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Spending Smart: Are airport security fast lanes worth your money?

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

September 9, 2014


Convenience vs. cash. We pay for all sorts of services to avoid hassle and stress. Should paying for TSA Precheck to speed through airport security screening be one of them?

Maybe.

But there are things to know before you decide. For example, you might not want to apply for Precheck itself but instead Global Entry, which gets you all of the benefits of Precheck in addition to expedited re-entry through customs for little extra cost.

Frequent traveler Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com, is a proponent of applying for quicker screening. He qualifies for Precheck through his Global Entry status.

"Precheck is an amazing concept," he said. "I get through security in under four minutes usually and on a consistent basis."

As anybody who has flown in the past dozen-plus years knows, security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however necessary, has been an aggravation for fliers. More rigorous security screening means longer, slower lines.

The basic bargain with Precheck is that you give the government information about yourself, submit to a background check and get preapproved as a low-risk traveler. It issues you a "known traveler number" that you use on your reservation and in your frequent-flier accounts. Youíre then very likely to get Precheck status for the vast majority of your flights, with a Precheck indicator printed on your boarding pass.

That means you can go through Precheck airport security lanes with lighter screening: no taking off shoes or belt, no removing your laptop from its case, no taking out your liquids and gels from your carry-on.

And most of the time, it means a significantly quicker line. Less than five minutes is the goal set by the Transportation Security Administration. "We can put 30 passengers through a TSA Precheck lane in less than five minutes; you canít do that in a standard lane," said TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein.

TSA Precheck launched to the general public in December, and in its first nine months enrolled more than half a million travelers, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Its speed lanes are available at 118 U.S. airports.

Here are questions and answers to help you decide whether Precheck is worth the money and effort.

What does it cost? A Precheck application costs $85 for five years. Thatís $17 a year or $1.42 per month. Ultimately, only you can decide whether that monetary cost is worth it.

"I guess itís how you value your time," Kelly said. "The ease of it alone, to me, is almost incalculable."

More practically, over five years Precheck might mean the difference once or twice between catching a flight and enduring the stress of missing one, he said.

What is Global Entry? Global Entry costs a little more ó a $100 application fee instead of $85, also for five years. But it includes expedited screening during international travel. On the way back into the U.S., you can use a kiosk that should be far faster than traditional customs inspection lines.

One key difference is, you need a passport to apply for Global Entry.

Note that application fees for both programs are nonrefundable, even if you are denied enrollment.

Is enrolling a hassle? Probably, especially for Global Entry. You need to apply and pay online and schedule an in-person appointment, bringing with you an ID and submitting to fingerprinting. There are far more interview locations for Precheck, more than 300, than for Global Entry, which mostly has locations at international airports.

And for Global Entry, it might be weeks before you can get an appointment for a formal interview, while you can walk in to most Precheck centers.

In my case of applying for Global Entry, I found the online application tedious but doable. Iím fortunate that the enrollment office at OíHare International Airport in Chicago is on my way home from work, and I was able to get an appointment in a matter of days. The interview for me was quick and easy, not intimidating.

Apply online for Precheck at tinyurl.com/precheckapp. Apply for Global Entry at tinyurl.com/globaleapp.

Any downside to the fast lane? A practical drawback of Precheck can be the people youíre traveling with. If they donít have Precheck and youíre traveling together, you might find yourself waiting on the other side for your family or friends.

Can my children accompany me in the Precheck lane? Yes, children 12 and younger.

Do all airlines and airports offer Precheck? No, but all the major airlines and airports do. For lists of 11 airlines and 118 airports, go to tsa.gov/tsa-precheck.

Precheck or Global Entry? For anybody who lives near one of the Global Entry interview centers and already has a passport, it makes sense to pay $100 for Global Entry instead of $85 for Precheck.

Note that Precheck is a program of the TSA, while Global Entry and other trusted traveler programs fall under U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Even the TSA spokesman says Global Entry is a "great deal."

Can I pay less? You can pay just $50 to get Global Entry privileges, and thus Precheck, through another trusted-traveler program, NEXUS, for Canada border crossing. But the interview will be at one of the northern border-crossing facilities. So, applying only makes sense if you live near a northern border or will be traveling through and can coordinate the interview time with your travel plans. SENTRI, a border-crossing program for Mexico, gets the same benefit but costs the most, a total of $122.25 for five years.

To compare the programs: dhs.gov/comparison-chart.

Can I get free Global Entry? Maybe. You might get the Precheck and Global Entry fee reimbursed if you have one of the pricier credit cards and charge the fee to it. Examples are the American Express Platinum and Citi Prestige cards. If you have elite status with an airline, you might get reimbursed. Delta Air Lines Diamond Medallion and United Airlines 1K fliers are examples.

Is privacy a concern? A huge drawback for some people will be supplying information about yourself to the government. And part of the application requires fingerprinting. Thatís a philosophical decision for consumers, not a monetary one.

Kelly said heís not concerned. "You can get my flight history in return for getting me through the airport and saving me hundreds of hours of my life waiting in lines," he said.

Anything else? Use your number. Donít go through the expense and hassle of getting Precheck or Global Entry and not get the benefit. Your known traveler number, called a PASSID with Global Entry, doesnít guarantee you Precheck every time, but you should get it the vast majority of times.

But you must log in to your frequent-flier accounts and enter your number into your profile, so the next time your buy a ticket your boarding pass will be labeled with Precheck and you can use the expedited security lanes. (If you donít have a frequent-flier account, enter it into your individual reservation.)