Review of CLEAR – Is it worth it?

CLEAR LogoIf you live or fly to Texas a lot, you may have noticed the abundance of new CLEAR lanes at the TSA in the last year.  If you’re not familiar with CLEAR, it brings the promise of an expedited experience through TSA security lines.  As someone who has NEXUS, Global Entry, and TSA Pre-Check, I had always made some assumptions about the program.  It turns out that some of my assumptions were incorrect.  Recently, I was traveling home from one of my favorite airports, Houston Hobby, and the people at CLEAR had a table there.  The guy working the table caught my attention and I started talking to him.  After a few minutes, he convinced me to take a trial card and see if I liked it or not.  This post is my experience with CLEAR.

Enrollment

I went home and signed up for the trial.  I was surprised by how little personal information was collected on the web site.  Mainly, it was just my name, address, and birthday and some basic contact details.  I entered my promo code on the site, but I was still required to enter my credit card as expected.  After the end of my trial, it will charge the full amount automatically of $179 per year.  What I didn’t like was that the website didn’t make it clear at all that I had a trial or when I would first be charged.

If you sign-up on the web site, you have to then come to the airport and go to a kiosk to finish your enrollment.  An attendant has to log you into the kiosk where you then provide the rest of your information.  It started by asking for my e-mail address.  When it found it, it displayed my name and birthdate.  After selecting my enrollment, it then prompted for my Social Security Number.  This didn’t really surprise me as they have to really know you are are in order to expedite you.  I was happy to see that it was masked as I was entering it.  You have to leave out the dashes for it to accept it though.  Then it prompts for my birth city and state.

After this, it proceeds to do an identity check.  It seems to pull information on you based upon your credit report.  I’m sure at some point I consented to authorize this but I really don’t remember.  It then asks you questions about your past.  My first was asking me about previous phone numbers I had.  I couldn’t remember a single one, so I picked I don’t know.  Then it asked me another question, which none of the choices seemed to make sense either.  I picked I don’t know again and the process said try again later and logged me out.  #fail

The attendant reassured me, so I tried again.  Unfortunately, I had to re-enter all of my information again.  That pissed me off and I find it absolutely unacceptable in this day and age.  I labored through it and then finally I get back to the identity questions.  This time it asked me about people I might be associated with.  I recognized my wife’s name and chose it.  It then asked my for addresses associated with me and I recognized the address of my last mortgage.  A bit frustrating, but it finally confirmed my identity.

Next, started the biometric portion of the process.  In this portion I had to scan my fingerprints of both hands including thumbs.  This part of the process was very similar to what I did for Global Entry and NEXUS.  After I scanned, it made me verify using a couple of fingers to ensure it matched correctly.  Next, it did the retina scan. I always have trouble with these and I did this time as well.  I had to pretty much go bug-eyed to make it work.   Once it scanned, it showed this extreme close-up of my eyes which kind of freaked me out.

At that point, I was finally done an the attendant said I would get my card in the mail in about a week.  She offered to walk me through the expedited line but I declined since the Pre-check line was empty.

The Kiosks themselves are high-tech and old-school at the same time.  The keyboard was a bit funky with an odd placement of the insert key where you would expect Shift.  To my pleasant surprise, the display supported multi-touch so I could easily scroll down on the list of states by swiping to make my selection.  The biometric stuff seems high-tech out of a sci-fi movie.

Using CLEAR

CLEAR Id CardYou can start using CLEAR as soon as your CLEAR ID card arrives in the mail.  This takes about a week.  This card has your picture and some personal information as well as a chip inside which the CLEAR kiosks can read.  You’ll need to bring this with you every time you go to the airport.

When you walk up to the CLEAR line, one of the agents will greet you right away and ask for your boarding pass and CLEAR card.  They will verify your identity and scribble on your boarding pass just like a TSA agent would.  Following that, you will be asked to insert your CLEAR card into the machine and then verify a random finger on the biometric sensor.  After that you will hear “You are CLEAR” and you’re good to go.  You don’t have to show your CLEAR Id or Government Issued Id to a TSA agent.

What’s really nice about the process though is that the other agent will go stand in line for you in front of the X-ray machines.  Once you are CLEAR, you will be escorted to where the agent has been standing in line.  My agent stood there with me for a bit, got my bins for me and chatted about my itinerary.  All in all, it was a nice experience.

