May Day & Bank Holiday Advice: Part of our Concierge Service – Travel advice: How to avoid airport immigration queues content by By Nick Trend
As Heathrow’s Terminal 5 experiences lengthy immigration queues, Nick Trend advises on how travellers can avoid them.
The long queues at Heathrow Terminal Five this week are a familiar experience for many travellers in many airports. Over the years, I’ve found Stansted to be particularly slow, and anyone who has flown into JFK in New York will remember the long wait at immigration.
Of course, it isn’t only the queues at passport control which can delay your progress through the airport. Long waits by the baggage carrousel, and, before you fly, at check in and security, are all part of a system which has a tendency to herd and corale rather than speed us on our way. But there are ways of minimising the time you have to spend getting through the airport. Here are some suggestions.
1 Fly from a local airport
Smaller airports occasionally have problems with queuing when more than one plane arrives at once, but generally speaking you will get through immigration much faster at a minor regional airport than at a main hub. You can increase the number of destinations you can fly to from these airports by booking with an airline such as KLM, which has a big choice of routes flying from 15 UK airports like Cardiff, Durham and Norwich.
But be aware that, annoyingly, you have to pass through passport control at Schiphol when you are changing planes, even if you are not entering Holland. This is fine in one sense, because it won’t add to the overall length of your journey, but it is another queue to add to the list. Remember too that, even if you are based in London, the network of flights from the very efficient London City Airport is growing all the time (BA has just added Menorca, Angers and Quimper to its lists of destinations from the airport). Meanwhile EasyJet has just launched seven new overseas routes (five in Spain plus Amsterdam and Faro) from Southend airport.
2 Arrive in the middle of the day
If you do have to fly through a major UK airport, try to book a return flight which lands between about 10am and 4pm. There tend to be fewer flights landing then, and the planes tend not to be so so full. Generally speaking, all peak travelling times, weekends and the end of school and bank holidays are best avoided for obvious reasons.
3 Sit at the front
If you have already booked your flight and/or can’t avoid arriving at a busy time, make sure you check in and select your seat early (ideally online – up to 24 hours in advance of departure with BA, for example) and choose an aisle seat near the front of the aircraft. Then you can at least get ahead of most of the other people on your flight when you disembark. If you are flying with no-frills airlines which don’t allocate a seat number, you may want to consider paying extra for priority boarding in order to get a suitable seat.
4 Use a biometric passport
Most British passport holders now have a biometric version of the document. They were standard issue from 2006, and they differ from the old style issue because they a chip inside which stores information about the critical features of your face — such as the exact distances between your eyes, nose, mouth and ears. These details are taken from the passport photograph. You can tell if yours is biometric by the presence of a gold rectangle with a circle in it at the bottom of the front cover. You can use a biometric passport to go through automatic gates which are now installed at every major British airport (though to use them you must be aged 18 or over unless there is a sign indicating otherwise).
But before you line up in one of the queues for these machines, make sure the wait looks shorter than for the ordinary immigration desks. Sometimes the problems caused by people unfamiliar with the automatic gate system means that there can be a wait here too. To use the gate, remove your passport from any wallet or cover, and place it on the glass scanner, with the photograph face down.
When indicated, go into the booth, with your feet on the position markings on the floor, remove your glasses and look straight at the camera. The glass doors will open automatically to let you out, unless there is a problem with the scan and the system rejects you, in which case you need to go to the border officer at the desk who will do a manual check. Note that if you want to renew your old-style, no-biometric passport you can do so at any time. If there is any time left on your old passport, the Home Office Identity and Passport Service (IPS) will add it to the new passport, up to a maximum of nine months. For more information go to: www.homeoffice.gov.uk and click on Immigration and Passports.
5 Use the Iris Scanner while you can
The Home Office IRIS recognition system used to be a good way of avoiding immigration queues entirely. It is based on a scan of your iris that confirms your identity and nationality. Instead of queuing at the desks, you enter a glass booth, and get automatic clearance, assuming the scan matches your details. Unfortunately, the scheme has already been dropped at Manchester and Birmingham, and is being withdrawn from Heathrow and Gatwick after the Olympics, so it is of no use to those who have not registered.
6 Travel with hand baggage
Those able to travel light won’t be able to get around queues at passport control, but they do avoid the risk of a long wait for bags, and they also save hefty charges for hold luggage levied by no-frills airlines. Weight and size allowances for cabin baggage vary widely from airline to airline however, so check on the airline website before packing.
7 Pay for fast track secturity
Club and business-class passengers often get access to a fast-track security queue, which is one way of avoiding the tedium of a long wait when you first arrive at the airport. Several British airports have started to offer a similar service to all passengers who are prepared to pay for it – usually between £3 and £5. Manchester airport (www.manchesterairport.co.uk), for example, charges £3.50 a head.
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