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5 hacks to make air travel easier

August 20 2022
14 min read
Woman packing her luggage
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Editor's note: This story has been updated

Since joining TPG last June, I've traveled to a variety of destinations, including New York City, London, Paris and most recently Charlotte for an editorial trip at the headquarters of Red Ventures, our parent company.

I've learned a lot about points and miles in the past year, but I've also developed some new habits that have become essential to my travel routine.

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For example, enrolling in Clear (the expedited security program) has completely changed the amount of time it takes for me to get through security and my mindset as a result.

I used to be an anxious traveler, but because of the lack of lines I've experienced thus far with Clear, I no longer feel the need to arrive two hours in advance of my flight.

Many of the inconveniences we experience during travel are sometimes due to luck. However, there are a few things you can do to facilitate a better travel experience overall and change the outcome of your travels — from one based on luck — to one based on strategy.

Here are five travel hacks my fellow TPG colleagues and I suggest for your next flight.

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Enroll in TSA PreCheck and Clear

Investing $179 in a yearly Clear membership (which now costs $189 to join) has changed the way I travel.

I've long had TSA PreCheck — which rarely requires waiting more than five minutes to pass through security, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration. However, I decided to finally get Clear last year and have since enjoyed even shorter wait times of one to two minutes.

When I say it's the No. 1 thing that has single-handedly elevated my travel experience, I'm not exaggerating.

TSA PreCheck allows preapproved, low-risk travelers expedited entry through airport security. TSA PreCheck users pass through a special line for TSA PreCheck only, in which you do not have to remove your shoes, belt, light jacket, liquids or electronics to be scanned.

Clear users are biometrically identified via fingerprint or iris scans, eliminating the need to show their ID anytime during security screening. Once a Clear representative verifies their identity, users are escorted to the front of the TSA PreCheck line for security screening machines — if they're enrolled in both programs.

This last detail is key. If you have Clear but do not have TSA PreCheck, they'll bring you to the front of the standard security line, meaning you'll still need to take off your shoes and pull out your electronics. Because of this, I strongly suggest enrolling in both.

Airline passengers at a TSA checkpoint. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON/AFP/Getty Images)

Related: 7 ways to get free or discounted TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and Clear

With my Clear membership, I don't need to get to the airport more than an hour in advance, which is quite a departure from how I used to travel. In fact, now I often go out of my way to use Clear, especially at my home airport of O'Hare International Airport (ORD).

Because American Airlines is the only airline I hold status on, I regularly prioritize flying the carrier or a Oneworld partner airline. While this is generally not an issue, American operates out of Terminal 3 at O'Hare, which does not offer Clear.

Using Clear to cut down my time passing through security is more important to me than visiting the closest TSA security screening area to my gate. So, instead of waiting in the TSA PreCheck line by Terminal 3, I use Clear to go through security at Terminal 2 and then walk the 15 or so minutes to Terminal 3.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, determine if your terminal is airside (the area between the boarding gates and airspace) and therefore walkable.

"Know which terminals are connected airside," said TPG executive editor Scott Mayerowitz. "If one is a complete mess, it might make sense to go to the next security checkpoint and then walk airside to your gate."

Related: Lost vs. delayed baggage: How are they different and how do you protect yourself?

Note that Clear and TSA PreCheck are not offered at every airport and only certain airlines participate.

For example, when I flew home last week from Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), Clear was not available, so I had to opt for TSA PreCheck in Terminal A. Even so, it only took five minutes.

The only long wait I've experienced thus far was at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) when I flew to Paris-Orly Airport (ORY) in April to review the inaugural route launch of the low-cost airline French Bee. Unfortunately, French Bee does not participate in TSA PreCheck, nor was Clear available at Tom Bradley International Terminal, so it took 45 minutes to get through security at the terminal.

"If you're traveling late in the evening, allow some extra time to get through security because you'll likely have to go through general security," TPG director Katherine Leitch said of her experience on a Sunday night at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). "It took me 45 minutes to get through security."

Do not check a bag, but do this if you must

Uncollected suitcases at Heathrow Airport (LHR)'s Terminal 3 baggage reclaim. (Photo by Paul ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

While trying to cram everything you need into one carry-on bag and a personal item may seem like a challenge, I can't stress enough how important it is to do whatever it takes to not check a bag.

Even if your fare type includes one or more free checked bags, the amount of lost bags this summer should be reason enough to avoid checking one.

Related: Why do flight cancellations and delays keep happening?

I loathe checking a bag for a few reasons. To start, I'm usually ready to get off the plane upon arrival, which is also why I like to sit as close to the front of the plane in an aisle seat as possible and will pay to do so if needed.

"Book for seat assignments at the front of the aircraft and pay for a better assignment if you have to," said TPG content director Andrea Rotondo. "With a tight connection and summertime delays, it's more important than ever to disembark ASAP."

TPG credit cards writer Ryan Smith seconded Andrea's advice.

"If you have a short connection, get yourself into the front of the aircraft as much as possible," he said. "And don't be afraid to say 'My flight is boarding, can I go in front of you in line?' or ask flight attendants if they'll let you sit in a front seat just in time for landing."

In addition to minimizing my time on the plane, I also strive to limit my time in the airport, which is another reason why I'd rather not check a bag. The last thing I want to do after a flight is be forced to wait for an airline to unload my checked baggage onto the carousel.

Also, I'll never forget the bad experience I had the last time I checked a bag.

While on my way to Cuba in 2018, I had an incredibly frustrating experience with American thanks to my checked bag.

