Before you head to the airport for a flight, it’s a wise idea to check how long you should expect to wait at the security checkpoint. Knowing this info ahead of time can help you decide if you should depart earlier than you planned and get you mentally prepared if there’s a long queue.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to know where to find this information. The Transportation Security Administration provides updates on its website, but the data isn’t updated consistently, and it only covers U.S. airports. Major airports with their own apps and Twitter feeds generally don’t provide real-time checkpoint wait times.
A number of travel tech companies are trying to do better, feeding historic data into super-secret algorithms to determine airport security wait times and making that info available in apps. Using Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as an example, I took a look at a few of these free airport security apps — along with the TSA’s website — to see how they compare.
My TSA: The TSA has a simple-to-use website called “View Security Wait Times.” But the agency relies on fliers to provide updates, and that isn’t happening often enough. On Monday evening, for example, the wait time at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport hadn’t been updated on TSA’s website in six hours. Was there still only a 10-minute wait at the main checkpoint? It’s impossible to know.
flightSpeak: This app provides security wait times plus maps, dining options, Wi-Fi info and direct links to airport Twitter accounts for hundreds of airports around the world. On the main page for Atlanta on flightSpeak, it showed Atlanta’s wait time as 10 to 20 minutes. Yet this was not wholly accurate.
If you happen to click on that timespan on the app — there’s no prompt to click on it; I just happened to touch that feature when exploring the page — it shows a new page explaining that the 10- to 20-minute wait is the aggregate time for the entire airport. It then breaks down wait times according to five checkpoint locations. The main checkpoint, it says, is actually a 30- to 40-minute wait. So the wait could potentially be four times longer than I had been expecting. And I don’t know when the data was last updated, because it doesn’t say.
MiFlight: This savvy app crowdsources wait times at more than 150 airports. When I selected Atlanta’s Concourse F, in the international terminal, MiFlight told me the wait was 30 minutes, with info updated within the past five minutes.
The app is pretty in its design and singular in its purpose, but it took me a few tries to figure out how to navigate.
Fleet: This crowdsourced app provides info on a few dozen major airports. When I entered a late-night flight from Atlanta to Santiago, Chile, the app told me that my particular Delta flight has a history of being on time 93 percent of the time, then revealed that the check-in desk and security lines were “not crowded.” As of when? And how do you define “not crowded”? It was hard to know.
Strangely enough, though, I felt a greater comfort level with the vaguer description than I did with other apps’ specific time frames.
The app goes on to provide additional helpful details about the flight, including flying time, the cost of checked bags, even how much carbon I used for this flight.
Bottom line: None of these sources seems 100 percent trustworthy 100 percent of the time. Use them as a general guideline, but continue to follow best practices for domestic and international departures based on when you’re flying.
Security Shortcut ‘Clear’ Coming to Four of the Busiest U.S. Airports
Conde Nast Traveler reports that there will soon be another way to speed through four busy American airports: Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York LaGuardia and New York JFK. Clear (unlike the government-run TSA PreCheck) is a private program that lets you pay an annual fee to skip the line for document check at security.
9 Reasons You Need to Visit Mongolia in 2017
Vogue highlights the charms of a destination most travelers have never considered: Mongolia. After reading about its wide-open spaces and unique spiritual culture, we’re moving it up our must-visit list.
The City with a Chip on Its Shoulder
What unites so-called “second cities,” wonders BBC? It’s not just the fact of being a country’s second-most-populous city, but also traits such as fewer expectations and a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
Ancient History Along the Nile
This essay from the New York Times captures what it’s like to cruise Egypt’s Nile River, with all its enchantments and quirks.
This week’s video is a unique job opportunity. A family of five is seeking a nanny to travel with them and homeschool their young children — with all travel expenses paid.
Your Awkward Family Travel Photos
Have a laugh over this slideshow from the New York Times featuring bad ’80s hair, goofy poses and kids having temper tantrums — all the stuff great family trips are made of.
