How a 5-minute trip to the airport rescued me from months of TSA PreCheck purgatory

Jul 6, 2022

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The more I fly, the more I appreciate — and, to be honest, completely depend on — TSA PreCheck.

It’s my key tool for navigating airport chaos across the country, especially in my overcrowded, always-an-eye-popping-line home airport of Newark Liberty International (EWR), not to mention the neighboring options of LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).

It’s not only at New York City-area airports that I’ve relied on the trusty check mark on my boarding pass. Orlando, Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles have also become much more manageable with my membership.

So of course I wanted to renew my Trusted Traveler status when I received a renewal email last fall stating my five-year subscription was set to expire soon.

The email promised that it would be “Fast, easy to renew: 98%+ of members can renew online in 3-5 minutes.” Even better, there was a discounted renewal fee of $70, down from the usual $85, for renewing from the comfort of my own home.

If only it was that easy.

Unfortunately, I ended up in the less than 2% of members — at least that’s the statistic according to the email — who couldn’t renew online.

Of course, Murphy’s law being what it is, once one thing went wrong, the rest of this “easy” process fell apart in multiple, frustrating ways.

What happened next was months of runaround, no TSA PreCheck access and seemingly no answers — until a single five-minute airport trip fixed it all.

Here’s what happened and how I fixed it – in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

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Renewal, or not

I’ll admit I hadn’t been keeping the closest eye on travel documents and memberships during the pandemic when I was mostly road-tripping from my New Jersey home. This included missing the fact that my son’s five-year passport was up for renewal until a few weeks before a big trip.

However, my five-year TSA PreCheck membership renewal was flagged by Universal Enroll, which started sending me emails months before the deadline. Because I never delete an email, I can tell you the renewal reminders started in August for a November 2021 expiration.

I finally clicked through the renewal email sent in October, admittedly later than I could have, but well in advance of the two weeks you need to renew online, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Officially, the TSA site states:

“You may renew your membership online up to six months before the expiration date with the new membership beginning as the current one ends. TSA recommends you renew at least 90 days prior to your expiration to avoid a lapse in benefits.”

It also reads: “TSA’s enrollment provider will send a renewal notification to members who have a valid email and/or phone number on record.  Members will receive notification 6 months, 3 months, 1 month, and 2 weeks prior to their expiration. Emails will come from ‘Universal Enroll’.”

TSA PreCheck email. (Screenshot from Universal Enroll)

I filled out the online paperwork, happy to cross the task off my list in one quick keystroke. However, when I hit enter, I didn’t receive my “easy” result. Instead, the reply was, “Proceed to a TSA PreCheck Center.”

I could have picked up the phone at that point and tried to talk to someone. However, I’m a little trepidatious about following rules and not rocking the boat after my U.S. Customs banana incident. So, I grabbed the next available appointment at the closest renewal center.

I’ve heard from readers in Florida and other parts of the country that local Staples are options for appointments near them. This, sadly, was not the case here in northern New Jersey. The closest office to my house was an IdentoGo center in an industrial zone in Newark not near the airport.

As someone who’s not a super comfortable driver, it was a stressful outing navigating bustling roads jammed with 16-wheelers heading to the Port of Newark.

However, I sucked it up in the name of easier travel later. That’s when the fun began.

Related: TSA PreCheck offering mobile enrollment at select airports this summer

Everything is fine (not really)

The people at the renewal office were lovely. I was received on time and had my paperwork checked. “Oh,” said the clerk, “your PreCheck is already renewed, you don’t need to be here.”

I told her that I was directed to come here and that my PreCheck renewal wasn’t processed. “It looks fine,” she replied. However, she offered to call the TSA office directly to verify.

Several minutes later she spoke with a manager who agreed that my TSA PreCheck was approved, and renewed, and that I was safe to move around the country.

As you may have already guessed, it wasn’t really true.

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

To the airport, but not the fast lane

For my next flight a month later to Austin, I checked in online from home as I always do. Unlike in times past, though, the Trusted Traveler check mark did not appear on my ticket. No PreCheck.

I called my carrier, United, and asked them to check my account. The agent added my number to my ticket information and said she wasn’t sure why it wasn’t showing up. “Ask at the check-in counter,” she advised.

I visited the counter with my husband, whose PreCheck was fine, and my son, who had just turned 18. They still couldn’t get my ticket sorted.

