Are you ready to return to travel during the age of COVID-19? We all know most destinations will require PCR tests before boarding, and wearing a mask is now part of our everyday routine. Even if you don’t plan to travel until the summer of 2021, here are eight helpful ways to remove the stress of returning to travel! Being purposeful and reminding yourself to be patient will be a good start before heading off on any journey. You can also prepare for a smoother airport experience with these tried and true tricks and tips to help fly through security checkpoints.
1) Expired Passports, Licenses, and REAL ID Extensions
The U.S. Passport offices shut down in March of this year due to the COVID19 pandemic. As of November 3, 2020, the U.S. Passport offices recently returned to processing passports with an option to expedite the process from a 10-12 week time frame to a 4-6 week time frame for an extra $60 fee. Now is a great time to renew if your passport expires sometime next year, and you want to be ready for the trip. See the link here for all the details!
All-State Registry of Motor Vehicles also closed in March 2020 because of COVID-19 restriction. TSA will accept a license expired after March 1, 2020, for one year after the expiration date as identification at a security checkpoint. Have you heard of a REAL ID license and wonder if you have one? Every air traveler 18 years of age and older will need a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or another acceptable form of I.D. to fly within the United States, beginning October 1, 2021. Look for a star located in the upper corner of the card, which signifies a REAL ID. Contact your state’s Motor Vehicle Department Service (DMV,BMV,RMV,MVS) to find out more about Real ID requirements.
2) Common Traveler Programs: TSA Pre-Check, Global Entry, and CLEAR
Whether you fly domestically from an airport in the U.S. or travel internationally, CLEAR and TSA PreCheck are both time savers and help get you through security faster. Global Entry is an additional program for passport control that expedites your journey when returning home from a trip abroad. If you fly at least two or three times a year, Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck membership, so it’s worth the time and investment to sign up for all three programs. How each program works:
Global Entry provides U.S. citizens and citizens of some foreign countries re-entry into the U.S. using an expedited process at kiosks during the re-entry process of immigration. I.D. holders get to skip the re-entry paperwork and long processing lines. You will still need to interact, of course, with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent. Enrollment requires an application, interview, and a $100 fee. It often takes several months to get an interview appointment (made longer by COVID-19 restrictions), so take advantage of the lull in travel and sign up for the program here.
TSA PreCheck allows passengers an expedited security experience in hundreds of U.S. airports. Once approved through the program, you receive a known passenger number for your airline reservations. TSA PreCheck appears on your boarding pass automatically when you check into your flight. The benefits of TSA PreCheck while going through security are you get to keep your shoes on, electronics can stay in your carry-on, and you get to keep your belt around your waist. TSA Pre-check costs $85 for a 5-year membership, and TSA claims that 99% of TSA Pre-check members wait less than 5 minutes to go through security.
CLEAR confirms a passenger’s identity through biometric data and uses fingerprints and iris scanning to speed up the identification process. CLEAR is currently available at 40 airports around the country and costs $15 per month. Participants sign up for the service online and provide their biometric data at CLEAR kiosks at participating airports.
Some credit card companies offer their membership CLEAR, TSA Pre-Check, or Global Entry as a perk. See this FORBES article for an extensive list!
3) Use a Mobile App for Flight, U.S. Customs, and Border Control
To streamline travelers’ inspection and re-entry into the country, the U.S. Customs and Border Control uses an app. It’s free and doesn’t require pre-approval to use. Download the Mobile Passport app from the Google Play or Apple App Store and take a trip (you still need your passport). When you arrive home, you’ll fill out a “new trip” questionnaire and submit your answers. Once approved, you’ll receive an “Encrypted Quick Response” (Q.R.) code to present at passport control. Kind of a skip-the-line for passports. Travelers who successfully use the authorized App will no longer need to complete a paper form or use an APC kiosk and may experience shorter wait times, less congestion, and more efficient processing.
