How early should you get to the airport? Here’s the answer

Want to start an argument? Tell your travel companion you won’t be arriving two hours before your flight.

Go on, try it. I’ll be right here.

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This is the time of year when crowded airport terminals are making a lot of passengers question the conventional wisdom about check-in times. And no, this isn’t a frivolous, first-world problem. Vacations have been ruined because of it. Marriages have ended. So let’s settle this question once and for all.

As with so many things in travel, there’s a simple answer — and a complicated one.

The simple answer is: Two hours for domestic flight, three hours for international flights. More or less.

“The two-hour recommendation is fairly standard across the industry,” says Heather Lissner, a spokeswoman for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. “We recommend the two hours so that travelers have enough time to get dropped off or park their cars, check their bags and get through security to their gates.”

The complicated answer: It depends.

Lissner explains that while experienced travelers may find they need less time, the two hours gives those who don’t travel as frequently a chance to have a less rushed and stressful travel experience. And during busy holiday periods or special events, the airport may recommend adding even more time.

For example, during last year’s College Football Playoff, the folks at Sky Harbor adopted a “3-2-1” recommendation: Arrive at the airport ticket counter to check in three hours before your flight; be in line at the airport security checkpoint two hours before your flight; be at the gate one hour before your flight.

How “standard” is this advice? The Transportation Security Administration agrees with it, but airlines don’t. For instance, American Airlines advises passengers to be at the airport two hours before flight time for international departures and 90 minutes for domestic flights. Also, there’s an exception for flights to certain overseas destinations, which require that you check in earlier.

United Airlines further complicates this issue by adding luggage to the equation. If you’re not checking luggage, the carrier advises you to arrive at the airport at least 60 minutes before your scheduled departure time. If you’re checking luggage, it’s 90 minutes. For international flights, give yourself two hours, says United.

Confused yet?

It may help to note the likely motives behind the advice. The TSA and airports want you to get there earlier, each for its own reasons. The agency does not like to be rushed with screenings even if there’s a long security line. Airports want you to take advantage of their incredible shopping and dining facilities, which you can’t do if you’re rushing to the gate. Also, they factor in the time it takes to find parking. Airlines, on the other hand, don’t want you milling around the boarding area for too long.

But these guidelines don’t take into account the fact that you’re dealing with people — some with mobility problems, others who are nervous and would arrive a day before their flight if they could. That’s where things get interesting, and that’s where the “depends” really becomes apparent.

Joe Reimers, a sales engineer from South Bend, Ind., describes himself as a “conservative” traveler, especially when he’s checking a bag. But if he flies out of his home airport, which he knows well, he sometimes arrives just 45 minutes before his departure.

“Flying out of less familiar airports on return trips is a different story,” he says. He sticks to the airline advice of two hours for international flights and 90 minutes for domestic flights. “At very large airports, I may go even longer,” he adds.

Yet other experienced travelers say their lead time is always the same. Douglas Jensen, an IT consultant from Natick, Mass., is a top-level elite frequent flier with 45 years of air travel experience.

“I always allow two hours for domestic flights and three hours for international flights,” he says. That means leaving his home at 1 a.m. for a 5 a.m. flight, gives him the security of knowing that he won’t miss his flight.

And that really is the object of this whole exercise: to not miss the flight. So the real question is whether to go with the airport and TSA recommended arrival times which are more generous, or the airline times, which cut it a little closer.

In this case, the airports and the TSA are absolutely correct. Never mind the awful, overpriced airport food and the tacky duty-free shops your local airport want you to frequent, or the pat-down the TSA agents hope you’ll endure. And forget the seasonal lull, which will probably be over by the time you’re finished with this article.

If you miss your flight, you have a whole new set of problems. You don’t want to go there.

What to do at the airport for free while you wait

See the art
Phoenix Sky Harbor, for example, has an impressive collection of art. More information can be found here. Terminal 4 has art dedicated to Arizona’s weather on exhibit through March 19, for example. Don’t forget to check out the car rental terminal artwork displays.

Watch the planes
The one airport that keeps getting mentioned as the best for planespotting is St. Maarten, specifically Maho Beach at the west end of the runway. You know all those photos of enormous planes that look like they’re going to land on top of the beach? That’s where they come from. Check out the “spectacular landings” section on this airport website.

Take a hike
Sitting in a pressurized aluminum tube for hours at a time is no one’s idea of fun. But you can stretch your legs before you take off by walking through the airport terminal. The longest walkable concourse? That would be Denver International Airport’s Concourse B, which is 3,300 feet long. But you can always hop on the people mover to the next terminal and keep walking.

At the peak of the holiday travel season, we decided to run this as an “encore” column. Use this to settle arguments with family members who want to leave for the airport later.

28 thoughts on “How early should you get to the airport? Here’s the answer

  1. “The longest walkable concourse? That would be Denver International Airport’s Concourse B, which is 3,300 feet long.”

    The Detroit main terminal is a mile long. Technically it’s two concourses, but it’s a single continuous room with no barrier or even a hallway between the two.

    1. The A concourse is, indeed, a mile long and if you really want a hike, take the underground tunnel to the B/C concourse at DTW and enjoy the light show; the tunnel is 700 feet long. Add on the length of the B concourse and you can get quite a workout.

    2. That concourse seems to be 2 miles when you have to run from one end to the other when your inbound plane is late ad your connecting plane is boarding when you get there.

  2. If you have TSA precheck,you can get there a little later since the security lines are shorter. The lines are shorter if you have elite status with the airline. It all depends.

