I’ve had TSA PreCheck for a long time and Global Entry since the program started. But until this summer I had never signed up for CLEAR — another service that can help you speed through the airport. The main differences from those other services is that CLEAR is run by a private company and doesn’t change the actual security screening process. What it does provide is a dedicated line that gets you to the front before everyone else.
In addition to airports around the country, CLEAR is also available at an increasing number of public venues like sports stadiums, which also have security checkpoints.
- Atlanta (ATL)
- Austin (AUS)
- Baltimore (BWI)
- Dallas (DFW and DAL)
- Denver (DEN and Coors Field)
- Detroit (DTW and Comerica Park)
- Houston (IAH and HOU)
- Las Vegas (LAS)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- Miami (MIA, Marlins Park, and AA Arena)
- Minneapolis (MSP)
- New York (JFK, LGA, HPN, Yankee Stadium, and Citi Field)
- Orlando (MCO)
- Salt Lake City (SLC)
- San Antonio (SAT)
- San Francisco (SFO and AT&T Park)
- San Jose (SJC)
- Seattle (SEA)
- Washington, DC (IAD and DCA)
Is this expedited, front-of-the-line access a valuable service? Like I said, I was skeptical. My wife and I now have four months of experience using CLEAR so I think I can provide a more nuanced opinion based on over two dozen trips taken together and apart. (Full disclosure: CLEAR provided us with a complimentary membership.)
Using CLEAR at the Airport
The primary value of CLEAR, as I said, is getting you to the front of the line. You will still need to enroll in PreCheck or Global Entry (which includes PreCheck) if you want to keep your clothes on and your stuff in your bag. CLEAR members will need to register at a kiosk in the airport — no appointment required — and provide some biometric information including your fingerprints, retinal scan, and photograph. This takes the place of your normal ID check.
Every time you travel in the future, you can enter the CLEAR line at the airport, confirm your identity, and the CLEAR staff will escort you past the TSA ID check to the actual security screening queue. There are some airports where the queue just to get your ID checked can stretch for a very, very long time. I remember once spending an hour in line for PreCheck at Newark. Other times, even an airport with lower traffic can get busy during rush hour.
Last summer turned out to be a great opportunity to test our CLEAR benefits because I was often flying through SFO and visiting the Centurion Lounge in T3, which is another congested check-point, and my wife was traveling on weekly commuter flights between Seattle and Portland. CLEAR was great. We were often able to skip past lines of 20 people or more and got through security in under five minutes. If you lack PreCheck, you could have skipped past even longer queues.
On the other hand, there were plenty of times when CLEAR didn’t add value. Off-peak travel is more typical for me, and in less congested terminals, like T1 and T2 at SFO, there might be no lines at all. Ironically, the delay in waiting for a CLEAR staff member to escort me might have taken longer, especially when the entrances for CLEAR and PreCheck were on opposite sides of the checkpoint.
Is CLEAR Worth the Price?
So the problem is not really whether CLEAR is valuable — I think it can be — but whether it is valuable often enough to be worth the cost. That’s where I think personal circumstances matter.
CLEAR normally costs $179 per year or $15 per month. Up to three additional family members can be added for $50 per year, and children under 18 years old are free. As a family package, CLEAR could make a lot of sense. Besides, no one wants to wait in long lines with children. You can get an even better deal by signing up for a Delta SkyMiles account, which provides $99 annual memberships to CLEAR for general members and further discounts or even free membership to members with Sky Medallion status or a Delta credit card.
But even an individual road warrior who is going through congested airports could make it work. If you travel every other week for work and save 15 minutes each way, that’s an hour saved and definitely worth $15 per month, in my opinion.
The caveat is that you really shouldn’t sign up for CLEAR until after you enroll in TSA PreCheck. There is no reason to get to the front of the line and still endure a long, invasive screening process. PreCheck costs just $85 for five years, or $15 per year. It offers more value and is offered at more airports.
Bottom line: for those who have TSA PreCheck and are looking to get through the airport even faster, then CLEAR can be essential. PreCheck will make the security screening process faster, but only CLEAR lets you skip the line.
How to Make CLEAR Better
In its defense, CLEAR has been expanding to several new airports in recent months. Like PreCheck, which started small and got bigger later, the service will be more attractive as it is available in more places. Part of the value of PreCheck and CLEAR is in being able to expect the same security experience wherever you travel.
The bigger issue is improving the value proposition. CLEAR is still 12 times more expensive than PreCheck for an individual, or about 7.5 times more expensive for a couple. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here as CLEAR has huge fixed costs in terms of labor and dedicated security queues at each airport where it operates. It needs to recruit members to defray the average cost per customer and eventually lower its prices to recruit even more members. PreCheck faced the same problem in its early days.
Even so, I think part of the problem is that CLEAR is so labor intensive. There were often two or more people at every checkpoint. As I said, their sole purpose seemed to be to confirm I had used CLEAR before, help me scan my boarding pass, and then walk me to the actual security screening process. This could all be automated. I don’t need someone to greet met. I can scan my own boarding process. An electronic gate could open after my biometric ID is confirmed.
It all seems like a very expensive substitute to check a photo ID, so that, even at the airports where PreCheck faces congestion, what CLEAR really provides is a way to buy yourself a spot at the front of the line. I don’t have anything against capitalism and segmenting customers by their willingness to pay, but the potential of biometric identification to make travel faster for all trusted travelers is being vastly underutilized.