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15 Secrets Airports Don’t Want You to Know

From the high prices at duty-free to the free unadvertised water and WiFi, here are the secrets airports won't tell you.

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Security check
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Your gender can be confusing

If your gender isn’t obvious to the TSA, you may get an old-fashioned pat-down as you go through security. This is because as you enter and put your arms above your head for the now-commonplace full body scan, the device operator must tell the machine “male” or “female” so it knows which anatomy to consider as it scans you. If they pick the wrong gender, and the machine sees “parts” it didn’t expect, you could get more, ahem, personal attention.

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Tissue box on the wall in the bathroom

Airport bathroom feedback is received in real time

No bathroom experience will ever be worse than using an outdoor port-a-potty on a hot summer day, but for a long time, airport restrooms were not much better. This is changing, thankfully, and you can do your part to improve airport bathroom cleanliness by providing an instant reaction on smart feedback devices as you leave (after washing your hands thoroughly, of course). At certain airports, like those in the NYC area, that feedback is being received in real time to help get and keep bathrooms clean. By the way, make sure you never do these 18 things on an airplane.

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Staff Holding Boarding Pass Of Passenger At Airport
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The pleasant conversation may be a test

We don’t want to make you overly cynical, but the next time a TSA agent gets chatty with you, it might not be because she finds you fascinating. Instead, it could be a behavior inspection technique. The pleasant conversation may be a subtle test to see if you are a suspicious character. Here are 13 things airlines won’t tell you (but every flier should know).

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photo of Food served on board of business class airplane on the table
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Eating during the flight may be cheaper than in the airport

If you have an airline credit card, you may be entitled to upwards of a 25 percent discount on food and drink purchased while in flight. The cost of American Airlines’s delicious cheese and fruit platter, for instance, drops from an already reasonable $8.99 to a relative steal at $6.74 when you put it on any of their credit cards. This is likely half the price of a comparable meal in or out of the airport!

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You don’t really need to arrive two hours before your flight

Occasionally it will take hours to clear security, but the majority of the time you don’t need nearly that much time at the airport. We think this “helpful” airport recommendation is a ploy to get us eating, drinking, and shopping in the terminal. After all, the longer you’re there, the more money you’ll spend killing time. Instead, be sure to check in online, only bring a carry-on, be security-ready (skip the belts and jackets, and wear easy-to-remove shoes), and show up a little later than they suggest. If you find yourself at the airport too early, here is your guide to get into the best airport lounges.

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Smiling woman commuter getting out of a taxi. Businesswoman getting off a cab.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Taxi rides from the airport may be twice the actual cost of the trip

On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, an airport taxi cost $26 to get into Old San Juan with no traffic, yet an Uber for the reverse drive was a mere $14. If you aren’t renting a car the next time you fly, check to see if Uber or Lyft will pick you up at the airport before joining the taxi queue.

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Travel concept. Back view of confident businessman in suit is walking along airport lounge while carrying his suitcase. Copy space in the left side
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Checking your bag at the gate might be free

You may have the opportunity to gate-check your bag for free. Listen for a “we expect a full flight and will run out of overhead bin space” message at the gate, and then take them up on the opportunity for a complimentary checked bag to your final destination.

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african american man uisng talet

There is WiFi and it is (probably) free

There’s still the stray airport with the audacity to charge for the privilege of hopping onto their slow WiFi network, but most airports offer complimentary WiFi nowadays. Log on for free and finish downloading those Netflix show episodes before you take off! Check out these things your airplane pilot won’t tell you.

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Water Drinking Fountain
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Water is free

Airport shops would prefer that you fork over as much as $5 for a disposable plastic bottle of water. Avoid the charge by bringing an empty bottle through security, and look for the reusable water refill stations positioned near the restrooms and old-fashioned water fountains at nearly all major airports.

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Airline passengers sitting at free internet service counter in airport. People at internet cafe inside airport terminal.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

You may have access to a private airport lounge

There won’t be flashing lights inviting you in, but even without your name on the marquee, your credit card(s) may come with the perk of opening the door to free airport lounge access. Don’t be afraid to pop in and ask. You may just find yourself in a calm, quiet oasis with free food and drink before your next flight. Here are things you should never do at the airport.

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starbucks airport

You’re being lured into the shops from a seated position

It’s not exactly a trap, but it is a clever trick: The reason the most comfortable seats—from rocking chairs to plush sofas—are near the airport retail zones is because you are being lured into the shops from a seated position. This practice is called “revenue seating”; the goal is to get you to whip out your credit card during the “golden hour” (the first 60 minutes after you have cleared security).

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airport security dog
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Security isn’t as secure as you think

Understaffed and overworked TSA employees staring at a screen for too long and scanning technology that is likely already out of date means that airport security isn’t as secure as you think (and hope) that it is. Here are some more things your TSA security agent isn’t telling you.

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Airplane with four engines landing on runway back view - touchdown with tire smoke
Igor Karasi/Shutterstock

Your ETA includes more than just flying time

If you’ve noticed how the total announced flying time doesn’t add up to the published ETA when you booked the flight, here’s the reason: The estimated arrival time includes wiggle room for taxiing to and from the runway and other potential small delays. It also allows pilots to boast about getting you in ahead of schedule.

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duty free shop airport

The duty may be free but the goods aren’t always cheaper

The bright lights and shelves full of products in the duty-free shops are an enticing way to burn the hours before a flight or during a long layover. Don’t be fooled: The prices of duty-free beverages, chocolates, and perfumes are often still more expensive than what you’ll pay at home!

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New British Pound Coins (on black)
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The currency exchange rates are atrocious

Frequent fliers know to never swap currency at the airport. The exchange rates are outrageously tilted in the house’s favor; you will lose a lot of money in the deal. Instead, either get your foreign currency from your hometown bank or, better yet, simply use your ATM card in a fee-free machine once you reach your final foreign destination.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, cars and parenting. In addition to contributing to numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Esquire, Travel + Leisure and Fodor’s, he has written two parenting books. An award-winning photographer, he lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with his wife, cats and an adorable dog named Ollie.