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CLEAR Expedited Airport Security Program — Is it Worthwhile?

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Without getting on a soapbox, I think it’s fair to say that the TSA won’t be winning any popularity contests in the near future. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize your suffering, as TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains.

15 years ago, going through airport security was a simple process. You simply got into THE line, put your stuff through the x-ray machine, and walked through the metal detector. Today, the situation is much more complex, with as many as four different security lines at some airports, various levels of identity verification and screening offered, and a shifting array of rules and guidelines for each.

A new expedited security program called CLEAR has made its way to 11 different airports in the United States, and it works a little differently than you might expect. Today, I’ll explain what CLEAR is, discuss its benefits and potential drawbacks, and tell you about the discount available to TPG readers with the promo code CLEARTPG18.

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CLEAR promises to slash the time you spend in the security line, for a price.

How CLEAR works

As CLEAR’s representative explained to me, today’s airport security consists of passing through two steps: identity verification and security screening. Travelers who have enrolled in CLEAR have their own separate lane for the first step, where you can utilize biometric authentication (fingerprint or eye scan) at a kiosk rather than wait for a TSA agent to inspect your ID and scribble something on your boarding pass. And with CLEAR, no one will bark at you for “approaching the podium” before they’re ready for you.

After your identity has been verified, a CLEAR representative will escort you to the actual security screening, bypassing everyone waiting in the first line. If you’re also enrolled in TSA Pre-Check, then you’ll be taken directly to the Pre-Check line. Finally, children under 18 may use the CLEAR line for free when traveling with a paid member.

To use CLEAR you must first enroll online, and then visit an airport location where your identity is verified and your biometrics are recorded. Thankfully, you can do this quickly at any CLEAR location with no appointment necessary, and your access card will then be shipped to you within five days.

The CLEAR program that operates today is actually its second iteration. CLEAR first began in 2004, long before TSA Pre-Check was available. That company went bankrupt in 2010, and its assets were purchased by the current founders. The present CLEAR is an entirely separate organization, with no remaining staff from the old company. According to the representative I spoke to, the old CLEAR expanded too aggressively and was spread too thin, while the new CLEAR is taking a more conservative approach.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Skip the line at McCarran, and spend that extra time elsewhere. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Where CLEAR works

At this time, CLEAR is available at the following airports:

  • Orlando
  • Denver
  • Dallas-Fort Worth
  • Houston Bush Intercontinental
  • Houston Hobby
  • San Antonio
  • Las Vegas
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose
  • Westchester, New York
  • Baltimore (coming soon)
  • Miami (coming soon)

CLEAR versus TSA Pre-Check

I’ve noticed the CLEAR lane at my home airport in Denver, and hadn’t given it much thought, since my entire family is enrolled in Global Entry, which offers access to TSA Pre-Check. However (as it was explained to me), one is not a substitute for the other, and CLEAR offers some distinct, and complementary advantages.

First, TSA Pre-Check members are not guaranteed access every day, as they can be randomly excluded and sent to the standard line, but CLEAR has no randomized exclusion of passengers. In addition, everyone who enters the CLEAR line is a member of CLEAR and knows how to operate the system. On the other hand, TSA has been adding more and more non-member travelers into the Pre-Check line who have no idea how it works and hold things up.

Pre-Check only works when traveling with a participating airline: Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, and Virgin America. That means passengers on discount carriers like Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant don’t have access to Pre-Check, as well as passengers on all foreign carriers other than Air Canada. In contrast, CLEAR works when traveling with any airline.

Other distinctions between CLEAR and Pre-Check include the ability to reach screening more quickly by speeding up the verification process, and the fact that not everyone will be able to qualify for Pre-Check. Also, keep in mind that having CLEAR doesn’t preclude you from using the streamlined Pre-Check security screening process, it’s just designed to help you reach it faster than you would have otherwise. It’s not like skipping security altogether, but I can think of a whole lot of people at Chicago Midway last Thanksgiving weekend who would have been happy to bypass the first step in the security line.

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If you’re already in first or business class and can go through the premium line, CLEAR might seem redundant, but it could still save you time.

CLEAR versus the line for elite and premium passengers

Of the four security lines that I mentioned above, there’s the standard line, the Pre-Check line, the CLEAR line, and finally one for passengers traveling in first (or business) class and those with elite status. While this first class/elite line is usually much shorter than the standard line, you may still find yourself waiting for the TSA agent to inspect your ID and boarding pass, while CLEAR automates this process and escorts passengers directly to either the standard or Pre-Check screening. CLEAR is blind to status, so there’s no need to worry about being bypassed if you’re traveling in economy or lack elite status with any airline.

What CLEAR costs

The normal rate for CLEAR membership is $179 per year, with an additional $50 per family member (remember, children under 18 receive free access with members). TPG readers can use the promo code CLEARTPG18 to get a discounted membership of $149 for the first year. You can either enter the code manually or use this link to input the code automatically. In addition, the Visa Signature program offers six months of free CLEAR membership and $60 off the $179 annual rate when you renew your membership automatically.

Analysis

If CLEAR is available at your home airport or one you visit frequently, then it could be a big time saver regardless of whether you have TSA Pre-Check. Even if you have Pre-Check, the reality is that there’s often just a single TSA staffer checking IDs and boarding passes for the Pre-Check line, alternating with other non Pre-Check passengers and holding things up significantly. The idea is that CLEAR members enjoy more predictable access to security, which means those who check in online and don’t check bags can schedule airport arrivals even closer to departure than they would normally. Otherwise, you can still spend more time in your favorite lounge or restaurant, and less time waiting in line for the TSA.

On the downside, CLEAR is much more expensive than Pre-Check, especially since you can get a statement credit for Global Entry membership with The Platinum Card from American Express, the Citi Prestige Card, and others. Plus, CLEAR is only available in a limited number of cities, excluding major airports in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But if the footprint roughly matches your typical travel patterns, and you highly value a predictable travel experience, than CLEAR is worth considering.