How To Speed Your Way Through The Airport

How To Speed Your Way Through The Airport

Flying is the fastest way to get there, but the number of queues you need to stand in can sometimes make it seem like the slowest. Here’s some useful strategies to make your transit through the airport as fast as possible.

Picture by jamesmorris

Compared to their international counterparts, Australian airports are actually relatively straightforward. In the major capital cities, you need to know two things to ensure you’re actually at the right terminal in the first place: whether you’re flying international or domestic, and whether you’re flying Qantas or (broadly speaking) anyone else. After that, your choices of what to do are pretty limited.

That’s a very simple proposition compared to the multi-terminal behemoths found in the US, where frequent travellers often develop complex strategies involving clearing a less busy terminal that ends up connected to a busier one. Those rules are rarely useful at Australian airports.

Because there are no restrictions on liquids and gels for Australian domestic flights, there’s also generally a bit less futzing about at the security checkpoint. That said, because people without tickets can clear security, there’s often more people waiting to get through, some of whom apparently can’t read gigantic signs telling them to completely empty their pockets. We also have one of the more document-heavy departure processes for international flights, which can add to the time taken when you’re leaving the country.

I’ll freely admit that I’m the kind of impatient soul who curses when someone goes through the metal detector three times because they didn’t realise they still had a phone in their pocket. Getting through quickly helps other people get through quickly. Here’s the strategies I’ve adopted as a ludicrously frequent flyer to make airport transits within Australia a tad faster. (They also help in overseas locations, but different security rules often apply.)

Start prepping for security while you’re in the queue

This might seem like literally the most obvious point you could make, but I never cease to be amazed at the people who stand in a queue (and grumble about it) but don’t do anything to get themselves ready until they’re right at the machine. If you’re carrying a bag, put everything else in it. If you’re wearing ludicrous boots with lots of metal on them, take them off. We’ll all be very grateful, I promise.

Put your laptop at the top of your bag

Also obvious, but having a laptop you can easily remove (and return to the bag) makes life much quicker in the queue.

Fill out your departure card early

If you’re boarding an international flight, you’ll need to fill out a departure card. Grab one from the airline counter (or your travel agent) and have it filled out before you hit the departure hall, so you don’t waste time and then curse when a huge group of confused tourists joins the queue. (Don’t have a pen? That’s foolish, as you’ll almost certainly be given landing documentation to fill in during your flight. Always pack a pen.)

Use advance check-in facilities

Assuming your airline offers the option, check in online or via your mobile to save time queuing before you’ve even hit security. While mobile check-in can be variable, any option to speed you through the first stage can be helpful.

Know the hand luggage dimensions and follow them

Travelling with only hand luggage saves you time at the other end, and in the case of most airlines also reduces your overall ticket cost. I’m all for doing it (and I’ve practiced it to extremes), but make sure you pay attention to the dimensions of baggage you’re allowed. On a domestic flight, no-one’s likely to check your baggage for weight, but if it can’t fit in an overhead bin or under your seat, you’ll lose any time advantage and potentially get slugged with pricier at-airport luggage fees.

Realise not all airports are the same

One belt I own never sets off the detectors in Sydney’s T3, but invariably does in Sydney’s T2. Some security checkpoints insist umbrellas are removed from carry-on luggage; others don’t care. The two lessons? If you adopt a minimal approach (no umbrellas, no aerosols, no metal jewellery, no boots), you’ll get through the security queue more quickly. But if you do set off the detectors, accept whatever advice the security personnel give you. Telling them “This belt is never a problem” will not help anyone.

Use Sydney’s alternative security checkpoints

Most Australian air terminals only have one security queue, so you haven’t got much choice about what to use, but Sydney’s regional terminal (T2) does have a little-used alternative security queue near arrivals Gate 42 (which is on the arrivals, not departure, level). That can be handy if you’ve already got your ticket and don’t need to check in. T3 also has a second set of gates to the left of the main Qantas check-in area, though it isn’t always open.

Got your own airport time-saving tips to add? Share them in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman always tries to avoid security queues featuring a pram. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • Here at Adelaide airport, the security checks are split in two. The first lets anyone in and simply searches you and your bags and allowing people without a ticket to pass. You need to remove your laptops etc.

    Then there is a second one that leads right into immigration, not searching you, just your bags and you need to seperate your liquids.

    I find this very effecient and fast.

  • One thing I do is quite simple, wear a bum bag and carry everything in that with nothing in my pockets. Easy to clip off and on.

    Otherwise, if during colder months, I normally wear my biggest and heaviest coat and load the pockets up in the coat. Easier to take off and place through the scanner.

