Have you ever said, “I’m really looking forward to hanging around the airport today?” Going out on a limb here, I’d guess no. Even with airports improving the quality of restaurants, amenities, and overall airport experience, they’re still generally the most dreaded part of any trip.
From curb to curb, we lowly passengers want to get in and out as fast as possible. At the same time, no one wants to risk missing a flight they paid an arm and a leg for — and so, sometimes, we arrive with too much time to spare.
If you’re feeling a bit like goldilocks and you haven’t quite nailed an efficient, streamlined airport experience yet, use these airport travel tips to get it “just right.” Who knows, maybe you’ll become the traveler everyone else side-eyes with envy as you skip the security lines and breeze on through customs.
Book flights for off-peak times
Most travelers already know that flying on a less popular day of the week, such as Tuesday or Saturday, could reward them with a cheaper ticket; but savvy-travelers also know it could help you get through the airport faster. Fewer people flying means less crowded airports and shorter security lines.
For airport specific data, download and check the MyTSA mobile app, which has a “busy times” graph showing when security lines are most — or least — active. You can also use price as a gut-check: less expensive generally means off-peak.
Choose a seat towards the front
To save time on the other end of your trip, book a seat as close to the front of the airplane as possible and spend less time waiting for others to disembark.
Know When to Arrive at the Airport
According to TSA, you should arrive at least two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international. Wow, right? Last time I arrived three hours before an international flight, I spent two hours drinking beers in the Oakland airport waiting for our Mexico City flight to board. So, do you really need this much time?
Yes and no: it depends on the airport.
For example, I always budget at least 90 minutes to clear LaGuardia for a domestic flight, but am fine arriving 30 minutes before boarding at smaller airports like Palm Springs, or Chattanooga — and usually have time to spare.
To help figure out how far in advance to arrive at the airport, I always check:
Add an extra 10-20 minutes if you’ll have to take a shuttle or train within the airport.
Security Wait Times
A lot of resources suggest checking the MyTSA and MiFlight apps for security wait times. However, both are crowdsourced and not the most reliable — so take them with a grain of salt. Forums and Google are good places to look but I have my hopes set on TripIt’s new security wait time feature (which is calculated by a monitoring service, not crowdsourcing), now available in four airports.
Flight Status & Traffic Delays
This helps me figure out what time to leave for the airport. Especially if there’s a major flight delay, I’d rather know so I can do absolutely anything besides sit in the airport. Simply Google your flight number for updates.
When in doubt, ask a local.
What about international flights with a domestic layover?
I’m glad you asked! If you’re flying, for example, a route that looks like this: Seattle -> Washington D.C. -> Paris, the first leg of your flight may be in the domestic (not international) terminal. If this is the case, you’ll be safe following the domestic departure rule of thumb, not the international one.
However if you are flying Paris -> Washington D.C. -> Seattle, then you should arrive at the airport in Paris with the time alotted for an international flight, and book your layover expecting that you might need to change terminals in D.C. as well as clear immigration.
Skip the Food Lines and Pack Snacks
DIY snacks for flights are my favorite for a number of reasons — they’re healthier, a better value, and packing your own means no need to wait in a 10-20 minute line for “meh” food.
Pack and Dress for a Speedy Airport Experience
Believe it or not, packing well can help you spend less time at the airport, get through security quickly, and avoid getting pulled over for a bag check.
- Make sure you pack a carry on only, preferably a backpack or duffle (so you can maneuver around roller-baggers like a swift-speedy ninja-cheetah)
- Pack items you’ll need to take out, like your wallet, water bottle, or laptop in easy to access places
- Don’t pack any banned items that may get you pulled over for a bag check
- Pack neatly, so scanners can clearly see what’s in your bag and, if you’re unlucky enough to get a bag check, you can get everything back inside quickly
Additionally, optimize your travel outfit for the airport experience as well as the flight. Don’t wear lots of jewelry, opt for pants with no belt, and if you don’t have TSA PreCheck (more on that in a minute), shoes that slip on and off easily.
