One of the most stressful aspects of air travel with kids is dealing with airport security. Quick: can you take off your shoes and belt, remove all liquids and laptops out of your carry-on bag, and fold up a stroller all while holding a screaming baby or squirmy toddler? How about doing that after you’ve waited in line for half an hour worrying if you are going to miss your flight?
And 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 of 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 all the shortcuts 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 to find shorter lines in airports across the country. Pick one or more that works for your personal situation, home or destination airports, and budget constraints.
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8 TSA Airport Security Shortcuts for Families
1) TSA Family Lanes
Before we dive into all the options that may cost you more money, it’s important for families to know that some airports have a totally free option. Recognizing that family travelers can be slower and often travel with items that need extra screening like milk or formula, these airports have devoted a little space at TSA checkpoints to create a family lane!
TSA family lanes are 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. You can find them at many larger airports, but which airports have them is not well documented. Often, these lanes are merged in with other lanes for first class passengers or travelers with airline status, so look closely.
Note as well that a few airports have unique rules for use of the TSA family lanes. Once upon a time when we used family lanes often when my son was a baby, Atlanta Airport (ATL) only allowed families with strollers to use their lanes – so parents who traveled with their baby in a carrier were out of luck. These idiosyncrasies are unfortunately next to impossible to find listed anywhere and can change. If you have a friend who is a frequent flyer and parent of young kids in your home area, ask them – chances are they are the ones most likely to know the latest.
These lanes do appear to be decreasing in number as more paid cut-the-line options are rolled out. But if your airport has a TSA Family Lane, take advantage for free as long as you can!
2) TSA PreCheck
The TSA PreCheck program has taken the traveling world by storm the past decade and is the most straightforward way to shortcut TSA lines in almost every airport in the USA. The program allows low risk previously-screened passengers to go through airport security checkpoints without removing liquids, laptops, shoes, and belts, making the logistics much easier.
The lines for TSA PreCheck are normally much shorter as well. It’s currently available in more than 200 airports. Over 80 airlines (both domestic and international) participate in the program.
While sometimes travelers luck out and are assigned randomly to the TSA PreCheck line, this is increasingly less common as the program has grown. The only way to ensure you will get PreCheck on a regular basis is to apply for the program.
Applying requires a separate visit to an application center for fingerprinting and payment of an $85 fee. TSA PreCheck status is good for 5 years. Children ages 12 and under are free to go through the line if the adults they are traveling with have TSA PreCheck. A number of travel rewards credit cards give a credit for TSA PreCheck purchases every few years, so make sure to check your card’s benefits before you apply and pay.
There are a few other programs frequent travelers might apply for that include TSA PreCheck as well. Global Entry is trusted traveler program that enables background checked individuals to bypass normal immigration and customs lines. It also gives access to TSA PreCheck for just $100 total for a 5 year membership ($15 more than the cost of TSA PreCheck alone). Unlike PreCheck alone, however, children have to apply and pay the fee as well if they want full Global Entry privileges, so it can get expensive 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 under 18 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 can be an excellent value for families.
Another pay-to-play method for cutting airport security in a number of airports is the CLEAR lane. CLEAR is a private company that has set up special access lanes at select airports. The company verifies member identity with fingerprint or eye scans. A CLEAR airport representative escorts members directly past the ID check, allowing them to skip nearly all of the TSA lines.
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. CLEAR memberships cost $179 a year (note that the price is increasing May 19, 2022 to $189). An additional adult in the same family is $50 and children under 18 are free. If you are a member of the Delta SkyMiles program (free to join), additional discounts are available based on status. As a general member of the program, I pay just $119 annually for my CLEAR membership.
Although CLEAR is pricey, it can be a reasonable value for families, particularly if one parent is a frequent flyer who can use CLEAR for business travel when time is of the essence. CLEAR can be used in conjunction with TSA PreCheck, 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). Our family has this combination of CLEAR plus PreCheck and find the duo pretty powerful.
CLEAR memberships obviously only make sense for families based near one of the 50+ airports currently offering CLEAR, but the company continues to grow and expand quickly. CLEAR lanes are also available at a number of stadiums so the membership comes with that bonus if you are a sports fan.
4) Make an Appointment
Believe it or not, a small number of airports have started rolling out pilot programs that actually allow you to make a free appointment to go through airport security. The payoff is shorter lines and fewer surprises on busy travel days. If not everyone in your travel party has another method to shortcut airport security like PreCheck available to them, these programs are your best bet.
