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.

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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.

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

  1. I generally hate waiting around in airports with one major exception: airport lounges. If I have access to a nice lounge and have nothing better to do in the city, I’ll get to the airport pretty early and enjoy knowing I can get some free snacks, a relaxing seat, and ample power outlets.

    Also, if I’m traveling with my family I allow much more time than I would for just myself. Kids are slow, require frequent bathroom breaks and snacks, etc. I don’t need the time pressure on top of that.

    Barring those things, I tend to cut it pretty close.

    1. Instead of cutting it close, get a Kindle. Long waits for things suddenly become an opportunity, rather than a bore. And because a travel day is always a lost day, at least here in the West where it’s always at least early evening when you arrive at a destination, you can make it a catch up on reading day.

  2. When flying alone for work, and leaving from US airports:

    For domestic flights, one hour prior to departure, sometimes less.* For international flights, 90 minutes. I have TSA Precheck, elite status, and don’t check luggage.

    The ideal is to arrive at the gate 30 seconds before they announce they’re starting the boarding process.

    As a wise man once said “if you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports.”

    That said, I’ve never missed a flight in 20+ years of flying extensively for work.

    *For Delta Shuttle flights from LGA to BOS or ORD, I typically arrive 30 minutes prior to departure, at most.

  3. I go for 90 minutes before the flight for my “Home” airport, where I have Pre-Check, and I’m familiar with it. I do two hours for other airports for domestic, three hours if my first flight is international.

  4. I always push the family to arrive early. This way, we can get a seat at the gate altogether. I have a book and/or my iphone/ipad to keep me entertained while we wait, and the kids are the same.

    My husband likes to wait till the last minute, which frustrates me to no end. He’s not much of a reader and doesn’t like playing games for more than a few minutes on his phone. So he gets bored sitting around. I tell him better to be bored then cost us extra money if we’re late. He seems to think the airline will just rebook us for another flight a couple hours later for free. He has no idea.

    Fortunately, we’ve always been on time (though often without seats at the gate to wait), but I swear it gets me worried when we’re in the TSA line sometimes.

    1. I’m with you – I’d much rather get to the airport early than late. Years ago, I was flying home and relying on a friend to get me to the old Denver airport – she refused to leave when I wanted and kept insisting we had plenty of time.

      Then she missed the exit to the airport on the highway, and we had to go miles out of our way to turn around. Did I mention that I had to check skis, among other things?

      Luckily, this was long enough ago that they got me on another flight without too much issue, and even luckier, the original flight I was supposed to be on actually got grounded in Chicago due to snow so at the end of an extremely long day, I got re-routed through Nashville and somehow ended up back in NYC at almost the exact same time as the original flight I would have been on. So all-in-all, not the worst. But I just remember that absolutely horrible feeling of running through the airport and then being told it was too late to get on the flight.

      Another fun side note – in those days before cellphones, no one had any method of contacting my super-punctual dad, who had left to pick me up hours earlier. So he sat at JFK for, like, 7 hours. He was thrilled. (he was not thrilled).

      These days, I either pay to use the lounge if I’m not automatically entitled, bring a book, or spend an hour perusing the tacky stores. It’s really not the end of the world to spend an extra hour sitting and reading.

      1. That’s why I use an airporter service. Never did like relying on someone whose idea of a leisurely trip to the airport was okay!

        1. Yeah – these days the only “nonprofessional” I ever let take me to the airport is my dad – who has the same “early” disease as me. The last time he offered me a ride, I had already built in the OCD-level “be at the airport ridiculously early buffer” when I told him we should depart at 2pm.

          He showed up at my front door at 1.

  5. Count me in as one of those that has no issue with arriving early at an airport. I strive for 90-120 minutes early knowing full well that I may end up relaxing and reading a book or getting my steps in by walking the terminals. I am not stressed about missing a flight due to a slow line at baggage drop off or getting through security. Why add that stress to your life when you can so easily avoid it? Being at the gate early means you can SEE if your plane is there, and if not you can often find out where it is and know if you will be delayed. Sometimes that means you can make alternative arrangements before the rush and snag that last available seat on the next plane.

  6. Mrs. Peabody hated it that I always add an extra hour beyond the 2 or 3 hour airport arrival plus estimated travel time. Until the time we were 20 minutes out from home when the “Did you …” “No, did you …” conversation revealed an essential task at home had been neglected. Had the cab turn around, did task, and then, on the way to the airport, hit extra unplanned traffic. Then hit a near infinite waiting line snake at the airline check in (only 2 agents, one of which was totally unoccupied in the first class check in slot). We still made it to the gate in time for our boarding group. Time allotted for screw up protection is not wasted time.

  7. Years ago, when I used to travel a lot for business, I was one of those who always pushed the envelope. I HATED waiting around at airports, and would wait until the last possible minute to leave get to the airport on time. My mother, on the other hand, always wanted to get to the airport HOURS early, which drove me crazy whenever I would travel with her.

    But then I missed a couple of flights due to unexpected circumstances (accident on the freeway, very long wait for a rental car shuttle). This was back in the days when they would just put you on the next flight no questions asked…but I did not like that feeling of missing my plane at all.

    And then the rules changed: missing my flight could very well mean I wouldn’t get to fly at all, and would lose the entire value of my ticket! So I had to give some serious thought about what it was that I hated about getting to airports early? And I realized that I was making way too big a deal about sitting around at home rather than the airport. I really wasn’t doing anything all that important at home (or wherever I was) that couldn’t be done at the airport. This caused a complete paradigm shift.

