By George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog
Lines, lines, everywhere. Lines to check in, lines to drop bags, lines to get through security, lines at the gate, lines at customer service when everything goes haywire, lines at customs – you name it, airports have got you queuing up for it. Who's for skipping? We sure are – and we'll show you how it's done, step by step. Today, let's take a look at the concept of priority access, one of the easiest line hacks out there.
What is it?
Priority access can mean many things, but ideally, what you're looking for is the opportunity not only to jump ahead the security checkpoint lines – like you would if you were an airline elite, or a first-class passenger – but also get on board your plane first. Maybe there are other perks, such as priority baggage handling, too.
Who is lucky enough to get this?
Who gets priority all depends on which airline we are talking about. Some major carriers, such as American, reserve the very best of everything for their elite customers; the only way to buy in is to book a very expensive plane ticket. However, even American will sell you an opportunity to move your boarding position up as far as possible, without getting in the way of those who earned their spot with years of travel (or, again, those who paid thousands of dollars in plane fare). Not every airline is so protective of their most loyal customers. United, for example, packages up the nice treatment its elites receive – the dedicated airport check-in counters, special security lanes and priority boarding – and sells it off to anyone who can cough up as little as $9 per segment for the privilege. That's right – even if you booked one of those nonrefundable tickets in the very last. For $9, you're suddenly a VIP. US Airways offers the same thing for just $10.
Don't get too excited
United and US Airways are outliers in this category – most airlines tend to take a different view on the matter of priority access and priority boarding. What you get – if anything at all – all depends on whom you're flying. JetBlue sells a line-jumping product, called Even More Speed, but that's just for the security line (and, on a busy day at JFK's Terminal 5, well worth it, if only to take some of the stress out of your trip.) Virgin America, on the other hand, bundles the security speed-through with Group A boarding privileges and a seat towards the front of the line, allowing them to charge $30 as opposed to JetBlue's $10. Their product goes by the name Main Cabin Express. Still other airlines – Alaska is one notable example – offers nothing to its non-elites.
Is it all worth it?
Recognizing that every person has differing levels of anxiety as relates to airports and travel, it's tough to say, but here's a good rule of thumb: know exactly what you're buying – read the fine print before you spend the cash. There's an ocean of difference between United's Premier Access for $9 and American's Group 1 Boarding product for $10 – the latter's really no deal, unless the idea of having to gate check your bag (because there's no more room in the overhead bin) sends you into shock. Then there are the programs that have become popular enough that their value can often be considerably weaker: Southwest's EarlyBird Check-In offers you peace-of-mind that you'll be automatically assigned a boarding position ahead of the 24-hour mark that allows the general population to grab theirs. Sounds good for $12.50, sure, except that if enough people buy in, you're not guaranteed a slot in the A boarding group, which means that if you're lucky, you may squeeze into the middle seat of the exit row, between two grumpy looking guys doing their best death stare in hopes of scaring you off. Or maybe you won't even get that lucky. But, not to worry – Southwest has begun selling even better boarding slots for $40, 45 minutes before the flight. If there are any left, of course.
Make sense of the whole business with our handy airline-by-airline chart.
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