How Early Should I Get to the Airport?


Before zipping up their suitcases and trying to get a good night’s sleep, many travelers wonder: “How early should I get to the airport?”

There isn’t a single, simple rule of thumb that covers when to arrive for all types of air travel, destinations or even individual travelers. The conventional wisdom is to arrive two hours ahead of departure for domestic flights and three hours for international flights, though that doesn’t account for certain factors that will impact how you plan your travel day.

How early should you get to the airport for domestic flights?

If you’re flying domestically within the U.S., you don’t have to get to the airport as early as you might for international travel. The most often quoted recommendation is to arrive at the airport two hours before your scheduled departure for a domestic flight.

Here are the steps to account for.

Checking in

You generally need to check in for your flight at least 30 minutes before your scheduled departure time. This is true whether you are checking bags or only traveling with a carry-on.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Checking in online can save time at the airport. You can usually check-in online 24 hours before departure and print your boarding pass at home or use the airline’s mobile app to access your digital boarding pass.

Most lap infants must be checked in with an airline representative at the airport, so if you are traveling with a baby, plan to spend a few extra minutes waiting in line.

Checking bags

If you’re checking bags, you will want to factor in time to visit a kiosk, tag your belongings and drop them off — most often with an agent, though that may be changing. The airline staff will weigh and tag your bags, and you’ll receive a baggage claim receipt.

Oversized luggage or any items that require special assistance may extend your time spent checking bags.

Security

Domestic flyers must pass through security with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

After waiting in line to confirm your identity, you join another line to go through scanners.

Security requires removing certain items from your carry-on luggage (such as large electronics and liquids), as well as removing jackets and shoes. Your luggage goes through one scanner, and you go through another.

Security can mean long lines, especially during peak hours or on busy days.

Boarding

Boarding typically starts within one hour of your scheduled departure, depending on the airline, the size of the flight and the availability of the aircraft.

If you have a seat assigned, you don’t necessarily need to board with your boarding group — though boarding late may risk access to overhead bins.

How early should you get to the airport for international flights?

If you’re flying internationally, the check-in and security process can be more time consuming than when traveling domestically, so it’s wise to show up a bit earlier.

Many airlines recommend getting to the airport three hours before your scheduled departure time for an international flight. The extra time helps account for the added security measures that are required.

Checking in

Some airlines may not allow you to check in online for every flight — you’ll have to stand in line at the check-in counter.

Often, international check-in counters are busy and slow moving, as travelers tend to fly with several bags and ID verification can be lengthy.

Immigration

At the immigration checkpoint, you’ll present your passport, visa (if required for your destination) and completed customs declaration form — usually provided on the plane or at the airport.

An immigration officer will verify your documents and grant you entry into the country. They may even stamp your passport.

Some airports, like Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Canada, use kiosks to take traveler photos and collect declarations as part of the immigration process.

Security

Security experiences are roughly the same for domestic and international flights from a U.S.-based airport. You can use TSA PreCheck and Clear if it is available on your outbound trip, but when you’re headed back to the U.S., you likely will not have access to these services.

🤓Nerdy Tip

A Nexus card can expedite security for air travel between Canada’s airports and U.S. airports with Canada preclearance locations.

If you want to streamline entry into the U.S., consider joining a program like Global Entry. Membership costs $100 every five years and it includes TSA PreCheck — though you can get it as a perk from several credit cards.

Depending on what airport you’re flying out of, you may also have to go through additional security screening before departure. For example, at Istanbul Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, you’ll have your bag screened and documents checked two or more times before you get to relax at your gate.

And every line you stand in means an earlier airport arrival time to board on time.

Boarding

Once you clear security, locate your departure gate number on the airport information screens or your boarding pass and head to your gate. Similar to domestic flights, boarding generally starts within one hour of departure.

Note that there might be additional security checks or customs inspections at the gate, depending on the destination.

What else can affect how early to arrive at the airport?

There are plenty of other factors that can affect how long it takes you to get from the entrance of the airport to your gate on time.

Luggage

If you are checking luggage, you’ll probably want to show up a bit earlier than if you aren’t.

Checking your luggage at the curb can save you some time if it’s available at your point of departure, but standing in line to weigh, tag and hand your bag over to an airline employee can be time consuming, especially during busy travel times.