    I’ve now gone the whole other direction: I always get to the airport WAY early. No, airports are not my favorite place to hang out…but I can always find something to do, even if it’s just to find a corner to sit down and read a good book on my Kindle. And I find travel to be much less stressful now…no more waiting until the last minute watching the clock to leave, or feeling rushed, or stressing out when I encounter traffic, or freaking out when I see the TSA line is super long.

    And now, when I travel with Mom, she’s much happier too. 🙂

  8. “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.”

    Since most airlines close out check in at 45 minutes before, sooner or later Joe is going to not be permitted to check in if there is a line at check in or something goes wrong. I’d rather sit for two hours with my laptop or kindle and read than have to worry about Murphy’s law striking.

    1. Who checks in at the airport? That’s what the app is for. Also, that 45 minutes is for checking luggage, which I never do when traveling for work (and extremely rarely when traveling personally).

  9. I used to think that the domestic connecting flight to an international flight was the normal check-in time prior to a domestic flight. Last year, I thought I was cutting it a tiny bit close for my connecting flight to DFW, but no big deal. Oops, big deal! I think they said they needed lead time for my luggage to make it to Lisbon. I don’t remember exactly what I was told, since I was flustered and kind of confused. They were able to get me on a later flight. I am still not certain why it makes a difference. I remember my first business trip to London, flying out of SAT to IAH, I was there three hours beforehand and insisted my coworker do the same. We waited and waited and I felt like a dork.

  10. My advice also depends but not on the things that were mentioned in the article (well some of them).

    Baggage: It really doesn’t take long to check your depending on your trip. Domestic takes less time than international (better free baggage allowances). The real issue is do you know how much your stuff weighs. If its well under the limit then checking it takes less time than security. If however your coming back from a trip and find out your 10 lbs over and are going to spend time shuffling things around, than yeah you need a lot more time for baggage.

    Security: This really depends if you care what other people think, because honestly teenage girls have it figured out. Come to the airport in pajama fleece pants, sandals and a hoodie or t-shirt and security is a breeze to get through. It’s always the person who has two laptops and a tablet to unpack out of their bags as well as shoes, a belt, watch, jacket, iPhone that slow everyone down. If you’re flying to Hawaii, plan an extra hour, not because of you but all the tourist sheeple who haven’t figured out how air travel works. Flying to Hong Kong on a Monday morning red eye, no problem, business guys move through security like norovirus though your bowels.

    Attitude: Take a Xanax, want to know what causes delays and problems, it’s 1) Entitled people who feel disrespected. 2) Those who want to loudly proclaim and defend their rights. Everything takes longer (lot’s longer) when you argue with people from counter agents to security to gate agents to Stew’s. Shut your head hole, smile, apologize for everything and do what you’re told. if you don’t know what to do, apologise again, and ask, then smile and say thank you, even if it sucks.

    Documents: You need ID, I don’t care if you can technically fly without anything except a COSTCO card. Bring your ID, clip it to your boarding pass, and keep that in your pocket or front of your carry on. if you don’t have an ID plan on everything taking an extra hour or two.
    It should go without saying that if you are traveling internationally you need a passport, and you need to check the embassy or consulate website of the country you’re visiting. trust no one else. The fewer people in the information chain the less likely of someone being wrong.

    CHECK IN: Make your life easy, check in online, and either print every document you need or use the airlines app. personally I prefer printed, because paper is more stable than a phone. Don’t be a stupid millennial, a lot of the people you will be interacting with don’t care how much of a hipster you are.

  11. I frequently fly domestic out of LGA (always checking in previously online). Before TSA Pre, I’d arrive 2 hrs before my flight . With TSA Pre, I arrive 1 hr before my flight and I’ve never cut it close. Longest wait time on TSA line was 15 min on July 3rd. If I have to check a bag I always do so at curbside (plenty of agents and no wait).

  12. If you travel all of the time, 5-10 times a year, then you are going to be able to manipulate the lines, probably have some type of Global pass, etc. If you are going on vacation, especially a cruise and you miss your flight, they are not waiting for you. Get to the airport early, have a snack, relax and enjoy. Do not stress. Read a book, watch people, again, don’t stress.

  13. Heathrow Terminal 5 keeps the process very simple – you will not be able to clear the automatic barriers into security less than 40 minutes before departure. As long as you meet that cut-off, you’re on the flight.

    I’m one of those people who when travelling for work will cut things fine. At London City Airport, you can arrive 25 mins before your flight and be fine.

    That being said, if it’s a holiday, I’ll arrive early, and plan to have a relaxed breakfast at the airport with my wife. Thankfully most of the London airports have a nice place for a bite to eat.

  14. While this advice is good in general, there are some exceptions:

    1. Where are you flying out of? We often fly out of Lansing, MI and Flint, MI. It makes no sense to arrive at those airport 3 hours early for a flight. I’m not likely to ever arrive much more than an hour early at Lansing. And, for those airports international is pretty much the same as domestic as far as check-in procedures are concerned (when they even fly international; usually it’s just a connection).

    2. What time is your flight? We do tend to arrive plenty early, but it makes no sense to arrive three hours early for a 6:30am flight. Often the desks and security don’t even open before 5am. We’ve sat around in airports before waiting just to get checked in (with bags).

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