Why I Love Being a Pilot
A pilot tells the Guardian about his experience of “place lag,” which he describes as the feeling of being immersed in one destination and then, after a few hours on a plane, having to suddenly adapt to a new place and culture.
The Ultimate Berlin Street Food
BBC Travel investigates the history and cultural significance of currywurst, which is said to have been invented in 1949 by a bored snack bar owner in West Berlin.
5 Changes That Have Made Flying Safer
Conde Nast Traveler highlights just how safe it is to fly these days — there were only 136 fatalities last year out of 3.5 billion fliers — and explains the policies and technology that have led us to this point.
Google’s Mobile Service Gets International Upgrade
Travelers who rely on their phones abroad should check out this article from Travel + Leisure, which describes improvements to Google’s Project Fi mobile service — including high data speeds in more than 100 countries. (One important caveat: So far the service is only available for Google’s Nexus phones.)
CT Scanners Could End the Liquid Ban, and They’re Coming to Phoenix This Year
Airline blogger Cranky Flier reports that American Airlines will be testing out CT scanners at Phoenix Sky Harbor International this year. Such technology is currently in use for checked bags, but if it comes to the airport security checkpoint it could conceivably speed up the line and possibly even keep us from having to pull out our bags of liquids and gels. Here’s hoping…
This week’s video is a twofer from Visit Norway, which has introduced a new campaign called Sheep with a View. First up is the video introducing the project, while the second one is a behind-the-scenes look that’s even cuter.
Catch up on the travel stories you may have missed over the past week.
The TSA Is a Waste of Money That Doesn’t Save Lives and Might Actually Cost Them
Vox makes a provocative case against the beleaguered TSA, which has been under fire in recent weeks for extra-long lines. Not only does the TSA not ensure our safety, the author argues, but it actually causes more deaths (because travelers elect to drive instead of fly to avoid the hassle of security, leading to more road accidents).
The World’s Most Polite Country?
BBC Travel investigates the Japanese concept of omotenashi, a combination of “exquisite politeness” and “a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.” From toilet seats that spring up when you enter a bathroom to people wearing masks to protect others from catching their colds, politeness is a Japanese way of life.
EasyJet Develops a Vibrating Smart Shoe to Help You Navigate a New City
This European discount airline won’t just fly you from one city to another, reports Travel + Leisure — it’s also trying to get you from one neighborhood to another using vibrating sneakers that tell you when to turn. The shoes, called “Sneakairs,” sync up to your smartphone to help direct you with GPS.
Malaria Vaccine Protects Half Who Try It
NBC News reports that an experimental new malaria vaccine protected 55 percent of the volunteers who tested it — which beats out the performance of the current vaccine on the market, which protects just 30 percent. This could benefit future travelers to malaria-stricken regions, but the new vaccine is still years away.
Life on the Other End of an Airline Reservations Line
An AFAR writer got a chance to work as a customer service agent for Delta Air Lines, and discovered the most efficient way to raise a complaint, what the agent can see about you when your call pops up on his or her screen, and how much power a phone agent actually has.
This Is 2016. Why Can’t We Still Book Specific Rooms in a Hotel?
Skift raises a good question: We can book a certain seat on a plane, so why can’t we choose our own hotel room? The answer is that we can … sometimes … and that there are a couple of sites out there that are working to make this capability more widely available.
How Travel Insurance Saved My Life
If you skip buying travel insurance on some trips, you may change your mind after reading this piece from Conde Nast Traveler. After coming down with dengue fever on a trip to Vietnam, the author didn’t get adequate medical treatment until her travel insurance company stepped in to advocate on her behalf.
In the face of government warnings against travel to Iran, these travelers show another side of the country in this thought-provoking video.
After taking a few weeks off for the holidays, we’re back with another round-up of all the travel news you need to know.