Use Mobile Check-In to Get Your Boarding Pass
Thanks to improved mobile technology, you can now skip airport check-in lines entirely. Use a mobile app (i.e. United, Delta, Alaska Airlines, etc.) to check in and get your boarding pass online before getting to the airport.
Once checked-in, you’ll automatically have your boarding pass on your phone and can access it in the app. As a backup, take a screenshot of the boarding pass in case your phone loses reception.
Got TSA PreCheck? Double check your boarding pass for the little green checkmark. If it’s not there, log on to the airline website, edit your reservation, and add in your known traveler number. It’ll take a minute or two to refresh, and they’ll remember it next time.
Don’t Check a Bag
Of course, you can’t skip the lines entirely with mobile check-in unless you also skip out on checking a bag. Even if you pay for your bag check in advance (and contribute to the yearly sum of $4.2 billion — yes, billion — that travelers pay in luggage fees), you’ll still have to find your airline counter and drop off your luggage.
On the other end of your trip, you’ll then have to hunt down the luggage carousel and wait for your luggage. This opens you up to even further delays if your luggage is lost in transit — a risk carry on only travelers never deal with.
Still not sold? Since I use mobile check in and travel carry on only, with my travel backpack, I’m through the airport doors and in security within 60 seconds of getting dropped off at my home airport, SFO. When I land back in San Francisco, it takes me less than five minutes to make it from the airplane out to the curb — and right into the line for Lyft pick up, which I requested as I stepped off the plane.
Don’t let rolling luggage ruin your trip.
How to pack carry on only
If you haven’t quite nailed traveling carry on only yet, you’re in the right place. The Tortuga Packsmith team has put together lots of destination packing lists, carry on only tips, and guides to help you pack less.
(Don’t) Get Lost: Know Where You’re Going
Rather than wasting time looking at maps, or sprinting towards Terminal 1 because. “Oh shit, I got dropped off in the wrong United terminal!” take time before you leave to look up:
- Your departure terminal and gate number (it should be on your boarding pass)
- For layovers, your arrival gate and new departure gate (how close are they? Do you really have to sprint for your 30 minute layover?)
- Arrival transportation info (how you’ll get from your arrival airport to your hotel/Airbnb/etc.)
A quick Google search will help you find much of this, but most airports have good maps and information about ground transportation on their websites. The GateGuru app is also a great digital airport pocket map.
Enroll in TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, Clear, and/or Mobile Passport
No matter how good you are at packing carry on only, how efficient you are at checking in on mobile, there’s still one thing we can’t control: lines. Security lines. Fortunately, there are a number of programs designed to move travelers through them more quickly, such as TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, CLEAR, and Mobile Passport.
If you feel like I just threw a bunch of foreign words at you, worry not. Here’s a quick TL;DR on each program:
|Program||What it is||Cost||How to enroll|
|TSA PreCheck||TSA PreCheck gets you through pre-departure security more quickly. With it, passengers can keep their shoes on, laptops and liquids in their bags, and enjoy shorter, fast-moving lines.||$85 for 5 years (free with purchase of Global Entry)||Apply for TSA PreCheck or bundle it with your Global Entry to save money|
|Global Entry||Global Entry saves you time in the immigration line. Since you’ve gotten a pre-approved background check, you just go to a bank of kiosks, scan your passport, answer a few questions, and you’re done. Plus, lines are shorter.||$100 for 5 years (comes as a perk for some credit cards)||Apply for Global Entry then make an in-person appointment for interview|
|CLEAR||CLEAR expedites the pre-departure security line by bypassing document checks and instead (in a super-futuristic-Jason-Bourne kind of way) checks your identity with a fingerprint or retina scan. CLEAR is only available in 30 airports right now.||$179 per year + $50 for each additional family member (kids under 18 free)||Apply for CLEAR|
|Mobile Passport||Totally separate from Global Entry, the mobile passport app bypasses the paperwork you’d normally fill out upon re-entry into the U.S. In the 24 airports where it’s available, you can skip the normal line and use a shorter mobile passport line instead.
