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The Test Drive: CLEARcard

I'm always on the lookout for ways to make travel easier, faster, or better. So when I saw a discounted trial membership for CLEAR (on a group-sale site), I snapped it up, eager to test out the system and see if it was for me, without having to invest too much money up front.

CLEAR is a biometrics-based pre-clearance system that allows passengers to skip the line at airport security and get straight to the screening. So far, only six U.S. airports have CLEARlanes, but because my home airport (San Francisco International) is one of them, I thought it was worth checking out.

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I found the possibility of shorter airport wait times intriguing, but the reality ended up being far more compelling than I expected.

Signing Up

The initial hoop is a big one, but it's easier or on par with any other pre-clearance program out there. You sign up and offer some personal information, and then need to follow up in person (for additional information, verification of your driver's license and passport, plus iris and fingerprint scans) to get the card.

For most, that will mean a trip out to the airport at least seven to 10 days before you plan on traveling (since the card is then sent to your home), but in my case CLEAR was offering a sign-up in downtown San Francisco, which was more convenient.

The yearly cost of CLEAR is $179 per person, though with the family plan you can add a travel companion for $50. Kids under 18 are free (they don't need a CLEARcard). There are also corporate rates. On the website right now, there's also an offer for six months for $79, and I was able to find a four-month trial membership on a group-sale site at a discounted price as well.

Test Drive #1: Solo Travel

The major selling point of the CLEARcard is that it creates predictable wait times at airport security. For my first CLEAR journey, I checked in online and had only carry-on baggage, so when I arrived at the airport I headed straight to security. As usual, the main line was long, slow, and monitored by a stern-faced employee checking tickets. Just to the right was the CLEARlane, marked by a glowing blue cube and guarded by a smiling employee, a contrast I found pleasantly confusing.

I showed her my CLEARcard and was walked through the process, which involved a fingerprint scan and document check. Another employee then escorted me to the front of the line of people waiting to put their belongings in bins and take off their shoes. He politely paused the line, lifted my carry-on onto the metal table, and bade me good day. The whole process had taken two minutes, tops. From there, it was the usual security screening, which took another three minutes. So five minutes to get through a very busy airport security screening checkpoint. I was impressed.

Test Drive #2: Family Vacation

About a month later, I headed back to the airport, this time with my husband and one-year-old son. On my first trip through the CLEARlane, I had appreciated speeding through security, but now I was traveling with a toddler, and CLEAR turned out to be an actual sanity saver. My kid is good-natured and all, but he's got the attention span and energy of a puppy, so waiting in lines is challenging for everyone (us, him, and anyone within 10 feet). Again, we made it through the whole process quickly, this time in about six minutes.

My husband is finely tuned to any sort of social awkwardness, and he got a little uncomfortable when it came time for us to drop into the front of the line of people prepping their carry-ons for the X-ray machines. He said he felt like we were cutting, which technically we kind of were, but the employee who paused the line to let us in was very polite to the people behind us (and seized the moment to let them know that anyone could sign up for CLEAR and get the same benefit). By the time we were clear of security, my husband had decided that a moment of potential awkwardness was worth the hassle-free experience.

CLEAR vs. TSA PreCheck

TSA PreCheck is available by invitation through airline frequent-flyer programs, as well as to anyone who signs up for the Global Entry, NEXUS, or SENTRI Trusted Traveler programs, which have the added benefit of granting members expedited trips through international customs. CLEAR is open to flyers willing to pay the membership fee and go through the biometric identity-check process. TSA PreCheck is available at 40 airports, but if you have membership through a frequent flyer program, you need to be flying on the airline that granted you PreCheck status in order to use the special lanes. CLEAR  is currently only available at six airports (Austin, Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, Orlando, San Francisco, and Westchester), with lanes set to open at San Jose International in September and in Houston at both George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) and William P. Hobby in November. But you can use CLEAR regardless of which airline you're flying.

The Verdict

So far, CLEAR's scope is still pretty limited (six airports, jumping to nine by the end of the year), but if you fly regularly out of one of those airports, it's worth a serious look. It takes a huge part of the unpredictability out of travel timing and allows you to spend considerably less time at the airport without the risk of missing your flight. I didn't realize how liberating this last part would be until I used CLEAR, but now I'm hooked.

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(Photo: Josh Hallett via flickr/CC Attribution)

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