airport security

Can Signing Up to a Trusted Traveler Program Get You Through Airport Security Fast?

So you’ve gotten a great vacation planned out: you saved money by using a discount code for Hotels.com, mapped out the activities for each day and have a swimsuit for each day by the pool. There’s still one big obstacle to your travel, however. One in which you have little to no control over: airport security.

The security routine at airports can be infuriating. Not only do you need to take off your jacket and belt and empty your pockets, you need to choose between a full body scan or a pat-down, and wait in line while your carry-on goes through the x-ray machine ahead of you.

With more than three-quarters of a billion people passing through US airports each year, the struggle that the understaffed and underfunded TSA has on its hands is only understandable. In response to increasing public pressure to speed up airport security lines, the organization has come up with the Trusted Traveler program.

Ever since 2011, members of the flying public have had the option to opt to pay (some card companies like Amex offer it free of charge) for an FBI examination. You submit to a background check, fingerprinting on all 10 fingers and an in-person interview. When the check completes, you get on the TSA’s list of safe, trustworthy fliers.

When you are a Known Traveler, you get to go through a faster line at the airport, and you don’t need to do things like take off articles of clothing, take a body scan, or send your carry-on through the x-ray machine.

In many ways, the Trusted Traveler program is undeniably a good idea. Before you pay the fee and sign up, however, you need to know what the downside to membership is.

The application process can be tough

While there are no difficult interview questions to answer, there are so many people applying for Trusted Traveler approval, the system has a sizable backlog. People often wait three or four months after they apply, to have their application processed.

If you’re paying the fee, you need to be careful

Pre-Check, the most commonly used Trusted Traveler program, costs $85 for a five-year membership. While some card companies and airlines offer free applications, most people do pay. Before you pay, it’s important to remember that if your application is denied for any reason, you don’t get your money back.

You won’t always find a Trusted Traveler line

Only about 120 airports have Pre-Check lines. Whether you actually find one at the airport you go to, then, is up to luck. Even if the airport you go to has one, it may not have it for every airline or at every terminal. Even you do encounter a Pre-Check line, it may not actually function. When the authorities feel at some point that there aren’t enough Known Travelers showing up to justify a dedicated line, they shut it down until many passengers show up.

Being a Known Traveler may not mean anything

Planned randomization is one of the most confusing parts of the Trusted Traveler system. To thwart potential troublemakers who manage to con their way into the Trusted Traveler system, the TSA’s inspectors will often send Known Travelers to a standard line, and, at times, bump up unvetted passengers to expedited Known Traveler lines.

Many new Known Travelers miss an important detail — unless you submit your Known Traveler ID number to the airline at the time of making your reservation, the logo won’t appear on your boarding pass, and it can be harder to get into a Known Traveler line.

You may find out that you signed up to the wrong program

Pre-Check, which is run by the TSA, isn’t the only trusted traveler program. There are other competing companies. Clear is one of these companies and is far easier to sign up to than Pre-Check.  The company only has lanes at 20 airports around the country, however. One upside is the tie-up that Clear has with Yankee Stadium. If you’re a New York baseball fan, you’ll appreciate the expedited admission that membership allows you.

If you live near the Canadian border (on either side of the border), you have the option to sign up as a Known Traveler through the Nexus program. Those who sign up only to pay $50, and get Pre-Check and Global Entry (for international travelers), all thrown in. The downside is, you can only sign up if you live in a northern border state.

Is the Trusted Traveler program a good idea?

For frequent travelers, signing up does make sense. It’s important to research the options available, however. You wouldn’t want to spend money on the wrong program.