    Even went to the extreme of buying simpler all leather hiking boots for a trip to NZ. Not because of metal, but easier to clean before the flight. Got held up for ages when AQIS official made me scrub my old fabric sided boots 3 times to their acceptable standard. The soles of the fabric boots were clean but the sides were too hard to scrub perfectly. Maybe an over officous AQIS offical but once burnt, twice shy.

  • Just a list of reasons to continue avoiding air travel in my view. It will reach a point where it is no longer economical to scan everyone through security like this (imagine having a pass everyone who got on a train through a metal detector), what will happen then? The end of the world, or perhaps just a simpler and more friendly flying experience?

    • That already happens in China, where train travel carries the biggest volumes of people. From city subways to intercity trains, it is expected to be inspected on the way through. From a security measure introduced for the Olympics and Expo, it is now common across the country.

    • So what if there are screening processes at airports? Deal with it, it’s a fact of life, and the best thing to do is to minimise the time wasted by being ready when it’s your turn.

      Similar things happen at the checkout in supermarkets. It always amazes me how people will stand there, inert, and wait until the checkout assistant rings up the amount before anyone reaches for their wallet/purse, then goes digging for change.

      I am a person who will wait patiently without complaint, but when it’s my turn at least I’m polite enough to ensure that whatever I’m doing doesn’t hold up the person behind me any longer than necessary.

      Anyway, these tips are great and I couldn’t agree more with what was said.

  • When I arrive back at Sydney International I always declare something. Even if I have nothing to declare, I declare smokes or alcohol that I’ve bought, or even an unopened packet of chips. Anything.

    I’ll be standing in line for customs, and when one of them asks if I have something to declare, and I say yes, they stamp a red D on my form and point me to a queue down the end, where you walk straight past the x rays for the bags, to freedom.

    Its like they take the stance that if you’re honest enough to declare something insignificant, then you don’t need to have you bags checked!

    The one time it hasn’t worked for me over the last 10 years was when Border Security was filming on the same day.

    • I often hear this theory, but to be honest I’m unconvinced. I never have anything to declare, and I get waved to the end of the queue 80% of the time as well. I think there’s a more complex set of factors at play.

      • I Agree with always “Declaring” for International Flights.

        Except in Adelaide!

        The Fact is, that nothing to declare tends to be the longest line with everyone waiting for a scanner in Australia.

        The Declaring line on contrast has a shorter line but may mean that you need to open your bag and show what you are declaring.

        Australia is not as bad as other countries, they open your bag and mess everything up just to find the umbrella or Tri-pod (packed neatly on the side & last place they look) in your bag that the x-ray operator couldn’t work out what it was.

    • Chris, there is a reason that laptops need to be separate. If they are screened with items on top/bottom of them, the image on the x-ray is a jumbled mess. When they are in the tray by themselves, although the image is quite “busy”, it is still possible to discover an item that does not belong in the laptop.

  • from the pic: “being denied the right to fly”
    think about that for a moment.
    who seriously believes they have “the right to fly”?

    is that a God given right, or listed in a constitution/bill of rights somewhere?

    • Technically, by purchasing an airline ticket, you DO have a right to fly.

      It works much the same way as purchasing a TV or Shoes. There are expectations that are attached to all items and services available for purchase. When I pay for a TV, I have a right (and you can check on the Fair Trading websites about this) to receive that TV. I lose the right to the TV if the company goes into liquidation, or I do something wrong, but the “right” exists.

      It’s not the same with public transport (which people seem to forget- not necessarily you- doesn’t include flight) which is owned by the government… When it comes to purchasing from the government… well… then you start to lose rights.

      So I hope that answered your question.

  • One thing I do (and I wish others would too) is to push my screened belongings along to the end of the conveyer or pick them up and take them to a nearby table. It’s really annoying when you get a log-jam of hand luggage and trays in the x-ray as people stuff around putting their belt/watch/shoes back on.

    Also, for frequent flyers with access to a priority check-in queue, it’s easy to get into a habit of using priority queues even though the standard ones may actually be flowing faster in less busy periods.

    Finally, for the “island” baggage carousels in Melbourne’s Virgin terminal, take note of which way it goes (anti-clockwise). People seem to congregate around the bag-shoot and the first 5 metres of conveyer. If you walk to the back of the island, near the lifts, you’ll get your bag quickly and without rubbing shoulders with the crowd.

  • One more thing. Even if most airport security declare that there is no such thing as “racial profiling” it is a fact and does happen if you are of “Asian or Middle Eastern appearance”.

