When I think of depressingly long lines, several major U.S. airports are top of my travel list: those in Orlando, Las Vegas and Newark, New Jersey. I’ve seen lines there that can suck the magic out of your family’s travel day in a hurry.
While some things about air travel – like delays and cancellations – are out of your control, there are many things you can do to avoid travel-day headaches when flying with kids.
Here are my tips to get through busy airports as quickly as possible when the family is along for the ride.
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Get PreCheck and Clear (and maybe Global Entry)
First and foremost, if you don’t already have TSA PreCheck, please do yourself a favor and rectify that as soon as possible.
Getting through security gets so much easier when everyone in your family has access to PreCheck. The time it takes to secure five years of PreCheck will be worth it the second you see a long TSA security line that you can skip for the (usually) shorter and faster PreCheck line. Your kids can piggyback with you through PreCheck until they turn 13 years old, at which point they must have their own PreCheck approval.
Once you are approved for TSA PreCheck and have your Trusted Traveler number in hand, enter it with your other reservation information so you can get the invaluable PreCheck designation on your boarding pass.
If you are planning some international travel, you may want to opt for Global Entry over TSA PreCheck to expedite your time spent in immigration and customs upon re-entry to the U.S.
Every person in your family, regardless of age, will need to sign up for Global Entry (and pay the $100 application fee) to use the benefits. It’s money well spent as Global Entry also includes TSA PreCheck, so you’ll reap the benefits of both programs.
Speaking of security and children, make sure you prepare your kids to answer a few questions such as their names, age and relationship to the adults in the traveling party.
And then there is Clear, an expedited identity verification program that uses biometrics to get you through the airport even faster.
With Clear, children under 18 who are traveling with a Clear member can go through the Clear lane without needing to sign up for an account. If you are traveling with family members over 18, you can add them to your Clear account for a discounted annual rate (up to three family members total).
A very large number of rewards credit cards will reimburse your $85-$100 TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fees. Some examples of eligible cards include Chase Sapphire Reserve, The Platinum Card® from American Express and the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card.
Don’t check bags
Flying with just carry-on bags will spare you potentially long lines to check your bag and avoids any lengthy wait at baggage claim when you land. The line to check a bag with some airlines, such as Southwest and Spirit, can be as long as 90 minutes at Orlando Airport on the busiest days.
That is not something you want to deal with before starting a long travel day home.
It’s easier than you might think to be “Team Carry-On” when traveling with kids.
First, strollers, car seats and booster seats do not count against your carry-on baggage allotment on most airlines. Also remember that if you are traveling as a family of four, you can bring a carry-on for each person (even if they aren’t old enough to carry it themselves just yet).
I know it’s not always realistic to pack everything you need in carry-on bags, especially when traveling with multiple young children, but if you can pull it off, you will be glad you did.
If you have to check a bag, use automated kiosks or curbside check-in
If you absolutely must check a bag — and I get it, we’ve been there — check to see if your airport and airline has automated bag tag kiosks, as those lines can be much, much shorter.
Since checked bags are free with Southwest, that airline often has the longest bag check lines. Here is a list of Southwest airports that now have the self-tagging kiosks.
Another option we use frequently when we must check bags, especially during peak travel times, is to use the skycap service at curbside check-in. If you get dropped off at the curb, you can use curbside check-in and the skycap (it’s customary to tip them) will make sure you don’t have to deal with your bags for one extra step.
Not only that, but the lines for curbside check-in can be much lower than inside the airport. Again, the expectation here is that you will tip a few dollars, but that will likely be money very well spent.
Bring a travel-friendly stroller
You don’t want to be that parent holding up the security line because you can’t figure out how to fold your stroller and maneuver it through the X-ray machine. Depending on your child’s age and your destination, leaving the stroller behind may be out of the question, but some strollers are more travel friendly than others.
Travel-friendly strollers should be lightweight and easy to fold. Before heading to the airport, make sure you know how to fold it up securely and fit it through the security scanner.
Remember you’ll need to take all of your belongings (including your child) out of the stroller when it’s time to go through security.
Know your lounge access
Once you make it through airport check-in and security, hopefully the worst is behind you. But overly crowded gate areas are rarely pleasant with a family. Many of the same rewards credit cards that will cover the cost of your Global Entry or PreCheck application fees will also get you into a variety of airport lounges around the world.
The American Express Centurion lounges are among my favorite domestic lounges, especially when they have family rooms. Many rewards credit cards provide access to the Priority Pass Select network of lounges. The Capital One Lounge network, while still small, is another excellent option when you are at an eligible location.
The number of guests you are permitted for no additional charge with Priority Pass Select membership varies based on which rewards credit card is tied to the membership — with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the number of guests is unlimited. This means your whole family can take a break from the busy terminal and enjoy complimentary snacks and drinks without waiting in a long Starbucks line.
You can use the LoungeBuddy site to check which lounges are available in the airports you are transiting, or head straight to the Priority Pass Select site if you will be using that membership to escape the crowds. It not only provides access to airport lounges around the world, but has a growing number of airport restaurants you can eat at using your membership.
If your flight is delayed or canceled, an agent in the lounge can typically help you get rebooked instead of you standing in a long line in the terminal. If you don’t have lounge access, purchasing a lounge day pass has saved the day for TPG reporter Sean Cudahy.
Be prepared to keep kids busy
Sometimes, even the best-laid plans go sideways. These tips are meant to get you through the airport quickly, but if you find yourself stuck due to cancellations or delays, you’ll need some tricks to pass the time.
Some airports have indoor play areas where your kids can let off steam before having to sit still for a flight.
These play areas are great ways to pass the time in the airport when you have younger kids. It doesn’t take much to make a toddler, preschooler, or even younger elementary kid happy in an airport as long as there is something to do.
If you are in an airport without a play area, pack a few card games, art supplies or toys (or all three). If you are lucky, you won’t even need them.
There’s no way around the fact that everything takes just a little bit longer when kids are involved, including getting through the airport.
Luckily, there are things you can do to speed up the process and get to your destination or back home as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Additional reporting by Tarah Chieffi.
Featured photo by Andrea Bacle Photography.