A Guide to Timing Your Arrival
If there’s one question that both frequent and infrequent fliers ask, it’s: How early should you get to the airport? No one wants to get there and sit for five hours. But you also don’t want the stress of running through the airport, jumping over luggage, and narrowly avoiding other passengers just to get to your plane. This mad dash is not nearly as fun as it looks on TV.
Knowing how early to get to the airport should be a simple factor. However, as we all know, nothing is exactly “simple” when it comes to airline travel.
Just fitting all those tiny plastic bottles of liquids in a carry-on bag stresses some of us out. And by “us,” I mean me.
Before we dive into the nitty gritty of how early you should get to the airport to check in before departure, you may be interested to know where to find the best places to get good deals on flights, rental cars, hotel rooms, and more.
Scott’s Cheap Flights is a great travel tool to help find amazing deals on a flight, with the best prices to the best destinations. Skyscanner is another excellent tool for finding the best rates on flights, hotels, and car rentals in a wide variety of domestic and international destinations.
If you’re flexible with your airline flight choices and like to compare, check out a site like Momondo to find and compare the cheapest flights available. You can also book hotels, car rentals, trains, and buses.
How Early Should You Get to the Airport?
According to USA Today and Condé Nast Traveller, the answer is: Two hours before your scheduled departure time for a domestic flight and three hours before the scheduled departure time for an international flight. The TSA and airlines like American Airlines go along with this two and three hour advice.
This, however, is the simple answer and a general rule. There’s also a complicated answer. You knew that was coming, right?
These time frames allow the less frequent traveler time to arrive at the airport and park, check in, check luggage, and make their way through security screenings in a less rushed and stressed state of mind. If you’re a frequent traveler, you may not need all the extra hours ahead to arrive at the airport.
Factors that can contribute to your time schedule (and that you should take into consideration when asking yourself: how early should I get to the airport?) will include things like:
- Parking (how far you may have to walk from the parking deck to the check-in counter)
- Airport size (large international airports will be busier than small regional airports)
- Time of year and day of your flight departure (summer and holiday travel can be much busier)
- How much luggage you have to check
- If anyone in your group has mobility issues
- If you’re traveling with kids (always arrive early, way before your departure time when traveling with kids)
- If you have to show proof of Covid-19 vaccines at check-in time (many airports have ceased requiring this)
- Whether it’s a domestic or international flight
- Local traffic and how long it will take you to get to the airport (but this one’s probably a given)
Taking all of the above factors into consideration can help you determine a sweet spot when asking yourself: how early should I get to the airport?
Some airports are notoriously famous (or maybe, infamous) for being laid out like a small city with confusing terminals and all sorts of trams, shuttles, and even monorails (hello, Orlando) to get from one section to another. For example, it’s 2.16 miles from check-in to the gate at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. That can really put a damper on your flying and airport experience.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, and Dubai International Airport are among the world’s top 10 busiest airports. If you’re traveling out of any of these airports, you’ll definitely want to add extra hours to the recommended check-in time to navigate your way around the airport.
Whether you’re flying with American Airlines, JetBlue, Alaska Air, British Airways, or the super colorful Southwest Airlines, do a bit of research ahead of time to find other traveler’s experiences. This can be helpful when determining what time to arrive at the departure airport for your flight.
See Related: Clear vs TSA Precheck: What’s Better?
If you’re traveling internationally, there are several important documents you’ll need for check-in, security, and return trips. Having items such as passports, travel visas, paper or digital tickets, and other IDs handy and ready to show to the airline, TSA, and security officials will greatly expedite your ability to get through all the checkpoints quickly.
In addition to the right time to arrive at the airport, international flights sometimes have the added factors of extra paperwork, forms, and document checks. One flight form you may not be familiar with (I wasn’t) is a passenger locator form.
This fairly new form (thanks, Covid) is used by public health officials to receive information about passengers traveling across borders. It’s a way of contact tracing in the event of exposure to a contagious disease while traveling.
This form was widely used during the global Covid-19 pandemic, but many countries have since stopped requiring this piece of information. It’s always best to check the airport before your flight to be extra cautious. Then, be sure to arrive at the airport with plenty of time for any required checks.
Flying domestically within the U.S.? The REAL ID deadline has recently been extended (once again) to May 27, 2025. This is a driver’s license or a state ID card that can also be used as a federally-recognized form of ID for airline travel, as well as access to some federal facilities such as military bases and federal courthouses.
In most states, there’s a star in the corner of the license to signify that it’s a REAL ID. You can also use a passport to travel domestically if you don’t have a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license.
However, you can’t use a REAL ID in place of a passport for international travel. You still have to have an actual passport for international flights when you arrive at the airport.
See Related: Ways to Get Free Flights and Airfare
How to Avoid Extra Time Spent in the Airport
- Check in online and use a mobile boarding pass or a print-at-home boarding pass.
- Join a trusted traveler program like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry to get through the security lines and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. These programs (which require an in-person pre-screening with background checks and fingerprints) allow enrolled travelers the ability to go through security without having to remove shoes, laptops, 3-1-1 liquids, belts, and light jackets. There are usually separate lines at security for travelers enrolled in these programs.
- Don’t check bags at the airport baggage check. This will save time at check-in and after exiting the plane. If you do have luggage to check, use a self-check kiosk to check it in. Then, all you have to do is drop it off at the counter.
- Check your airport flight status early before you get to the airport and periodically while en route.
- Use Google Maps to monitor traffic conditions before and while en route to the airport.
- Fly during off-peak times if possible. You’ll typically find fewer crowds in the late evening and heavier travel times in the early and mid-morning. You may be able to shave off a half hour before arrival time by doing this.
So, let’s say you arrive at the airport the recommended two hours early for domestic flights or three hours for international flights, and you breeze right through check-in (or you did check in online), checking bags, and the security line. First off, good for you! There’s nothing worse than a missed flight. Second, what do you do now that you have all this extra time before departure?
Here are a few things to keep you busy before boarding time:
- Visit the airport bar, café, restaurant, or gift shop before departure time. Don’t risk losing track of time by spending too much time at the airport bar, though.
- Catch up on extra sleep in the airport boarding area before your flight takes off. Some airports also have airport sleep pods or capsules available to rent.
- Read a book or magazine before boarding time.
- Take advantage of airport lounge services, which can be much more comfortable than the general boarding area. Some credit cards, such as Amex Platinum Card and Capital One Venture X Rewards Card, offer perks like access to airport lounges.
- Prepare for a full flight of sitting in cramped quarters by walking around the terminal and stretching your legs before flight time.
You may be wondering what happens if you do miss your flight at last call. After all, you can’t control if you arrive at a busy time of day or if there are unexpected circumstances (even if you arrive within the recommended two or three hour time frames). Maybe online check-in wasn’t working and now you have to check in at the counter.
You’ll want to inspect your ticket’s fare rules for restrictions and regulations for missing a flight. It has to do with the type of reservation the fare was made under. Typically, the lower the ticket price (or fare), the more restrictions there are.