Traveling using frequent flier miles and points certainly has many advantages, such as making business class travel attainable for the casual traveler, and regardless of the ticket class you purchased, you’re saving money compared to booking with cash. However, there are instances where you might book using points from one airline in getting to your destination and use points for a different airline during your return. As far as I can remember, I haven’t ever used miles for the same airline going and coming back. For example, I’ve flown on United miles going to Europe while flying on American miles coming back multiple times. I was able to minimize the number of miles I needed to use by planning my itinerary this way. The only issue? Booking international tickets one way will often result in getting the dreaded SSSS on your boarding pass. SSSS stands for secondary selective screening selection. For me, the biggest giveaway that I’ll end up with SSSS on my boarding pass on the return trip is when I’m unable to check-in for my flight 24 hours before takeoff. The mobile app will tell me “please check in at the airport” or I’ll get an error message. For a traveler that’s designated SSSS, the only way to get check-in is at the ticketing booth at the airport. When you receive your boarding pass at the airport, the capitalized SSSS will be highlighted by the ticketing agent. Once you are in line and the security and the customs officer scans your boarding pass, either a red light will flash or there will be beeping sound, alerting the agent of your SSSS designation. It’s also important to note that there are other factors that may also be in play. Your name (there may be someone with the same name or similar that may be on the watch-list), the region you are traveling to and from, and your citizenship status could all play a role.
Every country differs on their protocol for conducting the secondary screening. In Reykjavik, Iceland, I was taken a to a separate room and all the contents of my carry-on bag were removed. All electronics were swabbed and scanned and the procedure was completed in 10 minutes. The personnel were very friendly and explained what they were going to do in advance. In San Jose, Costa Rica, the security personnel gave me a pat down and searched my bag right at the gate. I actually hated this experience since almost everyone on my Southwest flight headed to Baltimore was already at the waiting area. I had 170 pair of eyeballs watching me as one agent thoroughly searched and swabbed my backpack and all its contents while the other gave me a thorough pat down.
There are also instances where you might get SSSS on your boarding pass when traveling domestic. This occurred in 2015 when my wife and I returned from Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul was deemed as a high risk travel area (it still might be), and anyone returning home from that area was getting SSSS on their boarding pass for the ensuing months. Upon returning, my wife and I had domestic flight from Chicago (ORD) to NYC (LGA), a flight we had taken countless times. This time, we both received the SSSS on our boarding pass, much to our surprise. The TSA officer asked if we had been anywhere recently. I told him we were in Istanbul the prior week and he explained everyone coming back from that region was being selected for secondary screening. He wasn’t wrong as even people with TSA Pre-check and Global Entry were being flagged from secondary screening. In this instance, we were both given thorough pat downs (more like a massage) and had every electronic device swabbed and scanned. Our laptops had to be taken out and powered on. Even The Points Guy had a similar experience upon returning from Turkey around that same time and you can read about that here.
If you do get an SSSS on your ticket, be cooperative and understand that the security personnel are just following protocol and doing their jobs. It will make the process easier, quicker, and you’ll be on your way a lot sooner. During my recent trip to Argentina, my wife and I did not get the SSSS (finally!). But if you can’t check-in 24 hours in advance, budget more time than you normally would when heading to the airport.