Uber Is Thinking of Getting into the Travel Business
Uber has already revolutionized the way many of us travel, and the company isn’t done yet, judging by a recent patent. Business Insider explains how a new feature called “Uber Travel” would allow the company to find you flights and accommodations, as well as recommend the best time to call an Uber based on when you’re scheduled to land at an airport.
Hilton Wants You to Pay $50 for What?
As if we needed more fees in our life! Time reports that Hilton is testing out a new program that charges a $50 fee for any cancellation, even if it’s far in advance of your stay. (Wait till the day of arrival and you’ll pay for a full night.) The charge is designed to discourage travelers from using websites and apps that hunt for price drops and rebook them at a lower rate.
Zika: Coming to America Through Mosquitoes, Travel and Sex
In other bad news, there’s a new virus spreading around the world, according to Forbes. Known as zika, the illness is related to yellow fever and dengue, and was first discovered in Uganda. These days it’s heading northward from Brazil, transmitted mainly via mosquitoes. (Sexual transmission is suspected but not proven.) The best prevention method is to use mosquito nets and bug spray when traveling in affected areas.
The TSA May Now Deny You the Right to a Pat-Down
Those of us who feel uncomfortable with the TSA’s full-body scanners have always had the option of choosing a pat-down by a security officer instead — until now. The Department of Homeland Security released a statement last month giving the TSA the right to make a full-body scan mandatory “as warranted by security considerations,” reports Frommer’s.
Who Are the World’s Safest Airlines for 2016?
Nervous fliers won’t want to miss this annual list from AirlineRatings.com, which highlights the 20 safest airlines in the world. And the winner is … Australia-based Qantas, which tops the charts for the third year in a row. Several U.S. airlines made the grade, including American, Alaska, Hawaiian and United.
These 38 Airlines Have the Lowest Airline Safety Ratings
And here’s the counterpoint: the worst-rated carriers on AirlineRatings.com, as rounded up by Travel + Leisure. The good news is that you’ve probably never heard of any of these airlines, so you’re not too likely to fly them. (TransNusa? Daallo Airlines? Anyone?!)
We wrap up this week’s edition with a short film from western Mongolia, which captures the day-to-day life of the nomadic Kazakh people, including the fascinating way they train eagles to hunt for game.
Starting next year, travelers from certain U.S. states may no longer be able to use their driver’s licenses to get through security checkpoints at the airport.
Time reports that the four states in question include New York, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Louisiana (as well as American Samoa), which currently issue driver’s licenses that do not meet the security requirements of the Real ID Act. This act was passed by Congress in 2005 in response to a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission; it sets minimum security standards for driver’s licenses and other identification cards.
Although implementation of parts of the act began last year, it will not affect air travelers until “no sooner than 2016,” says the Department of Homeland Security website; this is when the new standards will apply to travelers boarding any federally regulated commercial plane.
So what does this mean for you? If you’re a resident of one of the affected states, you’ll need to bring a passport or passport card to use as identification in order to board a domestic flight. For international flights, all U.S. citizens must continue to show their passports as usual.
At a time when more than three ounces of liquid could get you into trouble with the TSA, it seems absurd that loaded guns are legal at many airports throughout the United States.
Earlier this month, as reported by Yahoo! Travel, a man brought a loaded semiautomatic rifle into the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta in what seemed to be a cry for attention when he was there to drop his daughter off for a flight. According to laws in Georgia, he was within his rights to do so, but that didn’t stop police from questioning him or travelers who spotted the weapon from complaining about him.
According to website Florida Carry, 44 U.S. states allow individuals with permits to carry loaded guns into unrestricted airport areas. It’s acceptable as long as nobody attempts to take them through security. (Individual municipalities and airports have the authority to put more strict regulations in place to ban firearms from airports completely.)
A law is one thing, but good judgement is another, particularly at a sensitive place like an airport where edgy travelers — including children — can be easily spooked by that sort of display. Do you think an airport is the place to make a political statement by bringing a gun? Be sure to share your thoughts below.
