It’s safe to say that the world has been a little weird lately; ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, travel hasn’t been the same. Although we’re easing back into traveling without consistent masking and testing, there’s still a lot that’s changed and continues to be a challenge for travelers at all airports including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).
Whether your journey is domestic or international, for summer or winter holidays, air travel will continue to be tough for the foreseeable future. Getting ready for your long-awaited trip should include planning for the unplanned.
Scheduling and planning
Tip 1: Know peak times at the airport and schedule around it
Let’s face it — it’s almost always busy. But early mornings, midday, and late evenings are peak times for departing, connecting, and arriving flights. This goes for different operational areas like the traffic on the airport drives, check in at ticketing, passport control in the International Arrivals Facility (IAF), and wait times for the TSA Checkpoints.
Tip 2: Give yourself the gift of time!
Schedule extra time in case of cancellations, delays, or other travel impacts including when booking your flights, hotels, rental cars, or other modes of transportation. Allowing extra time in between essential travel steps helps to alleviate stress and impacts so better to give yourself more time than less.
Arrive at the airport three hours before your boarding time (45 – 60 minutes before your scheduled departure time) — and this doesn’t include travel time to the airport! Arriving early gives you enough time to get to where you’re going and solves approximately 85% of the possible stressful events at the airport. Worst case scenario — you’re a little early and have time for a pre-flight snack.
Tip 3: Download apps
Before you get to the airport, download the FlySEA app to check wait times, flight status, and baggage information. Then download your airline’s app to check your flight status, get updates, and rebook any impacted flights if things go haywire.
Confidence is key so know before you go! Research your assigned gates, restrooms, and shops on the interactive map to know where to go. Check the FlySEA website or carry the step-by-step map on the FlySEA app.
Tip 4: Discuss accessibility needs
If you’re a traveler with a disability, call the Transportation Security Administration 72 hours before your flight to arrange for assistance at security checkpoints at (855) 787-2227.
Tip 5: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
Staffing levels are strained across the globe and operating hours for services, retailers, and restaurants may be inconsistent. Be patient and kind to workers. They’re all doing their best to help you and aren’t the cause of the problem. You, airport workers, and your fellow travelers will all have a better day if you pack a little patience.
Tip 6: Know traffic conditions before you go
As always, check the Washington State Department of Transportation several hours before you head out for roadway conditions and traffic updates!
Tip 7: Plan for alternate transportation
The parking garage is consistently busy, so your trip will be smoother if you plan not to drive. Research other options in advance like airporters, shuttles, LINK Light Rail, app based rideshare, taxis, and more.
Tip 8: Drop off and pick up on either Airport Drive
The busiest times on the upper (Departure) drives are 5:00-7:00 a.m. and 9:00-11:00 p.m. for the lower-level (Arrivals) drive. To avoid long wait times, pick the one that is less busy and use it instead!
- In the morningsdrop your passengers on the Arrivals Drive (the lower level)
- In the eveningsarrange to meet your people on the Departures Drive (the upper level)
Tip 9: Be prepared for security screening! That means while you’re in line (or while you’re packing):
- Pull out the right form of identification into a convenient place
- Pack items like cell phones and laptops together so you can pull them out
- Wear clothes and shoes that are easy to remove for the bins
Check with TSA in advance if you have a question or need special assistance.
Tip 10: Plan to wait at security checkpoints
That may mean come earlier and leave enough time, then be pleasantly surprised if there’s not a wait. Lines may look long, especially when people are in line with luggage, but look for movement. The shorter lines that aren’t moving can actually have longer wait times. Follow checkpoint staff instructions to lines, as they are always looking for the shortest line for you.
Tip 11: Know where to go for your trusted traveler program
Here’s a cheat sheet:
- TSA PreCheck: Go straight to checkpoints 1 or 4; check the FlySEA app to see wait times at both
- SEA Spot Saver: Go to checkpoints 2, 3, or 5 from 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
- CLEAR: Use any checkpoint
Tip 12: Connect with your sanity
When you book your connecting flights, give yourself at least 90 minutes for domestic connections and two to three hours for international connections. Booking with the same airline for your connections also provides a more seamless check in, baggage drop off, and proximity between your two gates.
Tip 13: Banish the bags
Check your airline’s policies for baggage and if possible, travel with carry-ons to eliminate additional waiting.
Tip 14: Stay in touch
Check your flight status well in advance and keep checking during your journey; turn on push notifications to get on-the-go updates.
Tip 15: Speed through immigration
The new International Arrivals Facility (IAF) at SEA Airport is a bags first facility which means you’ll claim your luggage before entering passport control.
Bonus: if you have no checked baggage, proceed straight to customs, and get on your way quicker! Keep in mind that the passport control lines may look longer because people have their bags with them. Pay attention to the interactive signs and go to the correct line for your entry status. When in doubt, ask Pathfinders or staff in bright green.
Tip 16: Consider your connection
When you’re booking international flights with connections, schedule a minimum of two to three hours for international connections since you’ll have to claim luggage, go through passport control, recheck any luggage to your next flight, and go through TSA screening.
When things get stressful
- Use your traveler benefits whether it’s lounge access, trusted traveler programs, or airline perks like early check in and boarding
- If there’s a delay, keep some perspective — chances are everything will work out and be okay! The primary goal for airlines and the airport is to get you where you’re going safely
- Airlines are responsible for flight schedules, so reach out to your airline if your flight is delayed