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April 2007
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How to Conquer Long Airport Lines
Text by Christopher Elliott    Photo by Sindre Ellingsen/Alamy
Photo: crowded airport
Crowded airports cause headaches for travelers.

Flying somewhere? Learn how to skirt those snaking lines.

Ditch the luggage. If you can fit all of your gear into your carry-on bag, don't bother checking in your luggage. If you can't, consider sending it by overnight delivery or use a shipping service such as Luggage Forward.  Or, hit the curb. Agents can not only check you in for your flight at curbside, and give you a seat assignment, but they can also handle your luggage, to a certain point (it still needs to be screened by TSA officers). A caveat: Some airlines charge for curbside check-in (about $2 per bag), and tips are not included. 

Try the kiosk. Most airlines offer self-service kiosks where you can get seat assignments and print boarding passes. Pay close attention to the row of these ATM-like machines, and you'll usually notice that there's no line (or a shorter one) to use them. That's because infrequent travelers—the folks normally standing in the long lines—still would rather talk to a ticket agent. But, surprise! The kiosks actually work. Most of the time.

Join a club. Belonging to an airline's frequent-flier program, and especially being an elite-level customer, can pay off. Airlines are quietly expanding the perks for their best travelers by adding separate lanes for check-in, screening, and boarding. To skirt the line at the car-rental counter, sign up with one of the rental companies' frequent-renter programs (such as Hertz #1 Club Gold). You can give the company your rental preferences in advance and go straight to the parking lot, where your car will be waiting for you. Keep in mind, however, that there may be strings attached to a club membership. Belonging to Hertz's program, for example, costs $50 a year and would not be worthwhile for infrequent renters.

Get your car a date. Most airport parking lots operate on a first-come, first-served basis. As they fill up, you could end up at a remote lot with infrequent shuttle service. Some private—and often less expensive—lots let you make advance reservations to set aside a spot for your vehicle (go online to a site such as Park 'N Fly). Or, drive right up and valet park your car at the airport (typically $20 to $30 a day).

Get registered. A fast way to get through a TSA checkpoint is to sign up for the new registered-traveler program, which at press time was up and running in
Orlando; Indianapolis; Cincinnati; San Jose, California; and New York's JFK (Terminal 7). The card gets you access to a designated security lane and even to your own concierge. But there's a cost—$100 a year.

Jump to the front of the line. Don't be so glum if you're randomly selected by the TSA for additional screening. Often (though not always) you actually get through the checkpoint faster. The reason? Selectees are often sent to the front of the queue, because their screening is thought to take longer. It doesn't always, though. If a member of your party is selected, consider joining them. (Alas, you can't request selectee status.)

Take off with take-out. Is there a way around that line at the airport restaurant? But of course. Ask for a take-out menu. Many full-service airport restaurants create take-out menus with an eye for speed. Some places, such as Chili's, even offer separate "To Go" windows.


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