Flying is a process. Getting to the airport. Checking bags. Removing shoes and laptops and toiletries and shuffling along through security checkpoints. Although I sometimes question whether all this adds up to better security or just security theater, it’s nice to think that the TSA agents are looking out for our safety by screening passengers. But who’s screening the TSA agents?
According to the TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee, it would cost too much and be too logistically difficult to do complete security checks on all of its employees, and full scans wouldn’t help that much anyway since such screenings are “incapable of determining a person’s motivations, attitudes and capabilities to cause harm.”
But wouldn’t that also be true of the system’s effectiveness when scanning passengers — people who don’t have clearances that allow them access to restricted areas?
Apparently the issue of restricted access is being addressed, as well. CNN reports that the number of access points to these areas is being reduced. TSA employees will also have to undergo background checks once every two years and go through the same security screenings as everyone else when traveling as airline passengers themselves. Employees are also subject to random, unannounced screenings, and increased surveillance of baggage handling and cargo areas has been recommended to combat theft of passenger items by employees.
Just when we’ve finally figured out how to comply with those complicated liquid and gel restrictions at airport security, they could be on the way out — at least in Europe.
Last week, London’s Heathrow Airport began installing screening devices that can test liquids, gels and aerosols in a variety of containers, reports the Los Angeles Times. The devices, made by the Ohio-based Battelle company, use radio waves and ultrasonic technology to scan for explosives. To see the machine in action, check out the following video from Battelle:
The Los Angeles Times reports that Heathrow will begin using the technology in January, but only for medicine and duty-free liquids. Assuming the initial results are good, the airport may start to permit other liquids and gels through the new screeners within the next year. The European Union is hoping to lift the liquid and gel ban in all of its airports by 2016.
Here in the U.S., Battelle’s liquid scanner is one of several types of technology being considered for use in airports, but the Los Angeles Times quotes a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) statement that doesn’t seem to bode well for any quick changes: “Liquid explosives are a serious threat, and we aren’t ready to move away from the ban on liquids.”
Bottom line: Don’t leave your quart-size bag at home just yet.
As we enter day two of the limited U.S. government shutdown, so far travelers are mostly unaffected by the congressional deadlock. It’s business as usual at airports and border crossings, and passport applications are still being processed. However, travelers hoping to go leaf-peeping in a national park or visit the Smithsonian museums are out of luck.
All national parks, monuments, historic sites and other properties run by the National Park Service are closed (and you can’t even access their websites) during the shutdown. And this doesn’t just affect sites in the U.S. — the Normandy American Cemetery in France will also be closed for the duration of the shutdown, along with other overseas properties run by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
State parks are a good alternative to consider for those seeking hiking trails, outdoor recreation and scenic landscapes while the national parks are closed. Thrillist has put together a list of state parks near popular national properties such as Yellowstone, Zion and Acadia.
If the shutdown continues, travelers may start to see a slowdown at airports and ports as more employees may be furloughed or those who are covering for furloughed employees begin to burn out. Already, one third of the Federal Aviation Administration’s workforce has been furloughed, the (Newark) Star-Ledger reports. FAA officials said the furloughs have so far not affected daily flight operations or safety.
A spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the Star-Ledger that staffing at airport security checkpoints will not be reduced. At cruise ports and border patrol checkpoints, U.S. Customs and Border Control will most likely be unaffected, as “they have been deemed law enforcement necessary or necessary for the safety of life and protection of property,” the CPB states on its website.
For travelers in the process of getting a passport, the longer the shutdown continues the greater the chance the passport won’t come. At the moment, passport services are functioning as normal with a processing time of up to four weeks for routine applications and two weeks for expedited service. For some people, though, actually picking up their passport could already be a problem as any passport agency located in a government building affected by the shutdown “may become unsupported,” the Department of State wrote on its website.