Do You Really Need CLEAR for Airport Security? Maybe Not
We’ve been big fans of CLEAR, the private company that lets you cut in line at many airports nationwide.
But let’s get something straight: CLEAR doesn’t make sense for everyone. While the company bills itself as a cure-all for long delays, that comes at a hefty cost. And there are other limitations to CLEAR that everyone should keep in mind before ponying up for a membership.
Here’s what you need to understand about CLEAR, and why the government-run TSA PreCheck program might be a better option.
PreCheck vs. CLEAR
While they’re similar in theory, CLEAR is a drastically different service from TSA PreCheck. And that’s before you get to the cost.
Let’s start with TSA PreCheck, a trusted-traveler program run by the federal government. You apply, interview in person, and (hopefully) get approved for TSA PreCheck – a process that typically takes two to three weeks from start to finish.
So long as the airline you’re flying participates in the program, just enter your Known Traveler Number and you’ll get access to the dedicated PreCheck lane at the airport. Not only is that line shorter, but you get to keep your shoes, a belt, and a light jacket on. And there’s no need to take the electronics or liquids out of your bag.
CLEAR, on the other hand, is more like a “cut to the front of the line” pass. If you have PreCheck, you get to cut to the front of that line, skipping the mandatory ID checks – so the two services work well in tandem.
But CLEAR is entirely separate from PreCheck – the two aren’t related at all. So if you don’t have PreCheck, you simply cut to the front of the standard security line.
Applying for CLEAR isn’t quite as cumbersome as getting TSA PreCheck. You can apply online at home, then wrap up your enrollment at the airport in about 5-10 minutes. From there, you just waltz to the CLEAR lane, scan your fingerprints or iris scans in one of the machines with an agent, and head to the front of the security lane.
But that comes at a cost, and it’s not cheap.
CLEAR is Expensive
Let’s just come right out and identify the problem: CLEAR starts at $179 a year.
That is a steep price, especially compared to TSA PreCheck, which costs just $85 for a five-year membership. Or Global Entry, which runs $100 for the same five-year period, getting you TSA PreCheck and a fast-pass through customs and immigration when returning to the U.S., too.
What’s more, you can cover the cost of your PreCheck or Global Entry Enrollment by using certain credit cards. A growing number of top travel cards will reimburse the entire cost of your application. That’s not an option when paying for CLEAR, as there’s not a credit card that will reimburse the cost.
That said, there are some ways to drastically reduce the annual cost.
Just by having a frequent flyer account with either Delta or United, you can drop the cost to $119 per year. Or if you’ve got one of their co-branded credit cards like the United Explorer Card or Delta SkyMiles Gold from American Express, that falls to $109. And finally, top-tier elites on both airlines can sign up for free.
Still, you can generally pay less for five years of TSA PreCheck than just one year of CLEAR. And it’s much easier to essentially get TSA PreCheck or Global Entry for free than it is to get CLEAR.
One silver lining with CLEAR is that you can bring any children under 18 with you for free. And you can add other adults under a family plan for just $50 each per year.
In our minds, if you’re traveling less than 10 times a year, there’s not much reason to have CLEAR. With such a high price tag, it’s the frequent travelers and business road warriors who can really squeeze the bang out of their buck for this service.
It’s Not Available Everywhere… Yet
CLEAR has grown lightning-fast, popping up at more and more airports.
That’s particularly true at Delta hubs, as the airline has invested heavily in the private service. After United’s recent decision to invest in CLEAR, too, the service will continue to grow.
But despite all that growth – with recent additions at Boston (BOS), Cincinnati (CVG), and even Birmingham (BHM) – it’s available at just 31 U.S. airports. And even massive airports like New York City (JFK) only have it at one or two terminals.
|Atlanta||Atlanta, GA||ATL||North & South Domestic Terminals|
|Austin||Austin, TX||AUS||Checkpoints 1 & 2|
|Baltimore||Baltimore, MD||BWI||Checkpoints A,B,C, D & E|
|Birmingham||Birmingham, AL||BHM||Main Terminal|
|Boston||Boston, MA||BOS||Terminal A|
|Cincinnati||Cincinnati, OH||CVG||Main Terminal|
|Cleveland ||Cleveland, OH||CLE||Center & South Checkpoints|
|Dallas-Fort Worth||Dallas, TX||DFW||Terminal E|
|Dallas-Love Field||Dallas, TX||DAL||Terminal 1|
|Denver||Denver, CO||DEN||North & South Entrances|
|Detroit||Detroit, MI||DTW||North & McNamara Terminals|
|Fort Lauderdale||Ft. Lauderdale, FL||FLL||Terminals 1 & 2|
|Houston-Intercontinental||Houston, TX||IAH||Terminal A, North & South|
|Houston-Hobby||Houston, TX||HOU||Main Terminal|
|Las Vegas||Las Vegas, NV||LAS||Terminals 1 & 3|
|Los Angeles||Los Angeles, CA||LAX||Terminals 1 - 7|
|Miami||Miami, FL||MIA||Checkpoints E & H|
|Minneapolis−Saint Paul||Minneapolis, MN||MSP||Terminal 1|
|New Orleans||New Orleans, LA||MSY||Concourse D|
|New York City-John F. Kennedy||New York, NY||JFK||Terminals 2 & 4|
|New York-LaGuardia||New York, NY||LGA||Terminals C & D|
|Westchester County||New York, NY||HPN||Main Terminal|
|Orlando||Orlando, FL||MCO||East & West Security|
|Phoenix||Phoenix, AZ||PHX||Terminals 2,3 & 4|
|Salt Lake City||Salt Lake City, UT||SLC||Terminals 1 & 2|
|San Antonio||San Antonio, TX||SAT||Terminals A & B|
|San Francisco||San Francisco, CA||SFO||Terminals 1-3, International Terminals A & G|
|San Jose||San Jose, CA||SJC||Terminal A & C|
|Seattle-Tacoma||Seattle, WA||SEA||Checkpoints 1-5|
|Washington, D.C. -Dulles International||Washington D.C.||IAD||Main Terminal & East Security Checkpoint|
|Washington, D.C.-Ronald Reagan||Washington D.C.||DCA||Terminals A, B & C|
That list leaves out big hubs like Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Philadelphia (PHL), Portland (PDX), and more. Considering PreCheck is available at more than 200 airports nationwide, it’s a stark difference.
If CLEAR isn’t readily available at your home airport, there’s virtually no reason to pay for a membership. It just won’t be worth it.
Backups at CLEAR
CLEAR acts as an easy way to cut to the front of the line, getting you through security in minutes. Except when it doesn’t.
Just as with all things in travel, your mileage may vary. Sometimes, CLEAR may allow you basically walk through the TSA checkpoint. Othertimes, even CLEAR lines can be backed up. It varies by airport, time of day, day of the week, and more.
In our experience, CLEAR typically only shaves off a few minutes beyond a normal trip through security. In some cases, it can actually be slower than a standard line or TSA PreCheck lane without CLEAR. And that gets to a significant flaw with the privately run service.
At many airports, new enrollees finalize their registration in the actual CLEAR security line. With a limited number of both agents and machines at each security checkpoint, that often creates a bottleneck that can slow things down or lead to backups.
In short, CLEAR is hit or miss. And when you’re paying as much as $179 a year, that just isn’t worth it for the average traveler.
CLEAR can be an absolute godsend for getting through security fast. Other times it’s not.
And even if you can get the service for as low as $109 per year, that’s a steep price to pay if you can’t use it often enough to make it worthwhile.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.