This past summer my family had a connecting flight home from London. Instead of flying direct to Chicago, we had a layover in Philadelphia - our first port of entry back in the United States. With three hours between flights, we assumed that we'd have plenty of time to go through U.S. customs, recheck our bags, and then enjoy a leisurely meal before our flight home. But, boy were we wrong. We stood in line with our two young sons for almost the entire three hours and then ran through the airport, only making it to our designated gate with minutes to spare before our flight left.
On the flight from Philadelphia to Chicago, my husband and I swore we'd never book a connecting flight home from abroad with our two travel-weary sons ever again. We agreed that it just wasn't worth it if it always took that long. But, as I recently learned, that's not always the case - depending on the airport you go through customs at when you arrive back in the U.S.
This past December, my husband and I took a whirlwind weekend trip to Berlin - without our kids. After landing back at O'Hare, we headed towards U.S. customs with our Philadelphia experience fresh in our minds. But, much to our surprise, we made it through the line and out to baggage claim in record time - thanks to the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection Automated Passport Control kiosks that had been installed in July 2013.
Farewell to the hours spent waiting in the U.S. customs line at O'Hare
Before our Air Berlin flight made its decent to Chicago, the flight attendants handed out U.S. customs declaration cards to fill out in preparation to land back at home. To our delight, we ended up completing them in vain. Everything we had hand written on our cards was entered via the touch-screen, self-service kiosks instead.
I am not exaggerating when I say it felt like we made it through the U.S. customs line in no time at all. We waited just a few minutes before we stepped up to the next available Automated Passport Control kiosk. From there, it only took a few minutes more to scan our passports, allow the machine to take a photo of our travel-weary faces, answer the standard U.S. customs declarations questions, and then collect two printed confirmation receipts - one for each of us.
From there, it was off to a customs official in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection booth who reviewed our receipts and then sent us on our merry way to the nearby baggage claim carousels. That was it.
There is no need to pre-register to participate in the free Automated Passport Control program. The kiosks allow up to four people residing at the same address to be processed at the kiosks together, which is a plus for families traveling together - like ours.
Kiosks currently in use at five U.S. and two Canadian airports
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, since the kiosks were installed at the Terminal 5 at O'Hare International Airport, there has been a 40 percent decrease in wait times for eligible U.S. and Canadian citizens with valid passports.
Chicago's O'Hare airport was the first American airport to install the self-service kiosks. Today, the kiosks are also now in use at airports in Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, New York City and Seattle. In Canada, you can use the kiosks at airports in Vancouver and Toronto. And, more are on the way.
Chicagoans will be happy to know that, according to an Executive Travel article from December 2013, Chicago's Midway Airport should have the kiosks installed some time during the first quarter of this year.
Global Entry program helps speed travelers through at other airports
Is your return city not one of the airports that currently boasts having the new Automated Passport Control kiosks? With some advance planning, you can still help speed up your time spent in the U.S. customs line thanks to the Global Entry program. Dozens of airports in the U.S. and other international countries participate in the program . You can find the full list here.
Through the program, U.S. Customs and Border Protection allow pre-approved, low-risk travelers to benefit from expedited clearance upon entry into the U.S. using automated kiosks. While the program was originally offered to benefit frequent international travelers, there is no minimum number of trips required to participate in it.
To participate in the Global Entry program, you need to undergo a rigorous background check and participate in an interview. You'll also need to pay a non-refundable fee of $100. Children 18 years or younger can enroll in the program with parental or legal guardianship permission.
While there's a cost and advance preparation to use this particular program, it's good to know that it's an option if the Automated Passport Control program isn't available at your hometown airport - or the one you typically return to from international destinations.
Once again, it's easier to look forward to international travel with kids
With more international travel plans in our near future, I'm glad to know that our return travels should be a refreshing experience - and the perfect way to welcome us home after many long hours (with two active boys) on an airplane.
But, for now, we'll still look at flights that allow us to return to our hometown airport - at least until more of the kiosks are installed at additional U.S. airports.