a blue passport with gold text on it

Controversial, right? Hear me out. If you ever scroll to the bottom of your airline e-ticket receipt, you’ll see some wild $#!t!

What an airline earns from your ticket is a fraction of what you pay, and that’s because a myriad of government imposed fees, surcharges and taxes are added on. On a $300 ticket to Europe, the airline might be making fifty bucks, sometimes less.

This often begs the question: what do all those fees go to? There are stock answers like security, government infrastructure and staffing, but the accountability to the public is a bit bleak at best.

Something is automatically added and we have no idea if we as passengers are actually benefiting from it.

a row of white and black machines

Enter Paid Memberships

The US has been a world leader in creating airport security and immigration products and experiences, like TSA PreCheck, CLEAR or Global Entry. There, I said it.

I’m not saying the general experience is the best. It’s far from.

But, when we pay a fee to become a member or subscriber of these travel products and we know exactly what we’re supposedly getting. It’s not just for government cronies, or frequent travelers like in some countries, but for everyone.

If priced and implemented correctly, these services bring additional economic value for government stakeholders from virtually every “member” passing through an airport, while providing opportunities to make travel suck a bit less and be a bit safer too.

I take this stance because I travel the world regularly, and there are very few places where I can all but guarantee my departure and arrival timings quite like the US.

With Global Entry, I know that I won’t spend more than 15 minutes clearing United States immigration upon arrival. Usually, it’s under 2 minutes and I don’t even take my passport out anymore.

It’s a miracle which allows me to spend more time with my family and choose later flights, knowing I’ll still be somewhere with relative certainty on timing. Global Entry is a bit of hassle to register for, but it’s getting so much easier and is open to so many nationalities now too. My daughter is three and has it, and used interview on arrival to get it done.

With TSA PreCheck, I know I can pack efficiently and that each passenger screened should move faster, given that they need to make fewer adjustments to their bags. There is always room for amateur hour, but even that is mitigated with the flow.

When I throw CLEAR on top of PreCheck, and skip to the front of the PreCheck lane, I can add even greater time certainty to my journeys. I feel very confident showing up at most major US airports under 35 minutes from departure for a domestic, or under an hour for an international and believe I’ll make the flight.

Victoria Peak skyline at night

Constant Reference Points Abroad

Traveling the world provides great reference points to successes and failures. Many countries are actually better at the generic screening for all passengers. I’d argue many have more professionally trained staff. But, while that’s true, there’s no “cheat code”.

Every time I pass through parts of Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, I’m dumbfounded that there’s so little opportunity to leave my laptop or liquids in my bag, or to join a separate queue for paying members. Very few countries have introduced a “trusted traveler” framework which monetizes demand of people who want speed.

Heck, at the UK’s biggest gateway of London Heathrow, there’s no general public opportunity for travelers to pay for a better airport security screening experience. The only pedantic exception would be to use Heathrow VIP, to the tune of £1000’s for a private terminal.

Even someone on a business class ticket with “fast track” access can end up spending over an hour slugging through security, removing all liquids and other items. The UK could be making more money from frequent travelers which could go to an endless array of projects, including climate initiatives by offering a paid option.

Rumor has it that CLEAR may provide this in the UK soon, but it can’t come soon enough.

Why The US Gets It Most Right

The US gets many things wrong. Full stop. But, it is very good at creating products worth buying and partnering to get them into as many hands as possible, seamlessly.

TSA PreCheck is “free” for many people as part of a credit card benefit, so too is Global Entry. CLEAR has preferred pricing for loyalty members of most US airlines.

Many people who *should* have PreCheck or Global Entry have just been too lazy to enroll, despite the free access from a credit card they hold. But the truth remains the same, anyone with a clean record can buy a truly better airport screening experience.

You don’t need to be a frequent flyer, just a savvy buyer. The world needs more and more opportunity to make the pain point and greatest time variable of travel better.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. But you can only access those programmes if you’re an american citizen, or a citizen of a very limited number of countries. I’d love to pay for expedited immigration, but I can’t. However, even though I don’t pay for expedited immigration when returning to the UK, I can just stick my passport into a machine and get through in a fraction of the time it takes in the US.

    The US could massively reduce the cost of operating border services by implementing this system. Why do you even need to interrogate returning citizens?

  2. I agree to an extent, but Clear becoming increasingly worthless when the line is just as long as TSA PreCheck. And the point made by @Vasco is spot on. The arrival system for the US is still not modern even with Global Entry. Every single time I have to stop and answer at least one question and sometimes been there 5 minutes; even one question means that I’m never actually a “trusted traveler”. Whereas the UK’s arrival through e-gates is world leading, free to use and I don’t think I’ve ever stopped.

  3. meh – the glaring omission here is that the US programs are really for ‘domestic US passport/greencard holders’ so the US entry experience for foreigners is equal to the US citizens entering other countries experience you’re describing . .
    Personally I’m fortunate to be a dual also holding euro passport and my experience entering europe is a MUCH MORE pleasant / streamlined experience WITHOUT having to participate in any additional programs . . so my comment really is that for eurozone citizens the eurozone re-entry / immigration / customs experience is already better than the US

  4. With GE and PreCheck and lucky arrival gate placement I have been able to make onward flights that I would have otherwise missed — but that is when without checked luggage to claim. With checked luggage to claim, the time savings are less significant than when traveling with only cabin baggage.

  5. To say the least this is controversial.
    Having traveled the world for 20+ years with multiple entries to the US every year, I can without hesitation say that US immigration consistently ranges somewhere between poor and terrible.
    1) Immigration can take anywhere from 15min (if you are really lucky) to 2½ hours. Standing in long lines, with no or very limited facilities. I feel sorry for those with small children
    2) Screaming and shouting support staff. “go there”, “stop here”
    3) Minimum connection times does not take the awful state of US immigration into account – and if you God forbid ask an officer for help as you are about to miss your connection, they could not care less
    4) The complete absence of a transit areas for those going to Canada, Mexico or other non-US destination is just another piece to the US immigration disaster

    The above “cheat codes” mentioned are only for a select few – and are not really relevant to bring up. Where things have improved are the friendliness of the immigration officers. Previously they were often rude and offensive – not so much anymore. Regardless US immigration is from a visitor perspective a complete disaster – with no or little regard for the visitors to the US.

    It is a breeze getting back to Europe.

    1. Look the entire point of the article is the “cheat codes” you mention which make all your numbered points irrelevant. The fact is that they are open broadly to US citizens and other nationalities. So yes, the US may not be the best at general immigration formalities, but we offer paid services where we are the best. That’s the entire points and angle of the article, so your tangent feels tangental.

      1. Look, the “cheat codes” are NOT generally available.
        TSA precheck is only available to US citizens or permanent residents
        Global Entry is only potenitally available to a mere 20 nationalities on top of US citizens.

        So if you argue that US immigration is best for US citizens, you may be right
        For all others, US immigration is a case study in worst in class performance.

  6. You appear to be judging this from a US perspective. As you know, many rules affecting the travel experience worldwide originate from the US, and it is amazing that the US then offers its own citizens ways to make it a bit easier exclusively for them (e.g. TSA Pre).

    Having said that, the arrival experience in many countries is much better than the US, especially with the prevalence of all the passport terminals (as per @Vasco above). Customs is also way quicker and more efficient outside the US without the massive lines that I have often had to deal with.

    If you want to have a great and efficient travel experience, look at e.g. Singapore. Not only is immigration quick, you rarely have to wait more than a few minutes (if at all) for your luggage, and you are out of the airport within minutes of reaching immigration.

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