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Are Trusted Traveler Programs Worth the Hassle?

Airport Security: The TSA has opened up enrollment in its PreCheck DHS Trusted Traveler program to anyone who wants to join—and pay the $85 fee for five years participation. As a Trusted Traveler, you are eligible to use the presumably-shorter airport security lines and you are exempt from removing your shoes, belt, and light jacket and from taking your 3-1-1 bag for fluid containers and your laptop out of your carry-on baggage.

To enroll, you have to be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who has not been convicted of serious felonies. (Check here for the full list.) If you qualify and are interested:

  • Arrange an appointment and visit an application center, where you provide the usual biographic information, document your citizenship (passports are the best), provide fingerprints, and pay a nonrefundable $85 application fee. You can complete part of the process online.
  • If accepted, TSA issues you a “Known Traveler Number,” or KTN, which you give to your airline when you buy a ticket. As a practical matter, the best way to do this is to enter your KTN in your airline’s frequent-flyer profile.
  • When you fly, your boarding pass shows your Trusted Traveler status.

The program works through airlines, not airports, but most airlines that serve big airports belong to the system, including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways, and Virgin America.

Currently, more than 100 U.S. airports have PreCheck security lines—mostly the larger, busier fields. But not all boarding areas have PreCheck lines, even though a participating airline may fly there: PreCheck is not available for Hawaiian Airlines at Los Angeles, for example, even though Hawaiian participates at other locations.

For now, enrollment is something of a challenge. The only active enrollment center is at the Indianapolis airport, but TSA plans to open three more by the end of the year and ultimately up to 300. So, for now, your best bet is to get into PreCheck by enrolling in some other Trusted Traveler program, including Global Entry (international travel, generally), Nexus (travel to Canada), and Sentri (travel to Mexico).

Meanwhile, you may also get Trusted Traveler treatment for no cost by being called out of the general line at the screening point on a random basis. But you can’t ever predict when that might happen.

In operation, PreCheck is supposed to get you into a faster screening line than the one used by others. But quite a few travel writers have reported slower lines at PreCheck than the regular lines.

Customs and Immigration: International travelers returning to the United States can take advantage of two automated kiosk systems to speed the often-tedious reentry process:

  • Global Entry is the more comprehensive. Its enrollment process is similar to PreCheck, except that the fee is $100, enrollment centers are available at 29 large U.S. and eight Canadian airports and kiosks are available at these and a few other airports. Once enrolled, you place your passport and fingers on the kiosk’s reader, enter a few details, and the kiosk issues a document that lets you bypass the immigration and customs desks completely. I’ve used it and it cuts a lot of time out of the procedure.
  • Several important international gateways have installed kiosks that read your passport, but you still have to go through the immigration and customs line. Trade reports indicate that these kiosks can cut processing time substantially, but not as much as Global Entry.

Should You Enroll? Unless you fly several times a year, paying $85 for PreCheck or $100 for Global Entry is probably not a good value, especially given that you might be able to get through without enrolling.

But if you’re a frequent flyer, PreCheck may work often enough to justify the cost. If you’re a frequent international traveler, Global Entry looks like a very good deal. And because Global Entry looks good, it’s a better avenue than PreCheck to Trusted Traveler status, both because of the international benefits and the nationwide availability of enrollment centers.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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