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The no-hassle travel trifecta

ClearLines

Airport security lines could swell at SFO. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

With sequester-mandated budget cuts at the TSA (and the possibility of delays at understaffed security checkpoints) giving frequent travelers and the media the heebee-geebees, now is the time for BATs to invest in what I call the “no-hassle travel trifecta.”

This tripartite plan for avoiding airport bottlenecks involves signing up for three tools that will help you sail through airport lines with a smile: CLEAR, Global Entry and PreCheck.

1) CLEAR Card- $179 per year.

CLEAR, which operates at SFO as well as airports in Dallas/Ft Worth, Denver, New York-Westchester County and Orlando, provides guaranteed access to the front of the standard security lines (even ahead of those in airline elite level lines) for an annual fee of $179.

Members still have to remove shoes, laptops, etc. There are CLEAR lanes at all entrances at all terminals, including international, at SFO.  CLEAR’s biggest selling point is that it guarantees access to the front of the line—and this certainty about the airport experience is very valuable to time-pressed frequent travelers. Over the last few months, lines have been so short at SFO that I’ve not had to use my CLEAR card… but the few times it saved me from 20-30 minute waits have made it worth the $179 fee.

While CLEAR won’t reveal how many subscribers it has, this week it said that cardholders have sped through airport security one million times over the last two years. (Click here for a free two-month trial of CLEAR.)

2) Global Entry - $100 for five years

Directional signs to Global Entry kiosks at SFO

Directional signs to Global Entry kiosks at SFO

Last month, I arrived at SFO from Puerto Vallarta at about the same time that two full jumbos jets from Asia arrived. Waits at immigration queues were 30-45 minutes—the entire arrivals hall was packed. With Global Entry, I was able to sneak off to a special queue, and along with a handful of other savvy travelers, use one of four Global Entry kiosks… and ended up getting to the airport curb in less than five minutes. The friends I was traveling with were not amused!

To get a Global Entry card, you must fill out an online application, and then appear at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office at SFO for a personal interview, and allow agents to take a photo and few biometric measures. The $100 fee is good for five years. Last year, United Airlines began reimbursing the fee for “premier priority” Mileage Plus members. The American Express Platinum card does the same. As a result of these incentives, I have learned from BAT readers that the current wait time for an interview at the CBP office is 2-4 months! And if sequester cuts kick in, waits could be even longer.

According to CBP, more than 1.4 million trusted travelers now have Global Entry benefits. SFO is one of 34 airports in the United Sates and 10 pre-clearance locations in Canada and Ireland with Global Entry kiosks. In Australia, Global Entry cardholders can now use the country’s SmartGate kiosks for expedited immigration processing. Sign up here: www.globalentry.gov

3) PreCheck (Free for Global Entry cardholders, elite flyers) 

Precheck logo TMPreCheck offers certain high mileage frequent flyers access to special, faster lanes at airport security that do not require them to remove their shoes, belts or coats, or take their laptops out of their bags for screening. At SFO, there are only two PreCheck lanes: One at United’s premium or elite level member checkpoint (“F3”) in Terminal 3; the other at the joint American/Virgin America checkpoint at Terminal 2. Both PreCheck lanes are located on the far left side of the checkpoints. There are no PreCheck lanes at the international terminal checkpoints because PreCheck is for domestic passengers only.

In order to be able to use PreCheck lanes at SFO, you must be a US citizen, opt in to an invitation from United or American or request an invitation from United here (requires Mileage Plus sign in).  American Airlines AAdvantage members can opt in here.

In addition all Global Entry, Nexus and other card-carrying trusted travelers that hold special clearance from US Customs and Border Protection (see above) are eligible for PreCheck. For the process to work, be sure to enter your Global Entry number on your airline frequent flier program profile.

The most important thing to know about PreCheck is that selection is random—which means that even of you have obtained PreCheck status, you are NOT guaranteed access to the PreCheck lane. You will only know that you are selected for the PreCheck lane when you arrive at airport security and allow the agent to scan your boarding pass or smart phone. Three beeps from the scanner means that you can proceed to the PreCheck lane. One beep means that you must enter the (likely longer) non-PreCheck line for standard screening. For security reasons, the TSA will not reveal its selection criteria.

Do YOU have the no-hassle travel trifecta yet? Please leave your comments below. 

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✈ Bypassing security lines with CLEAR at SFO

CLEAR lanes are fast lanes at SFO security (Photo taken June 25)

Did you know that July is the busiest month of the year for air travel? As summer crowds begin to swell at SFO, frequent travelers are increasingly facing longer than expected lines at security… except for those who subscribe to the $179 CLEAR card, which cranked up operations at SFO in May.

From the looks of this photo, regular security lines during peak summer season are becoming reliably long, while CLEAR lines are reliably short…or even non-existent.

CLEAR is not revealing how many new subscribers it has in the Bay Area right now- the only number I could coax out of them was that members had used CLEAR lanes 600,000 times since the service re-started in 2010. The company also claims that 80% of its users in Denver and Orlando have returned since the company re-opened CLEAR lanes at airports in those cities. Prior to shutting down in 2009, CLEAR had 40,000 members in the Bay Area.

See the quiet CLEAR line at the bottom of this photo?

Currently, CLEAR has cranked up service in Orlando, Denver, San Francisco and just this week at Terminal E at Dallas Ft Worth. While it says it is working on getting back into other airports, it won’t name names.

To convince more of us to jump for the $179 annual subscription, CLEAR has started to layer on extras meant to appeal to frequent travelers. For example, they are offering a free one-year gold membership to the Regus network of workspaces and offices around the world. New members can also get a free three-month trial of of TripIt Pro, a service that helps travelers consolidate and keep track of their travel reservations. They are also offering free two-month trial memberships to those who have never been CLEAR members before.

Even with airline elite status, security lines are still rather unpredictable, especially in airline hub cities with a lot of frequent flyers (i.e. United hubs here at SFO or in Denver) so CLEAR execs are heavily promoting how having a CLEAR card provides predictability and no surprises when it comes to airport security. For a busy business traveler, this means leaving for the airport at the last minute and knowing that you won’t face a long wait at airport security.

Is that peace of mind worth $179 a year? Are airport security lines still a hassle or headache for you? Have your tried or re-activated your CLEAR membership? I’m waiting to renew mine until my heavy travel schedule kicks in this September. What about you? Please leave your comments below! 

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