    Random airport security always pick the Asian and Middle Eastern passengers for “additional security check”.

    If you do fall in this category, please carry additional identification. Do not carry heavy carry on luggages. Hold your passport in your hand and hand it to the nearest security personnel should they “randomly pick you”. Saves you a lot of headache.

    Give yourself additional time for this “random checks”.

    True story : At my last trip, Australian airport security wasted 25 minutes of my time debating whether my drink opener keychain was a security risk.

    You don’t even want to know how many time i’ve been “randomly picked”. I think I’m going to win Lotto soon!

    • To be fair, Azizi, I’m white like Wonderbread. I too get grabbed for ‘random additional’ screening, both here in Australia and in the US. I suspect my name is on some watch list or something. 😀

    • I get randomly picked for the extra security checks all the time. A few years back every flight I took for a year I was always randomly selected. These checks take no longer than 2 minutes if you are not carrying anything you shouldn’t be.
      Oh, btw I am a “white” Australian so don’t play the race card. Especially when the majority of the screeners are not “white” Australians from my observations.

    • I’m a lily white man usually in a suit with a laptop bag. I get pulled aside for explosive testing 50% of the time. I must fit that “other” profile – but I don’t know what it is.

      When travelling with someone, I get them to go through first, then call my mobile. I pick it up out of the tray as it comes out of the xray, and that’s about the only way for me to avoid the explosives test.

    • Aziz, as airport security for three years, I can tell you without a doubt that there is NO racial profiling.

      I’ve had bikies threaten to bash me, business men curse me out, a horrible looking skank yell at me that I picked her because I wanted to “root” her and a little old lady tell me I must be an embarresment to my parents. Why? Because they all believe that they are being unfairly targeted for whatever reason. There is no master plan, no hidden agenda.

      Really, they should get some extra machines and test everyone, then we could all be persecuted together.

    • Totally agree with you…. I was picked for Random Explosive Screening 9 times out of 10 flights in a Row and had to file a complaint. They insist they don’t racially profile, but I can see them preparing to stop me even before I join the line

  • If travelling with my laptop (and ergo, with my laptop bag), I take my laptop out and put everything in my clothes pockets in.

    Also I watch all my items. If you have some small items, put them in your hand luggage. Place your jacket in a separate basket, not over items. If you get pulled aside for explosive residue detection examination collect all your possessions before submitting to the test.

  • Actually, my wheelchair is very hard to speed through;) But there are definitely differences in how i am treated.

    Adelaide (my home base) always demands my shoes are taken off – a struggle. Melbourne didn’t – and say they never do.

    Security in Melbourne said Perth and Adelaide have the worst reputations for it picking, fwiw…

  • Some hints when you are running late. When you are checking in, say yes to the “do you have anything dangerous in your luggage?” question. you will get a boarding pass and get sent to a special (usually empty desk) and there you just admit you screwed up and the check in person will say “happens all the time” and you can check your luggage in with minimum fuss and wait.
    Avoiding the bomb test dudes is tricky but doable. Since its mostly guys doing the test, get yourself near a group of women. Seriously… this works.
    Also fiddle about getting your laptop in the bag and as a group go through, join the group. Walk equidistant between the checking stations and you are good to go. I know this as I have caught about 60 flights this year with a zero bomb check rate.

    • To avoid the explosives test, I usually fiddle around with my belt or fidget getting my laptop back in my bag. Slow down and do this right after the screening but before the explosives guy, and others will usually pass you, and get pulled aside instead. Quickly pick up pace and walk past the unfortunate guy who is now getting checked for explosives. Don’t worry about your laptop or belt, fit it all after you get past explosives man.

  • It disturbs me that so many people want to avoid security tests to save time – what time?
    If you guys can “avoid” these various important security measures – then what does that actually say for the safety of our flights.

    • No-one’s suggested that you can avoid the main security scanning (and you can’t) — I wouldn’t personally go out of my way to avoid an explosives test, but those are selective anyway, so I can’t quite see how that increases the risk.

  • Random explosives test avoidance? Jeeze.

    Sometimes I’m asked, sometimes I’m not. It takes all of 30 seconds.

    Get over it, guys.

    As an aside, if you’re ever travelling trans-Tasmin, you’ll find that that the Australia/NZ Passport holders Customs queue is usually 10x the length of the ‘all passport holders’ queue.

  • The second security entrance at T2 Sydney is the airports best-kept secret and I pretty much use it exclusively. You can be assured of being tested though, naturally because of the dramatically lower volume of users. It’s no bother. It also helps you avoid the dreadful food court if you are flying Qantas.

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