Many of these programs are operated by CLEAR as part of the “Reserve Powered by CLEAR” product. But they don’t require membership and indeed regular CLEAR members should not use them. Airports currently offering Reserve are: LAX (Los Angeles), SEA (Seattle-Tacoma), MCO (Orlando), EWR (Newark), YYC (Calgary), and PHX (Phoenix).
These programs do have some limitations to watch out for. Some only operate at certain times of day. Some are pretty competitive for reservation times, so set an alarm 72 hours before the time you need to go through security so you can secure a booking. Most give you a 15 minute window to show up for your appointment, so be sure to leave plenty of time for airport parking, bag check, and more so you don’t miss your reserved time.
5) Buy a Better Seat
Flying first or business class comes with plenty of perks, but a lot of travelers don’t realize that more expensive tickets can help you cut the line at airport security too. Many airlines and airports have special shorter lines at TSA checkpoints for premium class passengers.
A few airlines allow travelers to purchase access to these lanes as well even if traveling in economy class. JetBlue, for example, offers expedited airport security access (“Even More Speed”) as a benefit of its Even More Space seats – premium economy seats with more legroom. Similarly, United allows guests to purchase “Premier Access” with many economy tickets for an extra fee. United’s product includes shorter ticket counter lines and priority boarding as well as expedited airport security access.
The bottom line? When you are booking your airline ticket – even if it isn’t in a premium cabin – check to see if expedited security might be available if you buy a slightly more expensive ticket or pay an extra fee. The extra cost may well be worth it if you are traveling at a busy time and don’t have access to other paid memberships to reduce TSA wait times.
6) Leverage Airline Elite Status
Some 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 are often the same lanes that premium cabin passengers can use as well. As long as your traveling party is booked on the same reservation all together, the entire family usually gets to use the expedited lane!
7) Pick a Different Checkpoint
A number of airports have multiple security checkpoints, and this can sometimes present an additional opportunity for TSA time savings. What a lot of travelers don’t realize is that these multiple checkpoints often ultimately get you to the same place, even though the lines at each can vary considerably. If you walk a little farther to a more distant checkpoint, you can often save much more time that you would have spent standing in line at the closer one.
For this trick to work, you have to make sure that the gate you want to reach is accessible past the checkpoint you use. Not all airports have connections between multiple terminals or sets of gates once you pass through security.
But many airports have terminals that do connect on the secure side. Many more are slowly adding these connections when possible for increased airport efficiency. My home airport of Oakland has a secure-side connector between Terminals 1 and 2, meaning travelers can use either TSA checkpoint and reach every gate at the airport.
Charlotte, North Carolina (CLT) is one of the best examples where this trick works. There are 5 security checkpoints (2 of which are TSA Pre-Check only) and all of them can access the entire airport within a single secure zone. CLT even has an app where you can get real time updates with wait times at each checkpoint so you can choose to go elsewhere when your closest line is too long
So be sure to look at the map of the airport you are departing out of to determine when and if alternate checkpoints might available to your family.
8) Choose Your Airport Carefully
Finally, a great way to avoid bad TSA lines is to avoid the busy airports notorious for them. I know – easier said than done!
In certain markets with only one airport like Atlanta or San Diego, traveling families certainly have no choice. You are stuck with the long lines of whatever that sole option is. (Very sorry to those of you who call Denver home – its TSA lines are notorious! And heaven help everyone who has to fly through Orlando’s MCO Airport without shortcuts available.)
But many major cities, there are often two or more airports from which to book your travels. I always try to book into and out of smaller airports because TSA lines are routinely shorter and more humane. In fact, nearly every line at the airport – including bag check lines – tend to be more reasonable.
For example, I regularly go out of my way to book flights from Oakland Airport in the San Francisco Bay Area because the TSA experience has historically been much better than at SFO, especially in the days before I had Pre-Check and CLEAR. Oakland also has cheaper and closer parking and short bag check lines, all of which make our family’s travel logistics much improved.
There are an increasing number of ways for savvy family travelers to avoid long airport security lines and improve their travel experience. Some of course cost extra, but the time and stress savings may be well worth it for families who travel semi-regularly.
And even for families who are infrequent travelers, there are a number of free options to save time. You simply need to do the research and legwork to learn the particulars and tricks of the airports you are using in advance of your trip.
Do you have great tips for avoiding long TSA lines? Share your airport security tips in the comments.