How to zip through airport security with confidence

The airport security line can seem by turns tedious, nerve-wracking and frustrating.

You may start out in a long, slow-moving procession — but then suddenly you’re thrust into rush mode, hustling to remove your shoes and laptop before passengers behind you get annoyed. Next, you’re shooed through a body scanner or metal detector, randomly pulled aside for a more thorough search, or both.

It can be a major hassle. But you can make your trip less stressful by following these tips for an expedited security process.

Before you go

First things first: If you’re a serious or even occasional traveler, consider applying for TSA PreCheck. This program, offered via the Transportation Security Administration, allows customers to access a special security line that requires less intrusive screening, meaning they can keep more of their personal items on (or in their bags). Note that PreCheck is included if you apply for the TSA’s Global Entry program, which expedites your trip through customs when flying home from an international trip. There’s a fee to join these programs, although some travel credit cards will reimburse the cost.

» MORE: What every first-time flyer needs to know

If, however, you’re not interested in paying such a fee, or you don’t travel by air enough to justify it, here are some tips to keep in mind before you head to the airport.

  • Double-check the pockets of anything you’re carrying on. If you use your bags for things besides air travel — camping or road trips, for example — make sure you haven’t left any prohibited items in the nooks and crannies, such as knives, certain scissors, defense sprays or large liquid toiletries. If airport security finds these items, you’ll be slowed down by a more thorough security screening and may wind up having to either ship the offending object or throw it away.
  • Prep your TSA-friendly liquids. Generally, any bottle larger than 3.4 ounces is prohibited, although some liquids (alcohol, for example) are forbidden entirely. If your bottles all meet the criteria, pack them in one quart-sized plastic bag, and place that on top of everything else in your carry-on. You’ll need to take the bag out before you put your luggage on the conveyor belt for an X-ray, and the process will go faster if you don’t have to dig around for it.
  • Think about your toiletries. You can seek out travel-size bottles, or you can sidestep the issue entirely — shampoo, conditioner, lotion, perfume, sunscreen and toothpaste can all be purchased in solid form. Skip the trouble of transferring all your personal-care items into acceptable containers and look for toiletries that you can pack as-is.
  • Wear slip-on shoes with socks. This one’s a no-brainer: Shoes with buckles, straps and laces take much longer to remove and put back on than do slip-on shoes. Opt for a pair you can wear with socks if you don’t like the idea of walking barefoot on an airport floor.
  • Don’t wear pullover sweaters or too many bulky layers. TSA agents need to see the outline of your body, so if you’re wearing any heavy outer layers, you’ll almost certainly be asked to remove them. Make it easy on yourself by wearing just one soft, thick layer that zips or buttons up.
  • Avoid wearing metal accessories like belts. The more metal you put on, the more you’ll have to take off when you get to the body scanner.
  • Book flights for slower travel times. Avoid the rush of people who travel during peak times, especially Friday and Sunday evenings or around major holidays. Flying at off-peak times will likely save you money, too.

At the airport

Things often tend to get hectic no matter how early you arrive at the airport, so you may not have time to make too many adjustments on the fly. But there are a few things you can do to help yourself.

  • Make your travel documents easy to access. The security line might seem interminable, but eventually you will reach a TSA agent, and he or she will need to see your boarding pass and an official photo ID. So while you’re waiting and before you get too distracted, have those items ready to present.
  • Read the TSA signage as you wait in line. Each airport will provide reminders along the way about how to prepare your personal items for the X-ray, as well as what you need to take off before your walk through the scanner. Even if you think you’re familiar with the rules, read the signs anyway to check for new policies that may have been enacted since you last visited the airport.
  • Scope out the best conveyor-belt line. If there’s more than one entry point through security, do a quick scan of your fellow travelers and look for people who are being as efficient as you are. Ideally, you’ll be behind someone who is wearing slip-on shoes, has his or her belongings neatly organized and is already prepared to hand over travel documents. That person is likely to get through the line quickly, and that means you will, too, if you’re next in line.
  • Be friendly and polite with the airport staff. Airport staff members have to deal with hundreds of cranky, frustrated people every day. By approaching them with a friendly disposition, you can make your airport visit more pleasant, and they might be more likely to help you with any issues as you go through security.

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