Busy airports are not fun.
But if you plan well, you can make the experience easier. You can navigate an airport, through check-in and security, and get right to your gate with ease.
Before we get into the tips, let's start with a truism: when it comes to airports, you can't assume anything.
You can't assume that it will be logical. Passing through immigration and security can happen in odd sequences – especially when in transit between flights.
You can't assume that you can navigate using your sense of direction. Airports often operate beyond capacity forcing them to use space in ways for which it was not designed. It's best to trust and follow the signs.
You can't assume that the guy in the CBC t-shirt is from Canada and speaks English. As I transited through Taipei airport, feeling a little lost, the guy in the CBC t-shirt I asked for help was just some guy from somewhere. Not an English-speaker. He couldn't help at all.
Fortunately, there are some things that you can know for sure. There will be lines! The most complicated of which is the security screening line that every country manages differently. Some require you to take off your shoes, others don’t. Some take your passport while you go through security. Fortunately, most don’t. Some want everything placed into a bin. Others want only a few things in the bin. You really have to watch and listen for the details.
Regardless of the security process, preparing for them is typically the same. For those who are flying this holiday season, when the lines tend to be particularly long, I have some tips to reduce the annoyances of busy airports for travelers, wherever you are in the world.
Tips to Get Through an Airport Fast
Packing to Get through Security with Ease
First things first, let's start with packing. The following are important. Use this information in conjunction with the Bare Minimum Packing or the Checked Baggage: Top Planning and Packing Tips posts.
- Liquids are a big issue. The most common mistake that travelers still make is with liquids, aerosols, and gels (LAGs) exceeding the 100 mL limit in their carry-on baggage. That includes sunscreen, tanning lotion or hand cream, alcohol, maple syrup, etc. To go in your carry-on, LAGs must be in containers of 100 mL (3 ounces) or less and all these containers must fit into a 1 litre or 1 quart baggie that can be closed. If it can't be closed, you're packing more than the allowed amount.
- If you check a bag, place all your liquids in your checked baggage so you don’t have to worry about the 100 mL limitation.
- Pack so that required items can be removed easily at security. If you travel with only a carry-on as I do, pack your liquids at the top of your bag so that they can be taken out easily. Have your computer or tablet easily accessible as well.
- Leave gifts unwrapped. The security team may want to inspect what you're traveling with so plan to wrap any gifts after security.
- Don’t play games. Take note of items that are not allowed on a plane. You can check the list here. Also…
- Don’t take toys that happen to look like any forbidden items.
- Don’t joke around and use words like bomb or terrorist when going through any official border process.
- Limits on sharp objects. Make sure that sharp tools are 6 cm or less if you’re going to take them through security. If they are longer they must go in checked baggage.
- Electronic devices go in various places. It all depends on the size of the device. Tablets, e-books, and cameras can stay in your bag in their individual cases. Laptops, notebooks, and game consoles need to be taken out of your carry-on and placed in a separate bin for screening.
- Dress appropriately. Dress comfortably with easy-to-remove outerwear, belts, and shoes. The latter is particularly helpful if you’re flying to or through the US as you’ll have to remove your shoes at security. Avoid wearing clothing with metal buttons and snaps that will sound the metal detector alarm. Bras with underwire frequently set off the alarm. Wear a sports bra on travel days.
Check-in Made Easy
- Check in before you go to the airport. Check in 24 hours before your flight leaves. This process also allows you to purchase a number of flight options. Then, either:
- Print your boarding pass or
- Have your boarding pass sent to your phone. This is what I do and then I take a screenshot of my pass so that it's easily accessed from my photo app. To take a screenshot on an iPhone simply hold the on/off button, then press the home button, then release both.
- Arrive at the airport early. Allow ample time in case there are hold-ups you can't anticipate. If you want, you can check the security wait times online.
- Canadian security wait times are on the CATSA site – choose your airport on the right side.
- United States security wait times are on the TSA site – choose your airport and then click on “View Security Wait Times”.
- Take care of your passport. Have a specific place on your person for your passport that is easy and accessible. You will have to show it many times but you don’t want to put it down so that it gets lost. Always return it to the same place.
- Sail past baggage check. If you only have a carry-on you can go past check-in and past the baggage check and go directly to the security line for your gate. If you have to check a bag, look for the baggage check line.
Move through Airport Security Like a Pro
- Prepare for security. Before you enter the security line, unlock your carry-on and empty your water bottle. You can refill it on the other side of security. Have your boarding pass ready.
- Once you get to security…
- Remove everything from your pockets and put the contents in a bin.
- Remove your computer and plastic bag of liquids and put it in a bin – it can be the same bin.
- Place your purse, hat, scarf, and jacket in a bin. You may have to put a sweater in the bin as well so dress appropriately.
- Place your day pack and/or carry-on its own bin.
- Stand in line in front of the metal detector and wait to be waved through.
- Pick up your things at the other end. Make sure you have everything before you leave the area.
- If your bags must be checked further. If they have questions about what is in your bag…
- Allow the officer to open your bag themselves. They don’t want you to do it for them.
- And, of course, be patient and cooperate, even if you’re in a rush. Hurrying them will only slow things down more.
- In the case of additional screening. If you don’t pass through the metal detector with success…
- You have the option of a full-body scan or a physical search.
- You can always request a search in private and can also request that a witness observe the search.
- You have the right to refuse to be screened, but you will not be allowed past the security checkpoint if you do so.