Navigating the airport is often the second challenge air travelers face—right after deciding what to pack and just before fighting with your seat mate over the armrest.
Getting to and through airports is both a science and an art. Most importantly, doing it right can mean the difference between starting your vacation on a pleasant note, or missing your plane and beginning your vacation stressed out, cranky, and late.
For tips on how we can conquer the airport, we turned to Juan Carlos “J.C.” Liscano, an insider who knows their ins and outs. He’s the head of American Airlines‘ operations for Los Angeles International Airport, and with 20 years in the industry, his familiarity with airports has made him a bit of an airport ninja.
“I think when the airport really is your environment—where you come in everyday and leave everyday—you sort of have to figure out how you maneuver within that environment,” J.C. says about his seriously tight airport game, which has served him well in his own travels, both business and personal. “For me, it’s about efficiency,” says J.C. “I really don’t want to spend one more minute at the terminal than I need to.”
Now, J.C. is sharing with his tips and hacks that can help make you an airport ninja too. While some of these tips are specific to his home turf of LAX, you’ll find them useful enough to help you grease your way through many other airports.
It’s amazing how much energy people spend planning their flights, hotels, and trip itineraries only to completely turn off their brains once everything’s booked. If you don’t take at least some time figuring out your airport gameplan, you’re just asking for headaches.
“Whenever I talk to a customer who seems to have missed their flight, the main reason why is because they didn’t plan appropriately to come to the airport,” says J.C. Travelers either forget to figure for traffic (a particular problem in Los Angeles), or they neglected to consider that it was a Friday before a holiday weekend and the security checkpoint line would be crazy long. Don’t let that happen to you; never go to the airport without a plan of attack.
Don’t be a slave to the arrival/departure lanes
On the road to the airport you come to a fork, with one sign pointing the way for “Departures” and the other pointing you to “Arrivals.” Because you’re catching a plane, you naturally drive toward the “Departures” lane, but it turns out to be jam-packed with cars and you find yourself screaming and tearing your hair out as you slowly, maddeningly, inch towards the terminal or its parking lot.
The question is, “Why?” There’s no law that says if you’re departing you must take the “Departures” lane.
“You should never really be limited to a Departures-only or an Arrivals-only [lane],” says J.C. At many major airports, LAX included, the Departures lane feeds cars to to one level of the terminal, usually the upper level, and Arrivals feeds cars to another level, usually the lower. But no matter what level you’re on, you can still get to the same terminal and the same parking lot. So just pick whichever lane has the least traffic.
“Depending on the time of day, one road will have more traffic than the other,” says J.C. “In the morning, the Departures roadway is very full,” as more people are catching flights. “You will still have access to all of the parking lots and there is very little traffic on the roadway downstairs, and so it makes it much easy for you to get to your flight.” You can park on that lower “Arrivals” parking lot, cross over to the terminal and quickly walk or take an escalator upstairs to check in to your flight.
The opposite is true, too. “Later on in the day, usually late-evening, there’s a lot of traffic downstairs [in Arrivals] because there are a lot of international flights coming in,” J.C. says. “So that’s the time of the day where you might want to consider going up to the Departures level.”
You don’t always have to park at your terminal
Similar to how you shouldn’t let the signs dictate which lane you take into the airport, you don’t have to let them determine where you park.
Again, take LAX, which has several different terminals you can drive up to. Suppose you’re driving to catch an overseas flight out of the International Terminal, and the airport lanes are backed up. “Nobody tells you that you can’t park at the lots for nearby Terminals 4 or 3,” says J.C. “You can get out of your vehicle and walk [to the International Terminal] with your your bag a lot quicker than if you wait to park at the one parking lot that says ‘International Terminal,’ which by the way more than likely will be full anyways.”
This may be the most obvious of tips, but it’s still a crucial part of pain-free airport navigation.
“I avoid checking a bag as much as possible because it is really the fastest way in and the fastest way out [of the airport],” says J.C. You won’t need to check bags when you leave on a flight and you won’t need to go to baggage claim when you return—this is key to spending as little time in an airport as possible. “I tend to practice those things religiously so I’ve become a very efficient packer,” says J.C. “I know how many shirts, how many pants, I know where I put everything. I have it down for efficiency.”
Don’t check-in at the airport if you can help it
At home before a recent flight, I spent so much time packing my carry-on that I forgot to go online to check-in. “No worries,” I said to myself. “I’ll do it at the kiosk when I get to the airport,” But to my horror, I got to the airport and found that the kiosks were down because of a technical glitch, forcing me to stand in a long line to check-in.
Really, in 2015, if you’re carrying-on (which you should be), there’s no reason not to check-in and have your boarding pass before you get to the airport—either via the airline’s website or, better yet, through its app. But some people still stand in line to check-in at the counter.
“You would be surprised; there are some folks that are not very intuitive with technology,” says J.C. “They feel more comfortable just simply talking to a person, making sure they have that paper boarding pass and you reassuring them that, ‘Yes, sir, you are traveling to Boston today and this is your flight and this is your gate number.'”
