Strategies to Pick the Quickest Lines at the Airport

I recently found myself flying an airline where I had no elite status. I didn’t have their app on my phone, so I tried to use the kiosk. It wasn’t working, so I had to pick a line. Fortunately it was a small airport, not that many passengers, have you seen economy check-in lines?

The way the airport was set up it wasn’t a single queue and multiple agents serving the queue, it was multiple separate lines. It was more like a supermarket checkout scenario than what I usually see at the airport.

So I had to put my supermarket strategizing on.

  • Don’t pick a line where the agent isn’t there, or there are two agents. If the agent is gone they’re probably talking to a supervisor about a problem. If two agents are present they’re probably talking about the problem together. Either way, there’s a problem, and the line will invariably move slowly.

  • Avoid inexperienced travelers, or pick the line with fewer of them. If the luggage is wrapped in plastic, if they’ve come with an entourage (one person has luggage but lots of people in the group), you want to avoid them. They’ll take longer, and they’ll be interacting with people other than the agent working check-in.

  • That doesn’t mean groups are bad. A single group traveling together will usually be on one reservation, their check-in will go faster than the same number of people traveling separately.

You’ll go through a similar process when picking a security line, too, if there’s more than one. Even going through priority security (though often not Precheck) at a major airport you’ll still have to pick which nude-o-scope and x-ray machine line to use.

I try to size up the line based on limited information, so pick the shortest one. And like many other prejudices, I invariably get it long. And wait. And wait. And wait.

So this is what it’s like not to be a frequent flyer, I thought.

I didn’t have to check a bag, fortunately. If I did, without status and without the airline’s co-brand credit card, I’d be trying to take it through security anyway. Because even though I’d have to gate check it most likely, I wouldn’t be charged. Or — since we’re talking generically here, if an airline other than Spirit was going to charge me it wouldn’t be more than paying the fee upfront.

How do you pick which check-in and security lines to use?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary….Murphy’s Law – perversity of the universe! Youwill always select the wrong check-out line at your favorite store, the slowest land on the expressway and the wrong TSA line. Suck it up and deal with it!

  2. 5 years of weekly Costco shopping have taught me that blind guessing is usually the best strategy. Every time I try to overthink it, it never works.

  3. Agreed. Every time I make a conscious choice I get it wrong. It never fails! It’s hard not to try to strategize, but when I do manage to just pick any line at random things usually work out better. 🙂

  4. At LAX, if I rent Budget there will be 4 Avis shuttles zipping by before a Budget scuttles along. If I get Avis, none will come before a Budget shuttle. happens everytime although they are the same company.

  5. Generally try to avoid returning to US from locations using Pre Clearance (Immigration+Customs). YYZ is the exception to this as it works well.Came back from DUB 2x’s in July and it was one conga line from the time we got out of the cab. Spent 40 minutes in EXP line to check a bag (which means those annoying people who normally ask 5 ??s then put a stamp on back of your passport had longer to annoy you with 15 questions.Then line up for Irish version of TSA,walk around a corner and do it again for US TSA folks. Around another corner to Imm and Customs folks.And don’t think you will avoid this line by using the GE kiosk cuz then you get funnelled back to a rep who asks you to identify the luggage that you checked in.And the beat goes on.

  6. The only thing I could do is advise my fellow travelers to not to get on the same line as me, as I invariably pick the wrong line. (On the other hand, my travel karma is such that I tend to get very good weather when on vacation, so I’ll take that cosmic trade-off.)

  7. good tips- the other constructive comment i would add is check how many agents serve each lines. Often in foreign immigration lines, there will be two agents serving one line, but only one agent serving another. Then i choose the two agent line, even if the line is a little longer.

  8. I’ve noticed for check in the first class and status line always seems to have only one person at the counter. Whereas the economy will have three or four. . So even with only two people ahead of you in line for first, the economy line always moves foster

  9. Universal truths as known to me:

    1. Whatever line I choose will be the slowest


    2. If I give you a stock tip, immediately mortgage your home, your kids, your soul and short the stock.


  10. “A single group traveling together will usually be on one reservation, their check-in will go faster than the same number of people traveling separately.”?

    I’m not so sure about the above holding true, especially when it comes to international flights where passengers are generally required to show passports and are flying to/from a country with some kind of passenger document data capture/transfer required by governmental authorities.

  11. Sometimes I can look at people and I know they will have a problem. Seems like for some everything is complicated . A few ( not many ) times I’ve been behind someone and started thinking that what they really wanted was for an extra measure of attention from their captive audience .
    When ever I’m the one holding up the show I apologize to everyone . That seems to help a little .
    I try to be organized and keep things moving . Sometimes I don’t get it right .
    Keep Smiling !

  12. Daryl, your apology just makes you feel better… assured everyone else in the line behind you still hates you for taking up their valuable time.

    Have a nice day and wear a red stocking cap when you go to the airport, so I can get in a different line.

  13. 1. I always have precheck data in my FF profiles, and these days it consistently makes it to the boarding pass. (The picture looks like Reagan – which can be unpredictably crowded or empty. But you can see to the left that the precheck line is much shorter.)
    2. Scope out which is the shortest line first – sometimes there is one a little further down but people are queing at the first one they see.
    3. If the lines are about the same I also do a quick scope of the people in line and look for people who seem likely to slow it down.

  14. Make it a game, not a life or death decision. Just take the line/lane the person in front of you didn’t take, then get either thrilled you keep “ahead” of her/him as you near the air side goal, or heartburn if you fall behind in the race. You can up the game by making a bet for coffee with her/him before you get to the fork in the road and winner buys. (Reverse logic.)

  15. One last thought on standing in the wrong line:

    I always try to avoid becoming frustrated and instead ‘shift’ into aggressive strategic thinking about my next client and how I can close the sale. Often a slow moving line ultimately results in a better closing ratio, which translates to additional income.

  16. at the risk of sounding ageist, I avoid lines with babies and very young children, families who have a lot of loose items

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