In this post, you’ll learn pro-traveler tips for getting through airport security fast. With a few adjustments to your carry-on packing, clothing, and approach to the process, you’ll learn how to get through security and on to the good parts of traveling with less time and less stress.
The Worst Part of a Vacation- Hopefully
Airport security lines can easily be the worst part of a vacation- In fact, it may be a sign of a well-planned and smooth vacation if airport security is the worst part of your trip! At my home airport of Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle, TSA security checkpoints often take over an hour to get through- and this is true in many airports in larger cities around the world. (Once, in Berlin, security lines took a full 2.5 hours to clear, landing me at my gate only moments before the boarding gate closed!)
When you arrive at security in most airports, you’ll be tasked with finding the end of a long, snaking line of travelers waiting to get through the same checkpoint. While traveling at off-times may raise hopes of a quick trip through a security checkpoint with no lines, this is rarely the case. Instead, airports have multiple TSA security checkpoints and, during low volume travel times, may close down all but one point, resulting in a very long line to get to your gate to catch your red-eye flight.
Once you wait through the line and make it to the actual security checkpoint, you’ll be tasked with quickly removing almost everything on you except for your basic layer of clothing. You have to remove your shoes, your jacket, most jewelry, sunglasses, hats, and remove anything from your pockets. You’ll place all of this with your carry-on items, liquids, and electronics on the belt to be screened by TSA workers as the crowd of waiting passengers looks on.
For many people, this whole process- including the subsequent x-rays, body scanners, potential pat-downs, and your bags being flagged or randomly selected to be opened by security guards at the airport- is a bigger hassle than it has to be. It sounds like a nightmare, we know. That’s why we’ve put together this list to help get you through airport security fast.
If you want to get through those lines quickly and efficiently, follow these suggestions below.
Strategies for Getting Through Airport Security & to Your Gate Faster
Don’t dress to impress.
The most important rule of thumb when flying (especially if you’ll be trying to sleep on a plane) is to dress comfortably. Think of it like this, you’ll be traveling for a long time, so wear your favorite sweatpants or leggings, or your most comfortable outfit. It’s also a good idea to dress in layers, in case your flight runs hot or cold.
While you may want to have your coat with you during your fight, you don’t want to wrestle it into a bin during security screening. Wearing or holding a heavy, thick jacket will stifle your progress at the security check lines and slow you down. Instead, place it inside of a bag or even temporarily inside the reusable tote I always put on my universal packing list.
Pro tip: Even winter bulky coats do not count against your total carryon allowance, so if your luggage is bursting, a good strategy is to board your flight wearing a winter parka that just maaaybe has pockets stuffed full of odds and ends from luggage you struggled to fit in your suitcase) Place your coat inside your backpack or luggage if at all possible.
Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off.
The vast majority of the time (unless you’ve opted for premium security pre-clearance) airport security will make you take off your shoes to pass through security.
Don’t slow down the line with laces! The easiest and quickest way to get through this portion of the security check line is to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Flip flops, slip-on sneakers, flats, loafers, and even my beloved Blundstone boots do the trick better than anything with laces. Wearing these kinds of shoes to the airport is a timesaver. Plus, you won’t have to bear the irritated looks from hundreds of other people waiting behind you in line for their turn at security.
Check your bags and pack light.
If you do decide to take a carry-on bag with you- or to travel with your entire packing list in one carryon bag– make sure it’s small, light, easy to carry, and light enough to lift overhead if needed.
If you are also checking a bag, then your carry-on should only include essentials that you will need during the flight and a few things too important to place in checked baggage (like important documents, devices, prescriptions, and a change of clothes).
Having minimal carry one bags that are lightweight can make airport security checks much faster.
Advice for Plus Size Travelers at Security Checkpoints:
A few years ago, I noticed that when I traveled in jeans I’d often be flagged for random pat-downs. Noticing that the security personnel were particularly concerned about something the body scanners had flagged at the front of my waist, I tried a new strategy. In what could be considered a microaggression of modern technology,
I discovered that the metallic button & fly on my jeans, perhaps combined with the roundness of my belly apparently stumped the body scanners’ algorithms and flagged security pat downs. Since I have (1) begun flying in leggings only and (2) arching my back to proudly stick out my belly when posing for airport security body scanners, I’ve not been flagged for a pat-down.
Heavy metal might be cool, but not at the airport.
Every airport (and many train and bus stations, especially in Europe) will include a pass through a metal detector. To get through the metal detector portion of airport security faster, the best thing you can do is remove all of your metal items before the security checkpoint or just simply don’t wear them to the airport.
Remove your belt, jewelry, keys, and any other metal objects and have them ready to be put in a bin and scanned by security. If you have metal in your pockets, the alarm on the metal detector will go off and you will be holding up the line delaying yourself and everyone else.
