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An Almanac For The 21st Century

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TSA PreCheck: Making Air Travel Slightly Less Toxic

TSA PreCheck: Making Air Travel Slightly Less Toxic

In the past year and a half or so, I've become a frequent flyer. I was previously a couple times a year flyer, which in comparison to many people is quite frequent, but to me was just a life long average. Then the switch flipped, life changed, and I started flying about once a month or so. I'm not making any huge 'round the world treks to exotic locales - I generally stay in the same time zone - but air travel is still air travel. I still need to go through security, sit in a cramped plane seat, attempt to act as unapproachable as possible so that my seatmate won't attempt any kind of conversation... all typical stuff. But I'm doing all this while living with a chronic illness, and going through the rigmarole of air travel once a month while also dealing with chronic pain takes a toll, and fast. There are ways to minimize pain while traveling, like, say, narcotics, but my absolute favorite is TSA PreCheck. If you've gone through security at an airport in the past few years you've probably seen signs for TSA PreCheck. It's that other security line where you don't have to take liquids out of your bag or remove your shoes or belt or jacket. It's also usually a shorter line, and everyone looks less frazzled. For me, going through security at the airport can be very, very hard, and while before PreCheck may have seemed like a luxury, I now see it as a true necessity.

It's hard to explain chronic pain to those who haven't experienced it, or haven't been close to someone who has had to live with it. I have my good days and my bad days, but I'm always in some degree of pain, no matter what. There are activities that exacerbate my pain, and the worst offenders might surprise you healthy folk. Take for instance, standing. Standing is a killer for me. It not only ramps up my pain, but it also saps my energy super fast. So you can imagine what a long security line is like, huh? Plus, I can get very self-conscious about being disabled, particularly in a situation where it attracts a lot of attention, like at an airport. My family had suggested in the past that I use the airport's disability services, but I was far too concerned with feeling insecure and using resources that I didn't need as much as another person. (Both of these worries are silly, by the way. My therapist told me so.)

Actual photo of me taken moments after a long trip through airport security on a high pain day.
Actual photo of me taken moments after a long trip through airport security on a high pain day.

In the PreCheck line, however, I don't have to worry about my disability insecurities, because the line is shorter and moves quicker. Sometimes there isn't even any time for standing at all! Plus, I don't have to be concerned with planning a pain-compatible travel outfit, because I don't have to remove my shoes or scarf or jacket. I used to plan what I was going to wear on the plane at least a few days in advance, because I'd have to think about what shoes I could easily remove without causing too much added pain and fatigue, and what pants go with those shoes, and what jacket can I slip on easily without potentially aggravating that ache in my shoulder... See, this is another glimpse of what it's like living with chronic pain.

I think by now I've explained why TSA PreCheck is worth the money to me, but I think if you travel frequently, and if you're a savvy traveler, it should be worth it to you too. It also couldn't be easier, and it'll make every time you go through the airport an absolute breeze. TSA PreCheck costs $85 and lasts five years, so while you have to pay the entire amount up front, your cost per year is only $17. If you have an idea of how many times you fly a year and want to further figure your cost per use, have at it, but I think $17 a year is enough of a bargain to make it worthwhile. You can go through the entire application process by walking into a PreCheck application center, but that will take a lot longer than if you do a little legwork in advance at home. When I went to LAX to complete my application I actually got to cut the line because of my prep work, and the entire on-site portion took five minutes, so this is the method I would suggest.

Unlikely to be eligible for PreCheck
Unlikely to be eligible for PreCheck

The application online is called "pre-enrollment" and I'll even put a link right here in case you're my dad and I never did send you that email like you asked me to. It consists of giving basic info and that you haven't committed a felony. That felony one is the real deal maker or breaker, so if you're a felon, don't bother. Also, if you're a felon, you probably already know what you can and can't attempt to apply for vis-a-vis government shortcuts, amirite? You're also going to need some proof of citizenship - I used my passport - but I was surprised to see that you can use a passport that's up to two years past its expiration date. Once you fill out all the necessary info, you make an appointment at your chosen application center. I live in a big city, so I had quite a few to choose from, but depending on where you live, you may not have as many options. I made an appointment for two weeks later - only because I was busy, I could have actually gone in as early as a few days later if I wanted to. When it came time for my in-person appointment, I expected to be taken into an interrogation room and, well, interrogated. Instead I was asked if all the information I provided online was correct ("Yep.") and if I still hadn't committed any felonies ("Nope. It's been a slow two weeks."). Then I showed the friendly agent my driver's license, had my passport scanned, got fingerprinted, paid $85, and I was sent on my way.

Likely to be eligible for PreCheck (although she did steal a boat, so who knows?)
Likely to be eligible for PreCheck (although she did steal a boat, so who knows?)

A few weeks later I received a letter from TSA with my Known Traveler Number inside. This is the number that I need to make sure is on every one of my plane reservations if I want to go through the PreCheck line. Plus, when I get my ticket, I always check to make sure it has the little green check mark or "PreCheck" somewhere on the ticket. This is what the TSA agent will look for when I show up trying to get in the Special Line for Special People. Remember when I said PreCheck is worthwhile if you're a savvy traveler? You need to be the type of person who will check to make sure that your KTN is on your ticket. There are a lot of whiners on the internet complaining that PreCheck doesn't work, but if you read through their message board rants, you will see that they attach their KTN to their frequent flyer number and assume it will always be there and will always work. FYI, TSA and every airline advise against this. Always take the three minutes to check that your KTN is on that ticket, and you'll be breezing through security and saving yourself a whole lot of (literal) pain.

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