Even as TSA lines reach record obnoxious levels, travelers have more ways than ever to get around them. Well, they have three, at least. But trying to figure out what those options are and which one to pick can be challenging. Let's take a look at two side by side: PreCheck and CLEAR.
TSA PreCheck gets you in and out of security faster, in a special, shorter line that demands less of you. An $85 fee pays for a background check that supposedly clears you for more relaxed travel security measures. You get a much shorter line, made up of only people who have $85 lying around. (According to the TSA, that's about 3 million people right now.) But on top of that, you also get a faster, relatively hassle-free process. You can keep your belt on. You can even keep your liquids and laptop in your luggage. You still need to keep your liquids in a baggie, though.
PreCheck is a popular program, and it works well if you're not creeped out by the whole concept of ponying up for preferential treatment by the government. PreCheck is in place at over 180 airports. That $85 fee gets you faster security clearance for a solid five years of traveling. And they claim that 97% of PreCheck members had wait times of 5 minutes or less going through security. That's kind of a big deal.
It's not without its downsides, though. The registration process is frustrating. You have to make an appointment, then travel to a physical location to actually register. There are currently 380 places to register, along with the occasional pop-up registration point, but it's still a hassle. It just depends on whether you want an expensive hassle before you go to the airport or a free hassle every time you try to travel. It can take a few months to actually complete sign-up, so enrolling right before a trip won't work. It's best for frequent fliers. Finally, as more and more people get sick of TSA and PreCheck becomes more and more popular, some of the utility diminishes because that line just gets longer and longer.
While TSA gets you through the security process faster, you still have to stand there and wait for them to check your ID and all that. CLEAR removes that part of the process by replacing the TSA Agent whose job it is to match your ID to your ticket with a computer. CLEAR isn't a TSA program; it's a private company that takes your fingerprints and your retina and lets you use them to skip that whole first part of the line and move directly to the part with the X-Ray machine and the conveyor belts for your luggage.
The good news is that CLEAR lets you jump what is far and away the biggest part of the security line with little more than the touch of a finger or a scan of the eye. And in large cities where even the PreCheck line is getting ridiculous, that's a massive boon.
But there are downsides. Not everybody's comfortable letting some upstart company just have their retinal scan lying around, especially in this day and age of ridiculous data breaches and rampant identity theft. Plus, you may get past that first checkpoint, but you don't get anything beyond that. You're stuck taking off your shoes and pulling out your bag of shaving cream like every other poor schmuck in line. Not to mention, CLEAR is pricey—$15/month. Another of its big downsides is location. Right now, CLEAR is only located at 16 airports, with a planned expansion into DTW. But they've recently partnered with Delta for a massive expansion, and even before that, they were growing slowly but steadily. You can carbon-date an article about CLEAR by how many airports it mentions. Even this piece from May only mentions 13 airports. In addition to expanding CLEAR to Delta hubs across the country, the airline is offering it free to their Diamond members.
Which is Worth It?
Honestly, CLEAR's utility is based almost entirely on whether you live in or travel to a city with a CLEAR kiosk regularly. If you're flying out of a place that has one all of the time, it's absolutely worth it. But you may want to consider doing it alongside PreCheck, so that you can save time on both ends of the process—skipping the first part of the line, then leaving your belt and jacket on and your luggage comfortably intact. If you're a frequent flier who can afford the expense—and again, if you live in a city where CLEAR has a presence—that would be the best option. And, as CLEAR continues to expand, it'll be the best option for more and more people. In the meantime, it's hard to justify the rather significant expense any other way.