How it differs from TSA Pre-Check

My assumption with CLEAR was that it was a straight up replacement for TSA Pre-check.  That in fact is not true.  What CLEAR offers is a replacement line to the X-Ray machine.  That means you can skip the lines, but you still have to go through regular security.  If you qualify for Pre-Check, then the CLEAR agent will walk you to the Pre-Check screening area skipping the line.  Now you may be thinking, does this have any value at all then if you have Pre-Check.  The answer is, sometimes.  If you fly a lot in the morning (especially Mondays), you know there are lines no matter whether you have status or Pre-Check or not.  However, in this case, the CLEAR lines are quite empty.  At airports like mine in San Antonio, when the lines are long, they start dumping amateurs into the Pre-Check line.  This holds things up significantly.  I am viewing CLEAR as a way around this.  Most of the other times I travel though, Pre-Check lines are pretty much empty and CLEAR would actually take longer since you have to scan your fingerprints and do a retina scan.

Cost

The cost for CLEAR is a bit steep at $179 per year.  They state that the price is $15 pre month to make it more palatable, but you still pay it all up front.  You can also add your spouse for only another $49 which makes it a slightly better deal.  Sometimes your spouse can even sign up for free if you have a membership.  What I do like about the program is that you can bring your kids through the CLEAR line for free.  This is great for minimizing the pain of getting through the checkpoint with the whole family when it is vacation time.

CLEAR also offers corporate programs where companies can buy the service in bulk.  I’ve never worked for a company that would likely consider this but maybe yours is more generous in this area.

Availability

Probably the biggest issue right now with CLEAR is availability.  Currently, you can only find it in 9 airports.  If you fly in Texas a lot, you are covered.  It also has a handful of cities on the east and west coast as well as Denver.

Unfortunately, it is missing in key cities in Texas such as Dallas Love Field and Austin.  When I move to Dallas here in the near future, this could be a deal breaker for myself.  I am hopeful as their site says they are in talks with 12 large airports and have contacted 50 others.

Know your CLEAR hours

Know the hours of operation for CLEAR in your home airport.

Know the hours of operation for CLEAR in your home airport.

One issue with CLEAR is that it is only available during peak hours.  This is great to get you through security as a business traveler but if you do any travel on the weekends, you won’t get any love.  I find that some airports on the weekend are just as busy, so it would be nice if they were open during some of these times.

I take the last flight out pretty often.  CLEAR usually shows down at 7:00 pm at night.  This means it won’t be of any benefit to you then.  However, the security lines are usually pretty short at this point anyways.

FAQ

CLEAR may be worth it to you but it depends on your situation.

Is it worth it if you already have TSA Pre-check

Maybe. Only if you face long airport lines and want to show up later to the airport in the morning.  Otherwise, it is more than likely, not worth it.  What I would like to see CLEAR do is offer a per-use price.  When the TSA Pre-check line is long, I would have no issue paying $5 – $8 to skip the line and use CLEAR.  Currently as someone who has TSA Pre-check, I doubt I will pay to keep CLEAR.  At $15 per month and only useful on a few of my morning flights per month, I can’t justify the cost.

Some airports like San Antonio have started dumping people into the TSA Pre-check line when the main lines are long.  This slows things down a lot.  CLEAR can help you get through some of this.

Is it worth it if you already have access to the priority line

Again, maybe.  The priority line is good.  However, if you travel on a Monday morning at 6:00 am, it turns out just about everyone has access to the priority line.  It might be worth the cost then.  However, if you are traveling enough to use the priority line, you should probably just sign up for TSA Pre-Check.

Is it worth it if you don’t have priority or TSA Pre-Check

It could be.  Again, I recommend you sign up for TSA Pre-Check because it’s only $85 for five years.  However, the process is involved and definitely takes longer than signing up for CLEAR.

Is it worth it if you never travel during peak times

No. If your average flight departs at noon, you don’t need it.   If the lines are empty, you don’t need CLEAR.  Using CLEAR, might actually end up taking you more time since you have to do all of the biometric scans.

Is it worth it if you don’t live in a CLEAR city?

Probably not.  The main time you want to use CLEAR is in the mornings when lines are the longest.  Only if you are traveling out of a CLEAR city during peak times is it worth it.

Give it a try

CLEAR is making it easy to try out for a few months.  Try my link below to get up to a three month trial.  You’ll still have to provide a credit card number and the process doesn’t identify it’s a trial when you go through it, but it should work.  If you do try it, leave a comment and let us know how it works for you.

