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9 Ways to Survive Chicago’s Airport Mess

A recent security line at O’Hare   Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Insane TSA security lines at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway won’t be going away anytime soon, but that shouldn’t put the kibosh on your summer travel plans. Here are nine things you can do to survive the TSA mess in Chicago and at other major airports across the country.

Sign up for PreCheck

No longer simply a no-brainer for frequent fliers who want to jet through security, the TSA’s expedited screening program is the new must-have for anyone wanting to avoid monster airport security lines. Apply online or visit the TSA’s newest enrollment center at Midway (there are some 10 others in the Chicagoland area), and check with your credit card company; some will cover the cost of the $85 application fee.

For $15 more, you can sign up for Global Entry through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This has the same benefits as TSA PreCheck, plus expedited passport and customs control lines after international travel. (Both programs require an in-person interview. Last week, the earliest available appointment for Global Entry was the last week of June.)

Time your flight to avoid the crowds

“Generally the middle of the day is lightest, while the morning is the busiest,” says Melanie Hinton, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, an airline trade association. An insider at United also shared that weekends and Mondays are historically busiest.

Arrive early

Especially at Midway, where longer lines like the one in this viral video have been reported. The TSA recommends arriving at airports two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international flights. Yes, it sucks to go that much earlier, but arriving early puts you in far more control of a largely unpredictable situation.

Check your luggage

If you can’t check it for free, such as when flying on Southwest or with premier status on a preferred airline, ask yourself: How much is your sanity worth? The usual $25 for your first bag may be a drop in the bucket compared to the possibility of being further delayed upon screening. And as a bonus, you can still pack that giant bottle of sunscreen.

Gauge your wait time with an app

Several free apps are crowdsourcing data to inform users of wait times at checkpoints around the country. The most promising are MiFlight, a navigation-style app modeled after Waze, and the TSA’s own app, MyTSA (which only logs the longest wait time as 31+minutes, making it less useful). Both are somewhat lacking in user data, but that may shift as desperate travelers seek solutions.

Dress for success

Despite all that time in a long line, it’s shocking how many travelers still show up unprepared for the actual screen. Here’s how to rock it and be ready: Opt for a jacket-free airline wardrobe that includes slip-on shoes and minimal jewelry and buckles; leave the water bottles and pocketknives behind; and have your ID and ticket in hand.

Try another terminal

When flying domestically from O’Hare, for example, you actually have three terminals to choose from—just plan to make your way back to your terminal once you’ve passed through security. Next time you find yourself facing a ridiculous TSA line, look for a friendly airport employee and ask if either neighboring terminal is less hectic. According to an insider at O’Hare, Terminal 2 tends to see the lightest lines.

Choose an alternate airport

Chicago Rockford International Airport is about an hour and a half outside of Chicago, flies to nine destinations (including Orlando and Cancun), but not many people know about it. A smoother TSA check and free parking are big draws.

Take advantage of premier status security screening

Got premier status with an airline? Put it to work at both O’Hare and Midway, where major airlines offer access to shorter priority screening lines to fliers with status. 

Want more tips? Read our award-winning feature, ”The Savvy Traveler’s Guide to Chicago Airports,” June 2015

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