How early should you really arrive for your flight? Let’s settle this question once and for all

running, late, watch, time, looking, watching, impatient

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.

This is the time of year when emptier 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.

SIDEBAR: 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.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.