Avoid Waiting: Tricks for Beating the Lines

Tricks and tips could save you time at the store, airport and in traffic.

November 6, 2009, 6:19 PM

Nov. 7, 2009— -- A world without lines would be total chaos. Think of those Black Friday scenes where people push and shove to get to the front. But standing in line, waiting behind slow pokes, feeling like it's getting later and later…ugh.

So what if you could outsmart a line? And we're not talking about cutting. "GMA Weekend" decided to experiment with three of the longest types of lines to see if it's possible to tactically outmaneuver the masses to shorten the wait.

Checkout Challenge: Express Vs. Regular Lane

We started at the grocery store, where I met up with Dan Meyer, a Santa Cruz, Calif. math teacher who also works part time with Google. To answer his students' frequent cries of "when are we ever going to use that in real life?" during his math classes, Meyer decided to research serious mathematical issues like which grocery store checkout line is faster, the express lane or the regular lane. His theory is that it's not how many items are in the carts in front of you, but how many people are in line in front of you.

To help illustrate the point, I laid out two lines of shopping baskets in front of Meyer. One represented the express line. There were three baskets, and each had only a few items. Then there was a line where one person had a cart that was overflowing with groceries. Most of us never want to get behind the guy with a full cart. But what did Meyer's research show?

Meyer pointed to the overflowing cart. "This is the safest bet here, because all three of these ones here [representing the express line] have to have all the pleasantries in the transaction, the 'hi, how are you?,' which takes 48 seconds on average per person. Each one of these items takes only 2.8 seconds on average to scan, so you'd rather have 17 more items in line than one more person," he explained.

It was time to put this theory to the test. With 12 items each, we lined up. Meyer was in the regular line behind four people, each with full carts. I lined up behind seven people in the express lane.

Meyer's theory is based on scrutiny of cash register records that show the amount of items per transaction and the time each transaction took. He realized that seven out of 10 times, it's faster to pick the shorter line regardless of how many items the people in front of you have in their carts.

For the first five minutes of the wait in line, the progress was very even. Dan even surged ahead at one point. But as both of us neared the checkout, Meyer's theory hits a snag: the people directly in front of him had a ton of vegetables and fruits that needed codes entered into the register; they couldn't be directly scanned. In the end, even though I won, I only beat our mathematician by about one minute.

"We had a lot of confounding variables," Meyer said. "Lots of produce in front of me takes time." But he stood by the math, and his theory.

Fly Through Airport Security Lines

Now to the airport. It's a stressful place, and there's no bigger reason for that than the security line. We had Chris McGinnis of the Travel Skills Group, Inc., give us some tips and tricks to get through that security line as fast as possible.

McGinnis' first tip: streamline your own trip through security. Only carry your ID and boarding pass; wallets and cell phones should be stashed in a bag. Also, wear a watch with a rubber strap and a plastic belt. Finally, think about your shoes: wear slip-ons for speed. Now what about avoiding other people who slow down the line?

"You wanna look for families, kids with backpacks on their back, strollers. It's always a problem," he said. "International travelers, people holding foreign passports, they don't really have the game down like an American does who has done this a million times. They don't know they have to take off their shoes every single time like we do."

Now for the test; I pick the shorter line, but it has a family in it. McGinnis strategically picks a longer line, but one full of travelers who look like business people and experienced fliers.

He gave me another tip as he waited in line when he spotted a traveler ahead of me wearing some complicated footwear. "One of the things I'm talking about for shoes here is lace-up boots. That's a big problem. Probably going to be a delay here, let's see what happens."

Sure enough, the family slowed me down considerably and McGinnis got through security three minutes ahead of me.

Road Test: Switch Lanes or Stay the Course?

Now, for the ultimate line test, traffic. Is better to stay the course in one lane on a multi-lane road, or is there an advantage to being a lane changer? I'd enlisted the help of 72-year-old senior citizen Bob Burdick from Point Richmond, Calif. He's a friend of mine and a slow and steady kind of guy. He drove in one lane with the flow of traffic. I, on the other hand, switched lanes, zigging and zagging to try to get ahead. The question is which one of us got to the destination first.

We are crossed the notorious Bay Bridge from Berkeley to San Francisco, Calif. It's an hour commute on most days. We set some ground rules: abide by traffic laws, stay under the speed limit, and neither of us could use a Fast Pass or EZ Pass.

I immediately started weaving in and out of traffic but only got a minute ahead of Burdick. The real slow down on this commute happens just in front of the Bay Bridge toll plaza. It's here that I turned into a total maniac. I had to wiggle my way across eight lanes to get ahead of about 200 cars, and then I came back across all those lanes to really jump ahead. I think I made up about five minutes by inching in front of cars and forcing my way across the lanes. I felt like such a jerk.

But the moves paid off. By the time I got through the toll plaza I was at least six minutes ahead of our slow and steady driver, Burdick.

Driving across the bridge, I continued to cut in and out to get ahead, but my aggressive driving almost had an unsafe and dangerous result as I barely missed hitting a motorcyclist who was splitting lanes and moving quickly past other cars as I was trying to change lanes. That scared me for the rest of the trip.

In the end, I shaved about nine minutes off the hour-long commute, which is significant. But you have to factor in at what cost. I was driving like a jerk, so people probably hated me. I was speeding up and braking, so my fuel efficiency was terrible. And the real factor for me was safety. I could have hit that motorcyclist. It just wouldn't be worth it for me.

Three lines, three tests. No fool proof solutions, but a few tactics and consequences to consider the next time you find yourself stuck in line.

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