J.C., however, is firmly in the pro-technology camp. “I do not remember the last time I actually got a paper boarding pass,” he says. “I always check-in on the American Airlines app on my mobile phone. It is extremely convenient. Your boarding pass shows up and all I do is add it to my iPhone’s Passbook and it’s there, and it’s available.”
All the big three airlines have apps with check-in capability and, fortunately, people are starting to get the message. “It varies but most people are pretty comfortable using the technology,” says J.C. “And we’re going to see more of it. It really provides a more expedited check-in process.”
Get TSA Pre or Global Entry
A crucial airport time saver. “It is almost a must-have to have TSA Pre,” J.C. says of the TSA program that allows low-risk passengers access to expedited screening at airport security checkpoints (membership requires an application, an $85 fee for a five-year membership and approval by the TSA). Passengers with this privilege usually face much shorter security lines and they don’t have to take off their belts, jackets, and shoes. “That is really the fastest and most convenient way to get through the checkpoint,” J.C. says.
But J.C. says a better choice for people who fly internationally is Global Entry, a program run by U.S. Customs. Global Entry speeds you through customs when you return to the U.S. But with your membership (and its $100 application fee), you also get TSA Pre eligibility.
“Global Entry is only $15 more [than TSA Pre] and you really get this amazing experience at the checkpoint,” says J.C. “I think that’s really the smarter way to go.”
Depend on the kindness of strangers
When you’re dealing with a monster security line and your flight is dangerously close to leaving without you, now’s not the time for shyness. Go ahead and try asking your fellow passengers if you can go in front of them. “You’d be surprised,” says J.C. “People are generally very good-natured about that. They will say, ‘Go ahead.’ And that usually helps out.” J.C. also says airport staffers will often make arrangements to help pressed-for-time elderly passengers through checkpoints as well.
Or you could avoid the problem altogether; many airlines have premium travel programs that come with expedited security.
“If you are one of American’s premium travelers and you use Flagship check-in, we would be able to help you out there,” says J.C.
Ship your gifts beforehand
With the holidays coming up, this is an especially good tip to save you time and stress at the airport. If you’re planning to fly home with a bunch of gifts, save yourself some trouble and just ship them ahead of time.
“I have a very large extended family—a lot of nieces and nephews and I have four kids myself,” says J.C. “You want to take gifts for everybody and you want to make sure everybody feels loved the same way.”
But all those gifts can hold you up at the airport, require you to check bags and might even force you to pay additional fees for overweight baggage. “It really ends up sometimes creating an unpleasant moment because you’re just trying to make it through the checkpoint,” says J.C. “You’re carrying five different things and you realize you’re putting this unnecessary level of anxiety on yourself.”
Instead, J.C. skips the headache by shipping all that stuff beforehand.
“That allows me to just take the things that I absolutely need,” he says. “It’s just so much easier to simply ship it and it will be there when you get there.”
Time your food runs
You’ve made it through the gauntlet of traffic, check-in and security. Now you’re at the gate but now you’re hungry. How much time do you have to grab something?
“Typically the door of the aircraft closes 10 minutes before departure,” says J.C. “So I would give myself about 15 minutes for getting a to-go order. That now puts me at 25 minutes before the actual departure time.” Keep in mind, that’s still cutting it close; most airlines start boarding about 30 minutes before their departure times. But expert flyers like J.C.—who knows the airport restaurants like the back of his hand and knows how long each one takes to prepare a to-go order—can get away with it. “I frequent a lot of the places and I know how long it takes to get food in your hands,” he says.
He has other food tips. “I would say that the quickest food that is available is a pre-packaged salad or sandwich,” he says, suggesting you look for the to-go fridges scattered throughout many airport terminals.
Don’t forget that on many of the flights they do offer food for sale on board,” says J.C. “Or if you have an [American Airlines] Admiral’s Club membership you certainly have food available at there as well.”
Learn your airport shortcuts
One thing about airports is that they have lots of road signs navigating you out of them. Problem is, everyone else is following those signs, too—meaning that on high-traffic days, everyone is funneled into the same crowded roads. If there’s an airport that you use regularly, especially your home airport, take some time to study a map of its surrounding roads to see if there are any shortcuts you can use to bypass backups.
J.C. has figured out a number of shortcuts out of LAX; one involves a little-known roadway that runs past a police station that puts him back on the main thoroughfare of Sepulveda Boulevard much faster than the passengers who are following the signs there.
“I can’t divulge that,” J.C. laughs when asked how long it took him to figure out that shortcut. “Actually, it didn’t take very long. It’s that iterative process of how do you get from Point A to Point B the fastest way possible.”
And even though major airports are getting nicer by the day, never forget that main goal for any airport ninja: getting from Point A to Point B as fast, and with as few headaches, as possible.
This article was originally published by Yahoo! Travel under the headline Be an Airport Ninja—10 Insider Secrets for Airport Survival. It is reprinted here with permission.