There are cutoff times after which you can no longer check luggage and expect it to make it on the same flight as you. Usually, that’s about 45 minutes before departure for domestic flights and up to an hour for international.

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If you are not checking bags and traveling with only carry-on luggage, you can bypass the check-in counter and head straight for security, which can save you a lot of time. Just make sure you’re familiar with what you can and can’t carry on so you don’t get held up because your bag has to be searched.

Time and season

What time of day you’re traveling, as well as when in the week or year, can also determine if you should give yourself extra time before your flight.

Flying near holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, even the Fourth of July, can result in far more foot traffic and longer lines airport-wide than during other times of the year.

FlightAware.com shows that flights on weekends, Mondays and Fridays tend to account for some of the busiest times when it comes to air traffic. Weekdays often result in the shortest lines, as do early morning flights and late evening flights, though it can vary wildly from one airport to another.

🤓Nerdy Tip

You can use the MyTSA app to check line data for airports across the country in real time.

Whether you have TSA PreCheck or Clear

One way to help expedite your trip through security in U.S. airports and some international airports is to join membership programs like TSA PreCheck.

Depending on the airport and other factors like what time of day your flight departs, membership could shave minutes or an hour from your wait time, as most passengers wait 10 minutes or less. TSA PreCheck is often worth it if you fly often.

Similarly, Clear, separately or in conjunction with TSA PreCheck, can also help you speed through the ID check portion of security by using biometric data rather than a physical ID to confirm your identity.

Instead, you’ll scan your boarding pass and either eyes or fingerprints and a Clear employee will escort you right to physical screening.

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Airport security line benefits


• Credit for the application fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.

• $189 statement credit to cover the cost of an annual Clear membership.

• Statement credit of up to $100 for TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or NEXUS application fee.

• Credit for the application fee for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.

• $189 statement credit to cover the cost of an annual Clear membership.

• Statement credit of up to $100 as reimbursement for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee.

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The annual Clear fee may be worth it for those who fly often out of an airport with Clear lanes that also tend to have longer TSA lines.

Airport Size

You’ll also want to consider the size of the airport when you are planning.

If you’re traveling from airports with a physically smaller footprint — like Marquette, Michigan, or Austin, Texas, for example — you’re going to be able to walk the short distance to your gate much faster than in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Orlando, Florida. The bigger the airport, the more time required to travel from security to your gate.

Likewise, consider whether you’ll have to take a tram or intra-airport rail from one concourse to the next, like in Denver or Seattle, which can add to the amount of time required to get to your gate when compared with smaller airports.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Most airports have maps on their website so you can see how far your gate is from security checkpoints.

Drop-off logistics

Consider how you’re getting to the airport.

If a friend or family member is driving you, or you’re taking a taxi or ride share to the airport, you’ll probably get dropped off right near check-in and security.

Contrast that with parking at the airport, when you’ll need to add at least a few minutes to get from your car to the airport entrance.

How many minutes depends on where you plan to park and whether the lot — either on-airport or an independently operated lot off-airport — offers shuttles. Check to see how often those shuttles run and the estimated travel time between the lot and the airport. Add in some buffer time in case the shuttle is running late.

If you’re walking from a lot, determine how far it is from the departures entrance of the airport so you can estimate how long it will take you to walk with your bags.

Airport familiarity

If you fly out of an airport regularly, you might have the logistics down to a science. Maybe you have a favorite economy parking lot and security line or know which door is best for boarding the tram — not to mention your preferred restroom and coffee stop.

A more familiar airport means more streamlined travel. But if the airport is new to you, consider adding some extra time to account for the unknowns.

The bottom line

Several factors go into deciding how early you should arrive at the airport for any given flight — such as whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, traveling light or need to check luggage, even what airport you’re flying out of and what day of the week it is.

While the general recommendation is to arrive two hours before departure for domestic flights and three hours for international flights, someone who has TSA PreCheck, is traveling with just a carry-on and is departing from a small airport may find less than the recommendation is suitable for their needs and comfort level.

On the other hand, those checking bags at a busy airport who prefer the peace of mind offered by plenty of buffer time to ensure a few minutes for coffee and no mad dash to their gate may prefer to arrive a bit earlier.

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