As showcased in a snarkily-narrated viral video recorded at Chicago’s Midway airport, travelers are doing a lot of time in TSA screening lines.
Even conscientious passengers arriving more than two hours early for domestic itineraries are missing flights. Some are getting stranded overnight (prompting airlines to set up cots and distribute snacks and water). TSA, meanwhile, is pointing the finger at increasing numbers of air travelers, the agency’s own staffing decreases, and airline baggage-check fees (which mean more carry-on bags clogging up the TSA lines).
And to think the summer travel season is just beginning.
Instead of waiting on TSA to increase its efficiency (not likely) or resigning yourself to showing up at the airport four hours early, you may be able to alleviate your wait via some credit card perks and strategies.
Get a card that reimburses for TSA PreCheck and Global Entry
PreCheck is TSA’s program that allows passengers who have passed requisite screening to go through an expedited line at the airport without removing shoes, belt or jacket. Liquids and laptops can stay in their bags. Global Entry (which expedites the customs process for approved travelers returning to the U.S.) includes PreCheck.
When TSA cut its staff due to decreased funding, it expected PreCheck enrollment would keep screening lines in check. But enrollment has been too low for that to happen. For one thing, there’s a cost to enroll ($85 for PreCheck and $100 for Global Entry). For another, you have to complete an in-person interview during business hours. And guess what — there are increasing waits at TSA PreCheck enrollment centers:
Some credit cards can at least help you with the cost part by reimbursing you (via a statement credit) for PreCheck and/or Global Entry fees:
American Express Platinum and Business Platinum ($450 annual fee): Reimbursement for PreCheck or Global Entry (American Express is a CreditCardForum Advertising Partner).
Chase Sapphire Reserve ($450 annual fee): Get reimbursed for either TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee (via statement credit) once every four years per account.
Citi Prestige ($450 annual fee): Reimbursement for Global Entry
Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card: Reimbursement for Global Entry
City National Bank Crystal Card: Reimbursement for Global Entry
Luxury Card (Gold and Black versions) from Barclaycard ($495 or $995 annual fee): Reimbursement for Global Entry
Citi AAdvantage Executive card ($450 annual fee): Reimbursement for PreCheck or Global Entry
AAdvantage Aviator Silver World Elite MasterCard ($195 annual fee): Reimbursement for Global Entry
Expedia+ Voyager card ($95 annual fee) from Citi: Each year, you’ll get a $100 statement credit, which can be used toward the PreCheck or Global Entry Application fee.
U.S. Bank FlexPerks Gold American Express ($85 annual fee): Reimbursement for PreCheck or Global Entry.
If news images of nightmarish security lines prompt more interest in PreCheck, you can expect the PreCheck lines to get longer. However, as you don’t have to remove articles of clothing, separate out your liquids and put your laptop in a plastic bin, the line will likely move much faster.
Milk your card for access to the priority screening line
Airlines often open access to the airport’s “Priority” security screening lane (assuming the terminal you’re at has one) to passengers who have achieved elite status, even when they’re not flying first class. You still have to do the take-off-your-shoes-and-open-your-laptop-case dance, but, as elite passengers are a small subset of travelers, you’ll be able to stride past the hoi polloi snaking their way through the regular security line.
The following premium (high-annual-fee) co-branded airline cards get you past the premier-access velvet rope if you purchased the ticket with the card and are flying the airline that day:
Delta: The Delta Reserve card and Delta Reserve for Business SkyMiles cards ($450 annual fee) get you into the Sky Priority security line at participating airports. The reservation must include the primary cardholder’s SkyMiles number. Others on the same reservation may use the priority lane as well.
American: The Citi AAdvantage Executive card ($450 annual fee) gets you access to the priority screening line at participating airports. The reservation must include the primary cardholder’s AAdvantage number. Up to eight other travelers on your reservation get access, too.
United: The MileagePlus Club card ($450 annual fee) gets you Premier Access benefits, which includes the priority screening lane. The reservation must include the primary cardholder’s MileagePlus number. Traveling companions on the same reservation can join you in the premier line.
Use reward points to pay for PreCheck
As of Sept. 2016, only a few airlines allow you to use your rewards miles toward the TSA PreCheck application fee:
Southwest: 9,000 Rapid Rewards points will cancel out the $85 fee. If you redeem your points this way, you’ll get an authorization code that you’ll show at the TSA application center (and be charged no fee). Keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that your PreCheck application will be approved, and your Southwest points are non-refundable, even if your application is denied.
While all members of the Rapid Rewards Program are eligible to redeem for the PreCheck application fee, having the Rapid Rewards Premier credit card can help you reach the 9,000-point threshold faster, as it lets you rack up points on your purchases.
United: 10,000 miles will cover the PreCheck fee. As with Southwest, you’ll get an authorization code and need to report to a TSA application center to use it. Again, there’s no guarantee your TSA PreCheck application will be approved.
Alaska Airlines: The airline offered the ability to redeem 10,000 miles for TSA PreCheck, but that limited-time-opportunity expired in April 2016.
Thanks Again: This program isn’t affiliate with a single airline. Instead, you download an app, link any Visa, MasterCard or American express card, and earn a point per dollar when you shop with Thanks Again’s retail partners (primarily airport retailers like shops, restaurants and airport parking). You can redeem for miles and points with the program’s hotel and airline partners. But you can also redeem for TSA Precheck by using 4,250 Thanks Again points. That’s actually a really good value of 2 cents a point — although it might take you a while to rack up enough points via Thanks Again’s airport-centric partners.
Is the cost worth it?
You’ll notice a pattern among cards that offer a speedier route through security – they all have high annual fees. If you won’t use the cards’ other benefits, it will probably be more cost-effective to just pay for PreCheck if you want to avoid lines. However, if you’re a frequent traveler in the market for a premium travel card, premier-lane access and refunds for PreCheck applications sweeten the deal (especially these days). And if you already have one of the cards above and haven’t taken advantage of its security-screening benefits, get the ball rolling to save yourself the wait on your next trip.
Updated Sept., 2016