After missing my connection at Miami International Airport (MIA) due to a blizzard in Chicago, American sent my luggage from O'Hare to Havana's José Martí International Airport (HAV) without me. This resulted in me paying $50 to Uber from my airport hotel to Target, where I spent even more money on a new outfit (and snacks) to hold me over.

Related: Everything’s backordered: Supply chain delays hinder hotel openings

Since then, I've never traveled without an extra shirt and socks in my backpack, along with other essentials like medication, in the off chance that my carry-on needs to be gate-checked.

"If you check a bag, make sure you have these items in your carry-on: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, clean socks, clean underwear, a clean shirt," Ryan said. "If your suitcase is lost or delayed, you'll be glad you did this."

And if you're wondering how I successfully manage to travel with just a backpack and a carry-on, know that it's fairly simple. I roll my clothes sideways, a military technique that allows me to fit more items than if I folded them, and I use packing cubes to organize my items.

Book a backup flight

(Photo by narvikk/Getty Images)

If you're concerned about your flight being delayed or canceled, consider booking a backup flight.

When my TPG colleagues first shared this advice with me, I thought it seemed a bit extreme. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's better to have a plan B than stick to one option and miss your trip.

For example, Scott is flying back to New York in August with JetBlue Airways. He used miles to book three separate backup tickets on a Delta Air Lines flight an hour later, just in case anything goes awry with JetBlue.

"The following day, we start a weeklong beach house rental with some friends. In other words, we don’t have any flexibility if our flight gets canceled and the airline doesn’t have a good solution readily available," he said. "This might seem like an unusual step, but given how full airplanes are and how limited rebooking options can be when an entire plane full of people is scrambling for a new flight, it somehow seems prudent."

If you don't want to go that far, TPG senior SEO associate Hannah Streck says you should at least be aware of the next flight to your destination in case your flight gets disrupted and you need to rebook.

"Have a backup flight in mind and know when the next flight to your destination is," she shared. "This is much better than scrambling in the moment to see what's available according to the gate agent."

Pack a (cheap) reusable water bottle

(Photo by Zelma Brezinska/EyeEm/Getty Images)

As someone who has a minimum of three beverages at all times, it's very important that I remain hydrated while traveling.

Although you can't bring water through TSA security, you can pack an empty reusable bottle and fill it up at water bottle filling stations, which are available at most airports after you pass through security.

Just remember to take your water bottle with you off the plane, unlike me, who has lost two Hydro Flasks (and counting) by leaving them on board. Because of this, I now travel with a cheaper reusable bottle on the off chance that I lose it again.

"Hydrate — it certainly helps upon landing after a long flight," said TPG senior director Taylor Jenkins.

Related: Mad about delays? Blame air traffic control, United says

A reusable bottle can come in handy once you step out of the airport, too. I've appreciated having mine at hotels, where you'll usually be charged for bottled water, unless you have elite status with a brand that provides it for free.

To get around this, see if there are water stations throughout the hotel, such as in the gym.

"If a hotel doesn't have free bottled water for guests, many hotel gyms have water bottle filling stations," said credit cards editor Senitra Horbrook.

Along the same lines, pack snacks, especially if you are like me and have dietary restrictions. In my case, there's usually no food I can eat at a given airport or on board the flight. I fit as many snacks as possible into a reusable bag in my backpack.

"Eat beforehand and/or pack snacks," said Taylor. "Nobody wants to pay $9 for a bag of almonds at Hudson News."

Map out your transportation to and from the airport

(Photo by DuKai photographer/Getty Images)

This month alone, I spent 20 minutes on two separate occasions attempting to find a cab on very busy downtown Chicago streets, likely due to the recent shortage of drivers.

Rather than risk missing my flight because I was unable to find a cab or an available vehicle via a ride-hailing service, I've begun scheduling my rides to and from the airport ahead of time. I either call the cab company in advance or reserve an Uber or Lyft before my trip, the latter of which you can do via their respective apps.

"If you live in the suburbs, use a scheduled car service or transfer versus Uber/Lyft to get to the airport," said TPG travel editor Erica Silverstein. "[It's] waaaaay less stressful."

An alternative (albeit more expensive) option is Blacklane, a private chauffeur service.

"I've started using Blacklane for key rides," said Scott. "It is pricey but worth avoiding the early morning stress of wondering whether I will be able to get an Uber."

If you are staying at an airport hotel and plan on relying on the property's shuttle, Senitra has some advice.

"Call the hotel in advance and confirm the shuttle is running and also confirm the hours of operation," she said. "If the shuttle only runs until 10 p.m. but you're arriving at 11 p.m., you'll have to make other arrangements. Also, if you need a hotel shuttle to the airport for departure, find out how frequent the shuttle runs and if you need to put your name on a list in advance for a ride."

Keep in mind that there may be times when ride-hailing services won't be readily available. For example, if you are traveling to a smaller airport, such as Westchester County Airport (HPN), you may find that there are no rides available when you arrive.

If that's the case, "know the transportation options other than Uber/Lyft," TPG copy editor Liz Steinke said. She also suggests considering "ponying up for airport parking if it's your home destination" to get around this challenge.

Related: 10 ways to save on airport parking

Bottom line

As is the case with many things in life, travel comes with unexpected challenges and frustrations. Odds are that at least one part of your trip will not go according to plan, so it's best to mentally prepare.

Fortunately, there are several hacks that can help keep your stress in check. By implementing some (if not all) of these tips from TPG staffers, you're bound to feel more confident (and calm) as you go knowing that you'll understand what to do when that frustrating travel headache appears.

Featured photo by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
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Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
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  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 points
    75,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees