Photo via josephdepalma/Flickr

The best flight hacks and tips to cut down your wait time

Here's how to skip the long lines once and for all.


Amrita Khalid


Published Jun 11, 2016   Updated May 26, 2021, 3:22 pm CDT

An improved economy and cheaper fuel costs means more people can afford air travel, and airfare is cheaper than usual. 

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If you’re waiting for a catch, here it is: Everyone and their mother will be at the airport the next time you’re waiting to check-in. And I mean everyone. Endless lines to get through security, overbooked flights, and inflexible airlines are just some of the many daily realities of air travel in 2016. Cheap airfare can also carry hidden fees for everything from carry-on baggage to food to headphones. Staff cuts have further contributed to unbearable TSA wait times at most large airports around the nation, although the agency has promised to hire more officers

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Luckily, there’s a way to navigate around the day-to-day miseries of air travel. Here are some hacks to make your next trip less miserable and maybe even (dare I say it) pleasant. 

1) Download your airlines’ mobile app 

Your airline’s mobile app is a valuable time-saver for more reasons than you’d expect. There’s the obvious benefit of being able to check-in with and use your smartphone as a boarding pass. This can shave off precious minutes you’d waste waiting in line at a kiosk, checking-in with an agent, or digging through your belongings for your paper ticket. Most apps save your boarding pass for you or allow you to save it to your iPhone‘s Passbook; a lifesaver given that the free Wi-Fi and cell service at most airports are less than stellar. You don’t want to be stuck trying to pull up your email at security or before boarding a plane. 

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But there’s an even greater advantage to your airline’s mobile app: You’ll get the quickest notification of gate changes and flight status updates. If your connecting flight is delayed or there’s been a gate change, apps like Delta Airline’s FlyDelta or American Airline’s mobile app will send you an update by text message and change the information on your mobile ticket. No need to frantically hunt for an arrivals/departure screen once you disembark. 

2) Consider applying for Pre-Check or Global Entry

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Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check are like the airport’s version of Disney World’s Fast Pass. If you’ve ever longingly glanced at the empty TSA Pre-Check line at the airport, you’ve no doubt wondered what the requirements could be for such a vaulted perk. 

Luckily, the application process for TSA Pre-Check (domestic airports only) and Global Entry are both pretty simple. If you have a U.S. passport or permanent resident card and have a clean criminal history, you’re eligible to apply. You’ll have to shell out $85 for TSA Pre-Check or a mere $15 more for Global Entry, but the clearance lasts for five years. Both programs have a relatively simple online application where you’ll give your employment history and other personal information. A 15-minute interview at your nearest Global Entry office (most U.S. airports have one) is required; that’s where you’ll be photographed and fingerprinted. You’ll receive an identification number in the mail in a couple of weeks.

Congrats! Long airport security lines are now a thing of the past. 

Is TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry worth it? According to Travel and Leisure’s Stephanie Wu: 

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“The last time I flew internationally into JFK, I went from my airplane seat to the back of a taxi in less than 25 minutes. (And yes, I was flying coach, so the majority of that time was deplaning.) Do I really need to say anything more?”

3) Get an estimate of wait times with Miflight 

Have you ever rushed to get ready on the morning of a flight only to discover the airport is practically empty when you get there? MiFlight crowdsources wait-time estimates from other travelers to give you an idea of how long the wait will be at security. Depending on large your nearest airport’s user base is, this app could prove to come in quite handy and prevent you from over-estimating how early you need to get to the airport. The app allows you to specify your exact terminal and gate number so it can target your exact security checkpoint. 

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4) Whiz through customs with the Mobile Passport

You’ll never have to borrow a pen to fill out those pesky customs forms ever again. If you don’t want to pay for Global Entry, the Mobile Passport app by U.S. Customs and Border Protection is a great free alternative that might end up saving you as much time. The app lets you input your passport details and answer the customs questions once you land. You’ll be able to skip the regular line and go through a special line just for Mobile Passport holders. 

5) Vent your frustration with the #iHatetheWait hashtag

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If all else fails and you’re stuck in a long security line, there’s only one real solution: Vent on social media. Thanks to airline industry group Airlines for American, frustrated travelers have been tweeting photos of the epic long lines at airports across the country. 

The goal is to bring the long wait times to the TSA’s attention and alert other travelers of what’s to come. Think of it as performing a public service that might remove some of the pain of standing in a long line.

6) Skip the long line to check-in your baggage and gate-check your bags for free

Most airlines charge you $25-$30 dollars to check-in baggage. Most passengers (very rightly) think this fee is ridiculous and avoid checking-in any baggage. The end-result is the overhead compartments being full by the time the last passengers board the plane. To remedy this problem, airlines will then gate-check the remaining bags to their final destination  for free. 

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Instead of holding on to your bag with a death-grip, just give it up already! Admit it: It’s no fun hoisting a rollie the weight of a third-grader above your head while avoiding hitting other passengers. It’s also no fun holding other people up when the plane lands as you attempt to retrieve your baggage. If you check your bag, you’ll be able to leave the plane as soon as the pilot gives the OK. 

The best way of ensuring that your bag gets gate-checked is to meander around the airport until the last five minutes of your boarding time. You want to make sure you’re among the last passengers to board the plane. Kill time by speed-reading the latest Game of Thrones book at the airport bookstore or ordering another beer at the airport bar. Once you’re done, grab your rollie and make a beeline for the gate. The airline employee will congratulate you on not missing your flight and relieve you of your bag. 

One downside to this method is the wait at baggage claim. Luckily, you’ve already arrived at your final destination and can use that time to catch up on emails, make travel arrangements, or use the bathroom. Unlike the line to get through security, baggage claim is a free area where you can roam and do what you wish. Go nuts. 

7) Know your rights if your flight is cancelled, delayed or bumped

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Overbooked flights are more common during busy seasons like summer and the holidays, where you’ll find that few passengers want to miss their flight back home or to Disney World. Airhelp is a startup that assists passengers in receiving compensation from airlines for bumped, delayed, or cancelled flights in the European Union. If you’re traveling abroad in Europe, be sure to file a free claim with AirHelp

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has stiffened the rules for what airlines must offer passengers if their flights are cancelled, delayed or if they are involuntarily bumped—to the passenger’s benefit. If you’re involuntarily bumped in the United States and the airline rebooks you on a flight that gets you to your destination by at least an hour later, you could be entitled to anywhere from 200 to 400 percent of your original fare in cash or by check, as well as a full refund. 

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Unfortunately, airlines are not required to compensate passengers for flights that get cancelled or delayed due to bad weather according to DOT. If this happens to you, ask your airline if they will cover the cost of another flight. Some airlines will endorse you if you find an alternate flight from another airline that gets you to your final destination on time. There’s no DOT rule asking them to do this, so prepare to get told no. 

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*First Published: Jun 11, 2016, 8:00 am CDT