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If there’s consistently a low point to every business trip or vacation taken by airplane, it’s going through airport security. From long lines to invasive searches, it’s the least dignified part of airline travel, and that’s saying something. 

Luckily, there are ways to bypass many of the lines and issues common to TSA checkpoints, and you don't even need to charter your own plane to do it.

The key is to understand all of the different lines available, and how to access the one that’s the shortest and easiest to go through.

Understanding the Different Lines for Airport Security

Few travelers realize that there are usually five different lines that can take you to TSA checkpoints at major airports. Understanding what these lines are for will make it easier to choose the programs necessary to access the best lines for your needs. 

The Regular Line

security line at Denver airport

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The regular line is where the vast majority of travelers must pass through. It also happens to have the longest wait times and is the most invasive. Travelers must remove their belts and shoes while also removing liquids and laptops from their carry-on suitcases. Then, you must pass through a full body scanner, placing your arms above your head while you do so. The only advantage of this line is that it’s open to everyone, with no special access memberships required. 

The CLEAR Line

CLEAR security at airport

CLEAR

CLEAR is a private company that offers identity verification services at airports, and even at some stadiums and arenas. You must be a paid member of CLEAR to use this line.

Once your identity has been verified, either through fingerprint or iris scans, a CLEAR representative will escort you to the TSA representative who will allow you to shortcut the regular line and enter regular security. The advantage is that you don’t have to wait in the regular line, but you do have to pay for a CLEAR membership each year. You also have to go through the standard security screening.

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The TSA PreCheck Line

TSA precheck at airport

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This is a line for those who are enrolled in the TSA PreCheck® program (which is also a benefit of the Global Entry Program). Travelers in this line leave their belts and shoes on, along with a light jacket. They can also leave their liquids and laptops in their bag, and quickly walk through a basic metal detector. If you’re old enough to remember, this is almost exactly like what airport security was before the September 11th, 2001 attacks. 

The TSA PreCheck and CLEAR Line

Woman in security line at airport

CLEAR

Those who are members of both TSA PreCheck and CLEAR can use this line, which is usually, but not always, the shortest. Having CLEAR gets you to the front of the TSA PreCheck line, which can grow pretty long at airports in business-focused cities where TSA PreCheck is very popular. 

First Class and Elite Status Line

first class sign at airport

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If you’re traveling on a first class ticket, or you hold elite status with the airline’s frequent flier program, then you’ll have access to this line. Before TSA PreCheck and CLEAR, this was the line most frequent travelers went to. But now, it’s just a shorter line to regular security. Travelers with TSA PreCheck avoid it, so it can be pretty empty. Keep this in mind when all of the other lines are clogged, as it can sometimes be the shortest line. 

CLEAR Reserve

CLEAR Reserve

CLEAR

There are 19 airports around the world that offer the new CLEAR Reserve program. This is a free program that reserves you a spot in the regular line. You don’t have to be a CLEAR member to use this service. Domestic locations currently include Denver, LAX, Minneapolis, New York-JFK, Newark, Orlando, Phoenix and Seattle. 

How To Get TSA Precheck

A TSA PreCheck membership is available for $78 and is valid for five years. Enrollment centers are located in airports, but also at other locations around town including many Staples stores. You can search enrollment centers at the TSA website using this tool. Just remember to apply online first, then schedule an appointment. 

Another way to get TSA PreCheck is to join Global Entry. This program, which includes TSA PreCheck, allows you to skip the lines at immigration upon arrival to the United States. Global Entry costs $100 for a five-year membership, but the application process is much more difficult than just TSA PreCheck. You have to fill out a very long form online, and then wait for approval. You have to schedule an interview at an airport, which can take several months. 

Thankfully, many premium travel rewards credit cards include a credit for the application fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. These cards include the American Express® Platinum Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve®. You can find a complete list of cards that offer this reimbursement on the TSA website.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

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Secure application on issuer’s website

Rates & Fees
  • Our Rating 4.5/5 How our ratings work Read the review
  • APR22.49% - 29.49% (Variable)
  • Annual Fee$550
  • Sign-Up Bonus 60,000Chase Ultimate Rewards Points More Info

    Earn 60,000 bonus points after using your card to spend $4,000 within three months of account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $1,380 (60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points * 0.023 base)

This card features an annual credit for travel purchases, which can offset the annual fee, plus bonus points when you sign up. You'll also get free access to tons of Priority Pass lounges and restaurant options around the world, along with access to the upcoming Chase Sapphire Lounge network.

Overview

If you’re looking to elevate your travel experience, look no further than the Chase Sapphire Reserve. When you first get approved, you’ll earn a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months—that’s worth at least $900 in travel-related spending booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards® and potentially more if you transfer your rewards to one of Chase’s airline or hotel partners.

Pros

  • An array of premium travel perks including access to Priority Pass lounges
  • Easy-to-use $300 travel credit that helps offset card's annual fee
  • Generous rewards rates for spending

Cons

  • High annual fee may be a deterrent for some
  • Perks are starting to get stale relative to newer competition
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How To Join CLEAR

CLEAR machines at airport

CLEAR

You can enroll in the CLEAR program at any airport or event venue that has a CLEAR access point. The standard price is $189 per person, per year. However, there are numerous discounts available. Those with a free Delta SkyMiles® membership are $179, and those who hold Platinum, Gold or Silver Medallion, as well as Delta SkyMiles American Express Card members are $149 a year. Delta Diamond Medallion® and Delta 360° members are free. 

Likewise, United MileagePlus® members are $179 per year while their Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum and United U.S. Credit Card members are $149. United Premier 1K and Global Services members are free. Alaska Mileage Plan members also receive membership for $179 per year. 

The American Express Green, Platinum and Business Platinum each come with a $189 annual credit toward a CLEAR® membership. Discounts are also available to additional family members to your account.

My Recommendations

I’ve belonged to both TSA PreCheck and CLEAR for many years. I find TSA PreCheck to be invaluable for both the shorter lines and the less invasive screening. At under $16 a year, or free with the right credit card, it’s a no-brainer. Get it with Global Entry if you leave the country regularly, but just sign up for TSA PreCheck at an off-airport location if you mostly travel domestically. 

In fact, I would sign up for TSA PreCheck even if you only travel a few times a year. Having TSA PreCheck means that you’ll always be assured of passing through security in under a half hour, so you’ll never have to plan on getting to the airport two or three hours before your flight. 

And if you travel at least once a month and you have CLEAR at your home airport, then it’s worth getting, too. But as CLEAR’s popularity has grown, so has the wait to use this service. So, it’s not nearly as valuable as it was a few years ago.

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JS

Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a journalist who specializes in covering credit cards, award travel and other areas of personal finance. As one of the nation’s leading experts in the credit card industry, Jason’s work has been featured at mainstream outlets such as Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money and Business Insider.