We also learned that when my son had hit the magic age of 18, he could no longer coast through the preapproved line with one of us (yes, another travel deadline I had lost track of, as embarrassing as that is for a travel writer to admit).

Since my son couldn’t go through PreCheck regardless of my status, I dropped my personal case for the time being and he and I headed to Clear, where we both had memberships in good standing. (My husband went through PreCheck on his own — he has metal knee joints, and trust me when I say it’s a much easier journey for all of us that way.)

The next flight

Fast forward a month to December, and it feels like Christmas mixed with Groundhog Day. I’m heading to Belize on United, and nope, my TT number is nowhere to be found.

I call the airline, and they say it’s not their fault it’s not attaching. I call the TSA information line, and they say my TT number was renewed and, I’m summarizing here, it’s not their fault.

So I slog through the airport, jealously watching the check-marked PreCheck travelers sail through their easy-to-maneuver line while I wade through the crowds of travelers trying to get to Clear, which also has a massive line.

I’m traveling internationally, so at least I’ll be covered by the Mobile Passport app on my way home (I still don’t have Global Entry — see the banana story), but tell myself I’ll get it sorted for next time.

Call, call again

It’s now several months into 2022. When I call the 1K line at United ahead of my next scheduled flight, the agent on the other end finally confirms what I’ve been starting to think: “I think your number has expired.” Even though I want to say “No way,” I have a sinking suspicion she’s correct.

Tackling the issue from the stance of having an actual expired TT number, I call TSA PreCheck again and present my case. This time I have someone who goes through all of my records and follows my paper trail.

She sees the online renewal attempt, the visit to the renewal office and, yes, the fact that my number has expired, despite my being told otherwise.

“I’m not sure what happened,” she admits, but tells me to stay on the line while she “kicks it up” the chain to a manager.

When she comes back about 10 minutes later, she says what I should have seen coming sooner — I should fill in an application online and, yes, go in person to a TSA renewal site and basically start from scratch.

There’s no proof that my account was renewed, and as far as she can tell my Trusted Traveler status is expired.

At this point, as you can imagine, I’m deflated (to put it lightly).

It’s June. I’ve been working on this issue for eight months. I’m supposed to fly in a week, during what TPG’s been calling the summer of “airline Armageddon” and the chances of navigating my route from Newark to Seattle without delays seems almost impossible without a Trusted Traveler advantage.

The TSA PreCheck office at EWR. (Photo by Melissa Klurman/The Points Guy)

Success, and lessons learned

What happens next is a lucky accident that didn’t seem so at the time. I check for available appointments for both my son and me (figuring that as long as I have to go in person, I may as well get both of us done).

The only option in the next week is at Newark Airport. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I think to myself.

I take a half-day off work, prepared for airport chaos and issues with my application.

Newark isn’t fun to navigate driving to, but as soon as we enter the airport from the parking garage, there’s an easy-to-spot TSA PreCheck popup center. That’s when things finally start to go my way.

It’s the signage that clears things up quickly — this is solely a destination for PreCheck, not IdentoGo or another ID center that processes other paperwork. My teen goes first and is done, I’m not exaggerating here, in five minutes.

Then it’s my turn. I tell them my name. I hand over my passport. And the employee here knows exactly what they’re dealing with when they see my application.

They’re able to find my original TT number and reassign it to me. They scan my passport to verify my identity. They take my photo. I pay with my Chase Sapphire Reserve and can use my credit to pay the fee (huzzah!).

I sign on the dotted line and am informed that this may take up to five working days. I want to laugh with delight, but I am still hesitant to accept that things can go so easily.

However, just four days later, both my son and I have our Trusted Traveler numbers in our inbox, two days ahead of our flights to Seattle. Woo hoo!

(Screenshot from Universal Enroll)

The lessons here? Renew early — way early.

I should have started this process as soon as I received the first email so I would have had more time to deal with the renewal when things started to go pear-shaped.

Ask lots of questions if something goes wrong and keep asking until you get someone who can help. I should have kept calling the official TSA office until someone could answer my questions, as that last call operator was able to.

Finally, if you hit a roadblock renewing or getting your PreCheck number, head straight to a PreCheck-only center. ID centers are not solely TSA associated and therefore can’t resolve issues on their own.

Oh, and never try and navigate official paperwork with me — I’m obviously meant to explore every issue with travel programs the hard way, so you don’t have to.

Featured photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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