near a Global Entry center, don’t have a passport and rarely travel abroad, TSA Precheck may be the better option.
Application details are on the Global Entry and TSA Precheck websites.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, says he can’t imagine traveling without a trusted traveler program. “These services have helped me save anywhere from five to as much as 20 minutes waiting in security screening lines,” he says.
A survey his firm conducted this year found that 91% of business airline travelers said expedited airport screening was “very important” or “somewhat important.” A similarly high percentage said expedited border crossing programs, such as Global Entry, were important.
Use a credit card to apply free
Several premium credit cards reimburse your application fee if you pay it with the card.
“I don’t know that it would swing your choice of credit card per se, but it is nice to know you had an elite card that rebated your fee,” Brancatelli says.
However, many such cards have high annual fees. A sampling:
● Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card. Annual fee: $95.
● U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card. Annual fee: $400.
● Citi Prestige Card. Annual fee: $450.
● Chase Sapphire Reserve. Annual fee: $450.
● The Platinum Card from American Express. Annual fee: $550.
Also, some credit card and travel loyalty programs will let you use travel credits or rewards points to pay the application fee. And some airlines might offer reimbursement if you have elite frequent flyer status with them.
Fingerprints and photos
Besides cost and effort, another consideration with trusted traveler programs is your comfort level with handing over more information to the U.S. government, including fingerprints and a photo.
However, provided their personal information is kept secure, 81% of U.S. business passengers said they feel comfortable sharing it with airlines and other travel-related organizations if it results in better, less stressful journeys, according to Atmosphere Research Group’s study.
“The government knows all this stuff about you already,” Brancatelli says. “You’re not really giving up anything more.”