One of the most stressful aspects of air travel with kids is dealing with airport security. Can you take off your shoes, take liquids and laptops out of your carry-on bag, and fold up a stroller all while holding a screaming baby or squirmy toddler? Don’t even get me started on how challenging it is when you are pulled aside for additional screening and a full body pat down for daring to bring milk aboard for your toddler.
Even for the most experienced traveling parents, the TSA experience is rarely pleasant.
Although standard TSA lines are longer than ever in many airports and at busy times of year, the good news is that there are now lots of options for savvy travelers to bypass those lines. Family travelers should particularly try to take advantage of these options whenever they can.
Curious about how you can avoid airport security lines on your next family trip and speed through airport security with kids? I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of all the current choices and strategies available. Pick one or more that works for your personal situation, home or destination airports, and budget constraints.
1) TSA Family Lanes
Using TSA family lanes is the easiest and cheapest (free!) way to avoid long airport security lines. Many larger airports have special queues for families with small children that allow you to cut the worst of the lines. The lines are not always easy to spot, so ask an airport employee if there is a family lane available for you to use.
Note that a few airports have unique rules for use of the TSA family lanes. Atlanta Airport (ATL), for example, only allows families with strollers to use the lanes. Even if you like to travel light, consider bringing your stroller in Atlanta to bypass long security lines.
2) Airline Elite Status
Many families have one parent who travels enough for business to attain elite status on an airline. When you are flying as a family on that airline and one parent has status, look for lanes at TSA checkpoints for elite travelers. These lanes are sometimes hidden and only larger airports tend to have them, but they can be a great time saver for traveling families.
3) TSA PreCheck
The TSA PreCheck program has taken the traveling world by storm the past few years. This system allows low risk passengers to go through airport security without removing liquids, laptops, shoes, and belts, which makes the logistics of security lines much easier. It’s currently available in about 130 airports.
While sometimes travelers luck out and are assigned randomly to the TSA PreCheck line, the only way to ensure you will get PreCheck on a regular basis is to apply for the program. Applying will require a separate visit to an application center and payment of an $85 fee. TSA PreCheck status is good for 5 years. Children are free to go through the line if the adults they are traveling with have TSA PreCheck.
4) Global Entry
Global Entry is trusted traveler program that enables background checked individuals to bypass normal immigration and customs lines. It also gives access to TSA Pre-check for just $100 for a 5 year membership ($15 more than the cost of TSA PreCheck). Unlike PreCheck alone, however, children have to apply and pay the fee as well, so it can get pricey for large families.
NEXUS is simply Canada’s answer to Global Entry. As with Global Entry, NEXUS membership gives expedited immigration and customs experiences as well as access to TSA PreCheck. Best of all, it only costs $50 and children are free. For Canadian travelers or Americans who live close enough to our northern border to make a quick drive for a NEXUS appointment, NEXUS is an excellent value for families.
CLEAR is a private company that has set up special access lanes at select airports allowing members to cut nearly all of the TSA lines. CLEAR memberships cost $179 a year, but an additional adult in the same family is just $50 and children under 18 are free. CLEAR provides the most reliable method to cut nearly all of the lines, but it is also the most expensive on a year-by-year basis.
Although CLEAR is pricey, it can be a reasonable value for families, particularly if one parent is a frequent flyer who would use CLEAR for business travel. CLEAR can be used in conjunction with TSA Pre-check, so you can take advantage of both the cut-the-line benefits of CLEAR and the additional benefits of PreCheck (not needing to remove shoes, laptops, liquids and more).
CLEAR memberships obviously only make sense for families based near one of the 10 airports currently offering CLEAR, but expansion plans are underway.
Note: CLEAR has provided my family with two complimentary CLEAR memberships. As always, all opinions are my own. Watch for my full review of CLEAR coming soon.
7) Airport Choice
Finally, a great way to avoid bad TSA lines is to avoid the busy airports notorious for them. In certain markets with only one airport (like Atlanta or San Diego), traveling families certainly have no choice. But many major cities, there are two or more airports from which to book your travels. I always try to book into and out of smaller airports because lines are routinely shorter and more humane. For example, I now go out of my way to book flights from Oakland Airport in the San Francisco Bay Area because the TSA experience is so much better than at SFO.
Do you have great tips for avoiding long TSA lines? Share your airport security tips in the comments.