Modern aviation is quite miraculous in many ways. It wasn’t that long ago that the thought of routinely flying at 500 miles per hour at 40,000 feet would have been the stuff of science fiction. At that altitude, the air outside is too thin to breathe and it could be 60 degrees below freezing, but we’d think nothing wearing everyday street clothes during our journey through the stratosphere to our next business meeting.
Yet if there’s one aspect of air travel that’s gotten worse, it’s the hassle you face when passing through airport security. In the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has earned a reputation for its long lines and inefficient screening processes. In response, there are now three extra programs (with an additional fee) that you can join to bypass the main TSA checkpoints and possibly enjoy expedited screening at security and when arriving to the U.S.
Let’s take a look at these three programs and see which one is best for business travelers.
The TSA sells memberships in its PreCheck program that allows travelers to bypass the standard security screening and receive an expedited process. If you are old enough to remember what airport security was like before Sept. 11, then the PreCheck security program will seem familiar. Travelers can keep their light jackets and shoes on, and don’t need to remove their belts. You are also able to quickly walk through a standard metal detector rather than one of the large, slow and intrusive full-body scanners. Better yet, the PreCheck line allows you to leave your laptop and your liquids in your carry-on suitcase.
A five-year membership in the PreCheck program costs $85 and you can apply online. Then you’ll have to schedule a 10-minute, in-person appointment that includes a background check and fingerprinting. Once accepted, you’ll receive a Known Traveler Number (KTN) that you can add to your reservation with most airlines. After that, your boarding passes will indicated that you have access to the PreCheck line. PreCheck is available at more than 200 airports and the TSA claims that 97% of passengers using PreCheck experience a wait of five minutes or less.
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Global Entry is a program that’s operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. There’s a $100 application fee for this program, and your membership must be renewed every five years. Global Entry offers you expedited screening when entering the U.S. on a commercial aircraft, allowing you to avoid long lines that often force travelers to miss their connections. Global Entry also includes TSA PreCheck.
When entering the U.S., travelers with Global Entry don’t need to fill out any forms, they can go straight to a kiosk that reads their fingerprints, asks if they have anything to declare, and issues a receipt that can be quickly shown to a representative.
To apply for Global Entry, you must fill out a lengthy application and request an appointment for an interview at one of their airport offices. Unfortunately, these appointments are often unavailable for several months in advance.
CLEAR is a private company that provides expedited identity verification to access the TSA screening, either with or without PreCheck. Instead of inspecting your ID, CLEAR offers kiosks where travelers can be identified by their fingerprints or by using an iris scan. Once verified, travelers are then escorted past the TSA ID checkers to the screening process itself. If you qualify for PreCheck, you will go to that line. But even if you don’t, you’ll still bypass the long lines that other travelers face before reaching the standard screening area.
CLEAR is now at 24 major U.S. airports, although it’s not available at every screening checkpoint at each airport. In addition, CLEAR is also in use at several baseball fields around the country, to bypass the long lines for security before most games.
To get CLEAR, you can register online and then quickly finish your enrollment at airport that they serve. The full CLEAR membership is $179 per year, although any member of the Delta SkyMiles program can enroll for just $99 per year, and there is no charge to become a SkyMiles member. CLEAR also offers $79 preferential pricing for Delta SkyMiles Platinum, Gold and Silver Medallion members, and free enrollment for Delta Diamond Medallion members. You can add up to three additional family members for $50 each and children under 19 can use the CLEAR lane for free when traveling with a member.
Which One Should You Get?
As a business traveler, it’s vital to have access to the PreCheck line, as even infrequent travelers never know when they will face lengthy delays in the standard TSA lines. For domestic travel, it doesn’t matter if you have Global Entry with PreCheck, or PreCheck by itself. The cost difference is minimal, so the hassle of waiting for a Global Entry appointment might be reason enough for domestic travelers to just get PreCheck. But if you plan on traveling internationally, Global Entry is certainly worth the $15 premium beyond mere PreCheck access alone. It’s also nice to know that some credit cards, like the American Express Business Platinum, will reimburse cardholders for the Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee. In fact, this is a relatively common perk for some of the best business credit cards for travel. Often, the cards that offer this kind of perk carry an annual fee, but using the Global Entry or PreCheck reimbursement can be an easy way to make sure you’re getting the full value of the business credit card.
If you do decide to get a business credit card that advertises reimbursement of the Global Entry or PreCheck fees, it’s important to make sure you know the impact it will have on your credit. Most business credit cards are obtained using a personal guarantee from the cardholder. That means your personal credit instead of your business credit score will be what determines whether you get approved. (You can check your personal and business credit scores for free on Nav.) If you default on the card, most issuers will report that negative data on your personal credit report (you can check out a chart of issuer policies on this here).
The decision to purchase a CLEAR membership is more difficult. As the PreCheck program has become more popular, it’s not uncommon to have to wait in line for 10-15 minutes to be screened. Most of the time the line is small, but just the chance requires you to arrive at the airport early every time to ensure that you don’t miss your flight.
But when you have CLEAR, you can quickly skip to the front of the PreCheck line every single time. And if for some reason you don’t have PreCheck due to a random exclusion, you’ll still save time if you are a CLEAR member. But even at $99 per year for those with a (free) Delta SkyMiles membership, it still costs roughly five times what Global Entry or PreCheck does over the same five-year period.
To be certain, CLEAR isn’t a good substitute for Global Entry or PreCheck, but it’s a fantastic complement to either one. For business travelers who fly at least once a month, CLEAR allows you to arrive at the airport later, letting you save several hours a year of either waiting in lines, or at the gate. And if CLEAR gives you fast access to your local baseball stadium, so much the better.
By considering the advantages and drawbacks of each program, you can find the right combination for your business travel needs.