4) Prepare Your Documents 72-Hours Before Departure
Before you get in line to check-in, have all of the required documents in-hand. That means a driver’s license or passport and credit card if you need to pay for a checked bag. Now, have every member of your family do the same.
5) Pack Properly for the journey
Too much stuff in your carry-on, pockets, or purse leads to misplaced I.D. resulting in a backup at airport security. It may also result in a secondary screening from TSA agents. Lighten your load, think through how you want to spend your time in the air, and bring what you need, not what you think you will need. Will you read that 1,000-page book, or are you more likely to watch a movie? If the answer is maybe (about the book), leave it home. Travel with items that will help you race through security, including slip-on shoes, a reusable, see-through bag for your toiletries, and a bag with easy access to your laptop or other electronics.
6) Weigh Your Luggage
Many airlines have strict rules about the weight of checked bags as well as your carry-on. International destinations all over the world will weigh all bags checked or not at the check-in counter. Check with the airline website ahead of time and be sure your bags are clearly under the maximum weight. If your luggage or bag is overweight, find out before reaching the check-in counter (and have open/repack your clothes and gear to the masses). This tip will keep you from wearing 1/2 your clothes home to lighten your load! Use your bathroom scale and check all your bags before leaving for the airport to avoid a stressful airport experience!
7) Check Your Flight Status and Check-In Online
The biggest mistake people make when traveling is waiting until arriving at the airport before checking their flight status. That mistake can cost you time, money, and a bit of your sanity. Download FlightTracker or the airline app on your phone for up-to-the-minute flight changes due to weather, including delays, warnings, and cancellations. Most even provide upgrade opportunities to change your seat ( so no middle seats ever!). The airline apps often feature a text to update your flight status (sign up on the website). You will never leave home again to arrive at the airport 5 hours early or worse, needing to drive home and go the next day. In preparation for a canceled flight, ask your travel advisor if they offer to check flight status for you as part of their service. Flight arrival and departure status is an added service Stay Balanced Travel provides all of our clients. While everyone else is jostling for position at the gate trying to find a flight, you could have an ally on the phone working on your behalf. If you don’t have a travel advisor’s for this type of flight service, add the contact number for your travel insurance and the airline 800 number to your cell phone so that you can spring into action.
Always Check-in online, no exceptions! You will save a lot of time, especially if you are only bringing a carry-on bag. Online check-in also provides the best chance of sitting with your companions when flying the basic economy. Online check-in is typically available 24-hours before your flight. When traveling without a checked bag, you can head straight to the TSA security checkpoint with your boarding pass on your phone or printed from home. **Helpful tip for online check-in is a reminder alert you can set on your phone. Set the alarm 24-hours before your flight (when most airlines allow guests to check-in).**
8) Avoid Long Security Check Point Lines
Download MIFlight or MyTSA App to check the wait times at airport security around the country. Using crowdsourced information, the App provides current wait times and terminal maps from 100 U.S. airports.
Look for the most efficient security personnel rather than the size of the line. If you’re in a hurry, find a security line without families with young kids or people who appear not to be frequent flyers. Jump in line behind people who seem to be traveling on business for the fastest, most efficient security line experience. Remember, checkpoints are easy if you stay organized.
When traveling with children, try practicing at home with them. Kids love games, so pretend your the TSA security officer and ask them the typical questions. Often kids think it’s cute to be funny with their answers. TSA officers don’t find their humor helpful, and it could delay your trip. Preparing ahead of time will help be sure your child answers questions politely for the TSA officer. Fellow travelers will thank you, and it will speed up your process during a typically stressful time in your journey.
Store your phone, passport/I.D., boarding pass in the front pocket of your carry-on. Make sure your pockets are empty, and your laptop is easily accessible for screening. When you reach the bins and not TSA Pre-Check or Clear, it’s shoes and belt off, laptop and toiletry baggie out, and containers. Listen to instructions and don’t argue or complain. Is it better to be right or to make your flight?
Before we know it, we’ll be traveling again and flying the friendly skies to visit family and friends. If you’re ready to start, click here to begin your return to travel!