(Psst… don’t flub: you still need your IRL passport.)
|Free||Download the app|
TSA PreCheck and Global Entry have been the main traveler programs in the game for a while now. As such, they have more saturation than CLEAR and Mobile Passport. Since Mobile Passport is free, it’s a no brainer to have it on your phone.
CLEAR, however, is a larger investment (though they’ve cut some deals for Delta SkyMiles holders and Visa signature) and is mostly worth it if you travel frequently through airports with CLEAR kiosks. Check their list before you sign up.
Want to be extra travel-savvy? Conde Nast Traveler recently published a podcast on getting through airport security faster that’s chock-full of small tips and tricks only the pros know.
Don’t Hold Up the Security Line
The security line is where you can sort the travel newbs from the frequent travelers; the pros from the beginners. Instead of bumbling around, dropping car keys from their pockets, you’ll notice the travel pros standing calmly ready to jump into action. To get through security swiftly, take a cue from experienced nomads and:
- Have your ID and boarding pass in hand (or open on your phone) when you walk up
- Put everything in your bag while waiting
- Be nice to TSA employees (it can make a huge difference!)
- Go left, not right, when asked to choose a security line
If you don’t have TSA PreCheck, make sure you pack your laptop and toiletries in an easy to access part of your bag, so you can quickly get them out and back in again.
Board the Plane Last
To really optimize your time, board last. If you arrive at the gate right at boarding time, use the first 10 minutes or so to grab your water, go to the restroom, or download a last-minute podcast. Just make sure you’re back at the gate at least 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time (since most flights will close their doors 10 minutes prior).
Also, don’t pay for priority boarding. Is it really a privilege to spend an extra 10-20 minutes sitting in a cramped cabin breathing recycled-air? Not for me.
Don’t Forget to Plan for Your Ground Transportation
After a long flight, the last thing you want to do is spend more time in your airport. If you’ve already followed tips six and eight, you’re well on your way to breezing past customs lines and luggage carousels towards your last hurdle: ground transportation.
Fortunately, there are a couple of things you can do to get in your bus / train / rental car / taxi / rickshaw / whatever faster:
Book Transportation in Advance
At many airports, such as Tokyo or Stockholm, you can purchase a train ticket in advance, online, so you don’t have to waste time figuring out where and how to buy a ticket once you’re on the ground. Read the airport website to see if this is an option.
Call Lyft or Uber When You’re Almost at the Door
Instead of waiting until you get to the door, call your Lyft or Uber while you’re still walking to it and shorten your wait time. Be sure you know where the pick up zone is — it’s not always with the taxis.
Book Rental Cars From “Airport Terminal” Not “Shuttle”
While not all airports have in-terminal rental car services, many have both. Skip the wait and ride for the rental car shuttle and make sure your rental car location is listed as “airport terminal” not “shuttle” whenever possible. Sometimes, the price difference is negligible.
While drinking beers with my boyfriend for two hours in the Oakland airport wasn’t the worst thing ever, it definitely motivated me to get better at timing my airport experience. In the dozens of flights I’ve taken since then, I used the above airport travel tips and learned to streamline my system; you can too.
Before leaving the house:
Make sure to book tickets for off-peak times, look up information about the airport and security wait times, and learn where you’re going. When packing, plan to travel carry on only, pack neatly, and throw in a snack for later. For check in, use a mobile app to check in and get your boarding pass.
Use TSA PreCheck to get in a shorter line and get through more efficiently. If you’re like my dad, perhaps you’ll prefer CLEAR. At the gate, wait to board — especially if you arrive right as they started boarding — and take the time to run to the restroom and grab water instead.
Know in advance where your gates will be, so that you can plan ahead and know if you’ll need to rush or not. If you have customs and immigration to clear, use Mobile Passport to get into a super-secret-seeming shorter line. My dad, again, heads for Global Entry. Either one will shorten your wait. On arrival, skip the baggage claim and walk right out of the airport; knowing your transportation is pre-planned and waiting for you.
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