Don't want to wait in an hour queue? Here's how to skip the line.
Europe’s summer high season unofficially ended nearly two months ago. But you wouldn’t know it based on the chaotic, crowded scenes at some of the continent’s biggest airports as of late.
Just a few of the recent challenges facing passengers: lines at customs and immigration stretching well past an hour at Amsterdam Schiphol in the Netherlands. At Germany’s Berlin-Brandenburg, the problems that plagued the airport’s first couple of years (most notably, consistently long security lines) have, alas, become frustratingly commonplace. And, at major United Kingdom airports including Heathrow and Gatwick, strikes, air traffic control issues, and other challenges have resulted in hundreds of delayed and canceled flights over the past few months.
While these sorts of stressors are becoming the new normal for an industry that’s still recalibrating after the pandemic, Europe-bound travelers can take advantage of a few handy strategies to make navigating popular tourist hubs as easy and stress-free as possible. Because, really, who wants to start (or end) any trip on the sour note of airport hassles—especially in an unfamiliar place?
What Can You Do if You’re Heading to Europe?
One of the most important aspects of a smooth airport experience: avoiding lines whenever possible. Some queues are unavoidable, of course, such as passport control and customs, but several major European airports have recently added an option to make advance reservations for the security line, hence skipping lengthy queues in the process.
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The service, which is officially called Reserve by Clear (yes, the same Clear that offers paid memberships in many U.S. airports), is currently available at six European airports (Amsterdam; Berlin-Brandenburg, Hanover, and Frankfurt in Germany; London Heathrow; and Rome Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport). The best part? The nifty service is free for all travelers, even if you don’t have Clear membership, and it’s a cinch to use. Passengers can book a slot for themselves (and their travel companions) at any of the participating airports via the Reserve website or app, or through participating airports’ websites.
Here everything you need to know about booking a security line appointment (and minimizing other lines) at several major European airports:
Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS)
Schiphol, which has traditionally enjoyed a longstanding reputation as one of the most efficient airports in Europe, has struggled lately with staff shortages and other logistical challenges. The situation has improved somewhat over the last six months, but during peak periods (such as the Dutch school break in mid- to late October and the Christmas holidays), long lines (and frustration) inevitably return. Most problematic is passport control, with some travelers reporting lines of more than an hour this fall.
Departing travelers can minimize some of the hassle by booking a free time slot for the security line via Schiphol’s website. Appointments can be booked up to three days in advance and are good for up to 15 minutes after the scheduled time, but if you arrive earlier (or later) than expected, modifying your appointment takes seconds. As a resident of Amsterdam, I can personally attest to what a breeze the service is to use—you simply scan your QR code at the security line entry marked for time slots appointments (look for the sign with a clock; airport employees also can point you in the right direction), go through the scanners (no need to remove shoes, laptops, or liquids from carry-on luggage, which AMS gets major bonus points for), and you’re on your way. I’ve never waited for more than 10 minutes using the service.
Once you’re through security and/or passport control (more on that below), you can take advantage of multiple airline and membership lounges to escape the crowds. KLM’s non-Schengen Crown Lounge (look for signs to Lounge 52) is pleasant, if slightly busier than normal, space, and, depending on how much time you’ll be there, well worth the €65 fee (about $68) if you don’t have access otherwise.
If you’d rather not spring for a lounge, Schiphol also has its very own library: a quaint, cozy nook in the Main Terminal that many travelers don’t even know is there. But wherever you end up hanging out before your flight, be sure to give yourself enough time to reach your gate. Schiphol is massive, so plan accordingly to avoid being one of those frantic passengers sprinting through the crowds.
If you need to navigate passport control, prepare for a line, as Schiphol, like many of its counterparts all over the world, continues to grapple with staff shortages. But make sure you get in the right one: The automatic E-Gates are only for EU passport holders over 14 years of age. And if you’re flying into Amsterdam from a non-EU country, don’t dawdle on your way to the passport control area (which is downstairs), since lines continue to build, especially during peak hours. The snarkily titled Facebook group Expats Enjoying Dutch Airport Queues also provides some helpful crowd-sourced intel, such as current wait times. Finally, Schiphol’s own app is a handy resource for gate information and other key intel.
Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BER)
BER became the first airport in Europe to launch a security reservation system, introducing its BER Runway in August 2022. The sigh of relief was almost audible, as the airport’s glacially slow security lines have been the biggest gripe among passengers since the airport opened in October 2020 following a decade of construction delays and other challenges.
As a former Berlin resident, I can attribute a gray hair (or three) to those agonizing queues. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of BER Runway, which I use every time I travel through Berlin now. The free-of-charge service is still a little slower than that of airports, but it’s still a major improvement, and travelers are allowed 10 minutes of wiggle room before or after their scheduled time.
This summer, the service expanded its booking window from three days in advance to seven, which is another bonus for Berlin-bound travelers. And if you forget to do it ahead of time, you can try to book a slot on the spot at the entrance to the reservation line (located at Security Checkpoint 4) via QR code, though availability might be limited.
Charles de Gaulle, Paris (CDG)
CDG has yet to implement a reservations system for its security lines (which would be an excellent idea to get moving on ASAP, prior to the Summer Olympics the city will host in 2024). Which means that for now, travelers can only skirt the security line with priority access via other means, such as airline status or a credit card program.
But there are other ways travelers can make their CDG experience a tad smoother–starting with getting there. Public transit is highly recommended, especially considering the city’s infamous traffic, which is even worse during major events like Fashion Week. Instead of stressing out in a taxi, take the RER B metro line, which connects both terminals with downtown Paris and takes between 35-60 minutes (and costs a fraction of cab fare).
Once you’re past security, head straight to one of CDG’s many lounges, which offer a welcome respite from the airport’s crowded, confusing layout with its alpha-numeric labeling system of terminals and halls. If you don’t have lounge access through an airline or credit card, it’s well worth buying a day pass. CDG’s flagship carrier, Air France, stands out with its lounges (day passes cost €60, about $64), which exude a chic Parisian vibe, excellent food and drink selections, and upscale, ooh-la-la extras like 20-minute facials from superstar spa brand Clarins—along with a glass of Champagne, it’s an excellent way to erase any pre-flight stress.
Another bonus for shelling out for a lounge pass at CDG (assuming you don’t have access otherwise)? If your flight is canceled or delayed, as mine was recently, you can just pop back into the lounge to wait it out or get assistance from an airline staff member for easy rebooking without having to queue up with the crowds.
London Heathrow (LHR)
In early October, LHR—one of the world’s biggest and busiest airports, with approximately 7.7 million passengers in July alone this year—jumped on the timeslot trend, which should help make for a less harried airport experience. Currently, the newly launched program, called Heathrow Timeslot, is only available for a three-month period. It’s available for passengers in Terminal 3, which serves many major international carriers, including Delta Air Lines, Air France, JetBlue, and British Airways. Timeslots can be booked up to three days in advance (and for groups of up to five people), and slots are available for flights heading from the United Kingdom to the United States, among other international destinations.
In addition to booking a security line reservation, travelers should also plan to arrive at the airport well in advance—anything less than two hours before a flight is cutting it close here. As with CDG, travelers should avoid taking a taxi and opt for public transit instead: options include the speedy Heathrow Express, which zips travelers to LHR from Paddington in about 15 minutes; The Heathrow Connect, which also departs from Paddington and is about 10-15 minutes slower; and the good old tube, via the Piccadilly Line.
Finally, Europe-bound travelers should be aware of EU 261/2004, which is an E.U. regulation that requires airlines to compensate affected passengers in case of flight delays or cancellations. Any flight that terminates or originates in an E.U. country is covered, yet 90% of passengers don’t file for any claims, according to passenger rights organization Air Advisor. Of course, you’ll still have to navigate whatever delay or disruption you’re dealing with, but knowing that you’re entitled to more passenger protection than many other destinations helps take some of the sting out of the situation.