What wouldn't you give to never have to stand in a snail's-paced, stressful airport security line? Well, for a small amount of money (or, if you qualify, no money at all) the Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck program can take care of this little problem for you. What is this program? How do you get it? How much does it cost? All these questions and more you didn't know to ask will be answered right now.
What is it?
PreCheck is a swiftly-expanding program that expedites what the TSA calls "trusted travelers" through security lines. Where you once dreaded showing up at the checkpoint, now you'll be able to move through special, TSA-approved, dedicated-to-you PreCheck lanes. Not only that, you'll also be able to keep your shoes on, your toiletries and laptop in your bag and your jacket and belt on. Essentially, you will no longer be treated like a criminal on your way to catching the 5:45 to Cincinnati. Got kids? Anyone in the program can bring children 12 and under into the line with them. Boom – your family vacation just got that much less stressful.
How do you get it?
There are two ways right now – either be a member of an existing trusted traveler program, or be a frequent traveler with one of the participating airlines. Currently, that means Alaska, American, Delta, United, and US Airways, with Virgin America soon to invite their elites in as well. Is this not you? Anyone can apply for the Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI programs; if you're granted membership, you'll automatically be opted-in to PreCheck and can use it when flying participating airlines.
Tell us more about these so-called trusted traveler programs.
Of course! The main one is Global Entry. It's run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Global Entry allows you to skip lines at immigration and customs, instead just checking in at a kiosk, like you would for a flight. SENTRI is a fast-track program for crossing the US/Mexico border, while NEXUS does the same going in and out of Canada. Global Entry costs $100 for five years, SENTRI a little more than $120, once all's said and done. NEXUS is just $50 for five years. All three programs require in-person screening appointments: for NEXUS, that appointment will be somewhere along the Canadian border, for SENTRI, down Mexico way. Global Entry appointments are conducted at airports around the country.
How to use it
Once you're in – however you get in – remember that for now, you must be flying on a participating airline from a participating airport. (The full list is published on the TSA's Web site and is updated as things change.) In addition, those opting in from pre-existing programs must make sure to follow the correct process when booking a flight – no just showing up at security expecting to speed through; you've got to make sure to attach your "known traveler number" to your booking. (Airlines are starting to print the PreCheck logo on valid boarding passes now, so you'll know if you're good to go or not.)
The fine print
While the program was initially available only to those departing on domestic flights, some international flights are now eligible, as of May. In other words – the program is very fluid. Say, for example, you're not currently loyal to the participating airlines. Be patient – others are currently said to be considering the program, Southwest and JetBlue among them. Also, when you're reading the fine print, don't miss the part where the TSA reserves the right to switch things up, which may mean that they could periodically force you into regular screening, just to keep you on your toes.
Is it worth it?
Absolutely. If you've already been invited to opt-in and haven't yet, you're missing out on a worthwhile opportunity. For everyone else, if you travel enough, particularly if you have a young family, it's worth going through the application and interview process for one of the trusted traveler programs. Not only for PreCheck, but for Global Entry, too. In a best-case scenario, it could mean no lines, ever again – at least at an airport. That's something to get excited about.
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.