Get a CLEAR trial

Houston Hobby Airport Survival Guide

I called the Houston Hobby (HOU) airport my home for several years before moving on.  I’ve always liked it. It’s a smaller airport, but just big enough to get you just about wherever you want to go on Southwest in one hop.  Here you can fly anywhere from around Texas to New York (LGA).  The airport features 20 gates notably dominated by Southwest.  It’s recently seen a host of improvements including TSA Pre-check, Clear, and a new baggage claim.  It has a small food court in the middle along with local restaurants further into the terminal itself.

Looking towards gates 40 - 49.

Looking towards gates 40 – 49.

Hobby Airport has a T-shaped airline terminal with gates 20 – 29 on the left and gates 40 – 49 on the right.  It hosts a bevy of Texas-based restaurants from the Pappas Bros including Pappas Burger, Pappasitos, and Pappadeaux’s.  You can find free WiFi at any of the Pappas Bros restaurants along with Buffalo Wild Wings.  However, the Internet is often spotty and I find I end up using my own most of the time.  You can find power pretty easily at all of the Southwest gates features AC and USB chargers.

You never know what you will find in the center of the airport.  Right now, it’s a display for the Houston Rodeo.

Houston Rodeo display in the center of Hobby Airport

Houston Rodeo display in the center of Hobby Airport

The Food

If you’re traveling to the east coast, it is not uncommon to pick up a layover here if your home is one of Texas’s other Southwest airports.  If that happens, you need to know where to go.  If you like Cajun or seafood, the best food there is hands-down at Pappadeaux.  Here you can get seasonal fish and all your fried Cajun favorites.  It will cost you a pretty penny with many meals costing more than $20 USD.

Pappadeaux's in Hobby Airport

Pappadeaux’s in Hobby Airport

For other food options, I go with Dunkin Donuts for breakfast located at the end of the terminal by gate 27.  If you want a sit down breakfast and have time to kill, go with Pappas Burger as they have a variety of breakfast taco type options.  They also have power in the booths along the back wall.  In the afternoon, this is also a good place to get a shake.

If you want quick service, Papasitos has some decent tacos. Lastly, Buffalo Wild Wings (gate 24) is always a favorite for dudes.  When I go there, I often wait outside and wait for a seat at the bar to open up.  It gets a bit crowded though.

If you are waiting outside the security check point, there is a Pappas BBQ with a bar. They generally have at least one acceptable beer, but I am not a fan of the BBQ there at all.  I guess I am just spoiled by the Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX (FYI, never eat at a Salt Lick in an airport).  That and I don’t think you can properly smoke meat in an airport.

Hobby Airport is one of the few airports where you can walk around with an open container. As a result, you can get a drink anywhere to go.  As a result, it is not uncommon to see beer vendors in the middle of the terminal.  You just need to down it before you get on the plane.  It’s also a good idea to not get to intoxicated at the airport as Southwest has no issue denying boarding to people who aren’t sober.

Security

The security lines can be quite long at Hobby at times.  This is especially the case if you are traveling Monday morning or Thursday evening.  If you have priority, the wait generally isn’t too bad.  They have also recently added TSA Pre and Clear.  If you don’t have expedited screening, plan on waiting a bit longer.

Rental Cars

Hobby Airport has off site rental car locations.  Each location has their own shuttle bus.  Avis and Budget are closer to the airport. Hertz, Dollar, Thrifty, and the others are considerably farther away.  Like any airport, expect to wait longer than any other carrier with Dollar and Thrifty. You get what you pay for.

Parking

Parking on-site at Hobby will cost you $17 / day.  It features the same windy spiral ramps that IAH does.  You have no hope of parking on a low level most of the time.  If you’re paying for your own parking, your best bet is Eco-Park or one of the off-site providers.  Eco-Park is around $6 / day but it’s a bit of a walk and it is uncovered.  Sometimes, you can find a shuttle to take you some of the distance but I have walked all the way to the terminal a time or two.  When you do Eco-Park, you will feel like you are walking through a restricted area because you go right through the employee parking lot.  Once you get inside, you walk through some hallways where you also don’t feel like you belong.  The off-site parking options have similar prices.

The Future – International Service

Southwest fought hard to get International service at Hobby Airport.  Ultimately, they won and are footing the bill of the new expansion where they will occupy four out of five gates.  When it finishes at the end of 2015, Hobby Airport will serve as a hub for people going to the Caribbean and Mexico on Southwest.  This conveniently goes along with the absorption of the remaining AirTran International flights this year.  This will make Houston Hobby quite the popular airport in the years to come.

Construction progress of the new Hobby International Terminal viewed from Gate 40.

Construction progress of the new Hobby International Terminal viewed from Gate 40.

More information can be found at their web site.

http://fly2houston.com/hobbyHome