(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for NBC News)
Over this holiday, the Transportation Security Administration is expecting to screen a near pre-pandemic number of passengers.
Many travelers will be visiting an airport for the first time in almost two years but will be pleased to find a wide range of free services and amenities at the ready to help ease the journey.
Security Checkpoint Reservations
Travelers who haven’t paid for expedited security lane access with a TSA PreCheck or CLEAR membership may still be able to skip the long lines. A handful of airports now host free programs that allow travelers to reserve a time slot for going through the security checkpoint during the busiest hours. Look for the SEA Spot Saver Program, the LAX Fast Lane, DFW’s Fast Pass Pilot Program, Newark Liberty International’s Virtual Lane, and Orlando International Airport’s Reservation Lane, operated by CLEAR.
A handful of airports offer free gate passes to non-ticketed visitors who want to meet an arriving passenger, see someone off at the gate, or spend baggage-free time dining, shopping, or plane spotting in the terminal. Pass seekers apply online ahead of their visit and, if approved by TSA, go through standard security screening. Airports currently offering gate passes include Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA), Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International (MSY), Bishop International (FNT) in Flint, MI, and California’s John Wayne Airport. The gate pass programs at Pittsburgh International and Tampa International airports are still on hold due to the pandemic.
Many airports have brought back free live concerts, performances, and other forms of entertainment just in time for the holiday season. For example, Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE) has a bright red mailbox set up to collect letters to Santa and promises a personalized response to anyone who includes their address.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) has a robust holiday performance series underway, and the 25-foot-tall water feature in Terminal B at New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) is rotating in a holiday-themed show with its signature program
Movies and Games
At Dallas Forth International Airport (DFW) there’s a new, free interactive gaming experience at gate D-18 featuring a 40-foot-long media wall with a touchless tracking sensor.
The free 22-seat Hollywood Theatre Microcinema at Portland International Airport (PDX) has reopened, showing short films by Pacific Northwest filmmakers. (The films can also be viewed online). The free Video Arts gallery in the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) has reopened as well, showing four new films a month every 20 minutes or less in the gallery and online. Free short films are also screened at the See 18 Film Screen Room (by Gate C18) at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP).
Free books and short stories
Reading is a great way to pass the time when traveling and a handful of airports offer passengers free reading material.
In Houston, there are two free Little Libraries at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and three inside Hobby Airport (HOU). Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) has a book exchange corner in Terminal A West and a machine that dispenses short stories between Terminals D and E. Oakland International Airport, Pittsburgh International Airport, and Dane County Regional Airport (MSN) in Madison, WI, have short story dispensers too. And at San Jose International Airport (SJC), anyone can access the Pop-Up Library to download and access eBooks from the San Jose Public Library for free.
Free Airport Museums
In addition to permanent and changing art and history exhibits, airports in San Francisco, Miami, Phoenix, Albany, NY, and many other cities have free on-site museums and professional museum programs. For example, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is home to the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum, with its main exhibit up above baggage claim, and Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE) recently reopened the Mitchell Gallery of Flight, a free aviation museum open 24/7 in the pre-security area.
More free airport amenities
Look around and you’ll find plenty of other free things to do at airports this season.
Free yoga rooms are available at airports in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, and Miami. American Heart Association kiosks offering free training in lifesaving, hands-only CPR are operating again at many airports. And cute as a button teams of therapy dogs are out in force in dozens of airports this season offering stress-busting visits and accepting free pats and hugs.