    1. Lately, the TSA precheck lines are full of first timers that have no clue what to do, and slow the lines way down. At my home airport I have 3 different areas to use the precheck lines, so if my first choice is very crowded I can walk on down to the less crowded ones. It makes a bit of a hike, but that just adds needed steps to my day.

    2. The Pre lanes are not always shorter. At IAH (Houston) in the main terminal, United owns the place and has 2 security lines, one for regular customers and one for everyone else (Pre, 1st class, high lever frequent flyers). They use non TSA employees to sort out who goes in which line and they refuse to let you go through the regular line when your boarding pass has anything else printed on it like Pre. The supposedly faster line almost always takes longer now than the regular line. Clearing through the week before Christmas there was a spike in passengers where it took 185 minutes to get through the Pre lane. Yes, over 3 hours, while the everyone else line was about 30 minutes. I thought there was going be a riot.

    3. In ATL the pre-check lines are packed solid. Took me 3 minutes through Medallion line in December and my traveling companion took 15 in pre-check.

    4. We recently flew out of LAX and the Pre-Check lines were not shorter. In fact, there were almost as long as the regular lines. And yes, there are often people in those lines who had no clue what to do. They pull up to the conveyor belt and start pulling out their liquid packs, laptops, belts, but they leave change in their pockets along with their cellphone that’s “ON.”

  3. Sitting in a pressurized aluminum tube for hours at a time is no one’s idea of fun.

    My young lady friend’s daughter (6 years old) enjoys it — her mum lets her watch videos on the flight. She’s quiet, and it is hard to get her off the plane when it lands.

  4. “Never mind the awful, overpriced airport food and the tacky duty-free shops your local airport want you to frequent” Duty free shopping facilities are minimal at most US Airports I’ve been to and as a consequence, they are not really an issue. As to the “awful” food, many or most airports nowadays have pretty good food.

    1. True about the U.S., but I’ve been at some foreign airports where I’d swear the facility exists as a massive duty free mall with a few gates attached here and there.

  5. I’m a “get there early and relax” chick. My hubby never checks a bag and is a “use a mobile pass, pre check, get to the gate and walk right onto the plane”, guy. I have threatened to go to the airport without him and make him drive separately, it stresses me out so much not to be at least to hours early. I usually win, but I don’t get the resistance.

  6. Those guidelines are for the times you actually arrive at the airport. Make sure to be in the vicinity of the airport in time to make those deadlines. If you live in a distant city like mine, that means arriving in the area a day early rather than taking the same-day shuttle.

  7. Of course, one can follow closer to those “airline recommended times” if one is flying from a smaller airport, like ABE, CAK, PIA,etc. and it’s not a holiday period.

  8. Unless you are leaving from a small airport, make it at least a three hour window – from the time you step off the curb at the terminal until you are standing at the gate. Sounds excessive?, maybe but so many things can go wrong before you even get to the terminal – traffic, congestion, parking problems, weather delays and buildup of people in and around the terminals, baggage issues, airline delays – any number of things or many things combined. Having worked check-in ticket counters for years, I can tell you – one cannot be “too early” – never.

  9. Unless you’re traveling with small children, the rule of thumb is “if you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports.”

      1. If I followed the “two hours” rule, I’d be wasting well over a hundred hours a year in airports. That’s hardly “living.”

  10. Sometimes I have great periods of productivity while waiting at the airport. I am ready with work, kindle, magazine, podcasts….that and a nice latte and it can be downright enjoyable.

  11. I recommend just MOVING into the airport a week in advance. That way you have all bases covered. Yes, abandon the family, take 1-2 hours per flight out of Corporate America’s productivity, sit helplessly while you get fondled like you’re in a Ron Jeremy film…that YOU’RE paying to be in. All the while knowing that 5% – FIVE PERCENT – success is being achieved by these $15/hr James Bond wannabes?!?!?

    Seriously, at what point do we say NO to all this?

  12. For full disclosure here: I wouldn’t recommend 45 minutes to anyone, ever, and in the several months since I contacted the site with my information, I’ve become more conservative. I typically fly out of a very small airport where I can reliably get from curb to gate in 7 minutes if I’m not checking a bag, 10 if I am. Flying out of my home airport, my target is 60-75 minutes, and flying through other airports I go 90 minutes to 2 hours.

  13. It really depends on the airport. At the rinky dink little airport in my hometown that has at most six flights a day on crop-duster planes, getting there an hour ahead is enough, and if you are traveling with children, add a little extra time. If you are flying out of an airport where the security lines can get really long and move slow, like O’Hare or Midway on some times of day, two hours or more for a domestic flight is not unreasonable.

  14. There are several things that factor into it. Yes, my home airport is terrific in this way. It’s a small regional airport where I can get out of my Uber and be at my gate in under five minutes with TSA Precheck and no bag to check. Obviously I wouldn’t cut it that close, but I know I don’t need 90 minutes or two hours. I generally allow a little under an hour. At an unfamiliar airport or a major one, I’ll allow the full two hours in case things go wrong. It’s not a science, and I’d rather be ready to board an hour early than two minutes late, so always err on the side of caution.

  15. Two variables this doesn’t mention are whether you check in before you leave home (if you already have your boarding pass when you walk into the terminal, that saves time at the airport) and, for international flights to the US, whether the airport has US “pre-clearance.” I allow extra time when I’m flying from Montreal to the US, because even if I check in before heading for the airport, with only a carry-on bag, there’s the extra stop for US customs and immigration, which might take five minutes, or ninety.

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