To speed through security even faster, simply pack all your metal essentials in a pocket of your carryon, and don’t put them on until you’ve reached the other side of security.
Keep toiletries and beauty items in a separate plastic bag.
This is possibly one of the most important tips to keep in mind if you want to seamlessly move through airport security checkpoints.
Picture this: You’ve just left your spa vacation in the beautiful foreign country of your choice but you’ve packed the new body lotions you bought at the resort at the bottom of your carry-on bag, and they are over 3.4 ounces.
This is a huge mistake and a costly one. You will have to dig through the bag and throw out anything over 3.4 ounces. If you want to get through airport security fast, pack your toiletries in a clear plastic bag and make sure they are easily accessible. That way, if you get stopped at the checkpoint you won’t have to dig through a bunch of other stuff just to find that bottle of lotion all the way at the bottom.
Pack food items with care.
This one is pretty self-explanatory and follows similar guidelines as the above toiletries and beauty product rule. Keep your food sealed in a clear plastic bag, and be sure not to exceed the weight limit for food items by the rules of your airlines. Don’t try to sneak produce or live plants across borders where it’s forbidden, and make sure any food in liquid form is within the limits for liquids passing through TSA checkpoints.
Take out your laptops and iPad while you are in line
In most cases, every medium to large device in your carry-on luggage will need to be screened separately from your luggage. This means you need to remove your cell phone, laptops, tablert, and other devices. You will be asked to put them in the bins and they will be examined by airport security and viewed through X-ray machines.
Don’t wait until you get to the x-ray machines and scanners to take the electronics out. Have them in your hands as you reach the front of the line and, to prevent theft, keep your eye on them the whole time.
Sign up for TSA PreCheck.
TSA PreCheck has been around since 2011 and it’s a great way for frequent travelers to get through airport security fast in almost every airport in the USA. When you sign up for TSA PreCheck you will be able to get through airport security in about 5 minutes- often less! Applying online is a really quick and easy process and even kids can enroll in this program. The fee is roughly $85, but your PreCheck membership lasts for five years and if time is money, that’s a pretty reasonable cost! You can easily renew online every five years. Read about TSA PreCheck FAQ here.
International Airport Security: Sign up for Global Entry.
I just recently joined the US’s global entry and the difference is amazing. For just about $15 more than TSA Pre-Check, Global Entry allows you to get through customs airport security checkpoints very fast and with ease and without standing in long lines for hours.
Global Entry is a US Customs and Border Protection program that permits pre-approved, low-risk passengers to undergo accelerated screening when entering the US via the SENTRI and NEXUS lanes, as well as automated kiosks at some airports. For international flight travelers entering the United States, Global Entry allows faster customs processing. As part of their subscription, Global Entry members automatically get access to all the benefits of TSA PreCheck. You can start an application online with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Avoid flying when everyone else is.
Avoiding busy times like Fridays and weekends can keep you out of those incredibly long TSA checkpoint lines. Fridays are always busy because people are traveling to get to their vacation destinations, or some are simply traveling home from strenuous company conferences or business matters of that nature. Try to fly during the weekdays when everyone is at work, and catch an early flight while everyone is still asleep. You’ll get through airport security fast and will be flying in no time!
Ask About Alternate Security Checkpoints.
Often, after checking in for your flight and dropping off checked baggage, you’ll automatically head to the nearest security checkpoint on your way to your gate. The problem is, 100’s of other passengers from your flight are probably doing the exact same thing in the exact same location around the same time.
While wandering off looking for a mythical second security checkpoint can take just as much time as you’d spend standing in line for the first one, you can save some time in security by asking an airline employee if they recommend a different security checkpoint and, if so, where you can find it. Relying on the expertise of airport staff is often one of the fastest ways to speed up time in airport security.
Have kids? Check their bag before you get to the airport.
Perhaps an obvious tip, it’s worth repeating. Traveling is hectic sometimes, especially when you’re headed to an airport with kids. If you have young kids, be sure to check their backpacks and mini suitcases for stowaways that could flag security (if you have kids, you know exactly how common it is to find random objects in their bags or pockets!)
Save yourself the hassle at the airport security checkpoint and take that fork out of their backpack! It also can’t hurt to have a conversation with your kids about how to behave in airport security, and why jokes about a bomb will be anything but a joke if they make your entire family miss a flight!
If you follow these tips, review the lists of what is not allowed in carry on luggage, and prepare yourself before you arrive at the airport, you should be able to get through airport security fast and in a breeze.
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by decades of experience on the road with a traveling family and, later, years spent as a solo international traveler. When she’s not writing about Seattle from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.