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How Early Should I Actually Arrive At The Airport?

If you’ve ever come close to missing a flight, then you know just how stressful it can be to watch those minutes tick off the clock while you try to rush to your gate. The good news is that missing your flight can almost always be avoided; the key is making sure you set aside enough time to get to the airport.

At the same time, you probably don’t want to arrive too early to the airport. So, how can you strike that perfect balance of arriving with just the right amount of time to spare? There are some specific considerations worth keeping in mind—namely, whether you’re flying domestically or internationally. Whether you fly frequently or not, these tips and tricks can be useful as you decide when to leave for the airport on your next trip.

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The Importance of Arriving Early Enough

There are so many reasons to plan your trip to the airport so that you arrive early. For starters, arriving early enough means you won’t have to stress about missing your flight. Even if you run into an unexpectedly long line at security or hit a traffic jam on the way to the airport, you’ll have a “buffer” built-in that will save you the stress and hassle of sprinting to your gate. And of course, arriving early enough means you won’t miss your flight.

Believe it or not, travelers missing flights due to poor planning or time management happens quite often. Some travelers don’t realize that for most airlines, boarding ends not at the flight’s scheduled departure time, but 15-30 minutes prior. In other cases, a hold-up at security or traffic on the way to the airport can lead to a missed flight. Either way, missing a flight can obviously throw off your travels plans. And depending on the airline you’re flying, you may have a hard time getting booked onto another flight to your destination anytime soon.

Arriving early enough to the airport also gives you some downtime to enjoy before your flight. While waiting at the gate for your flight to start boarding may not be the most exciting thing, it does offer you a chance to relax, answer a few emails, eat a meal, start a new book, or even catch a quick nap before your trip begins.

Airport Arrival Time If You’re Flying Domestically

Deciding how early to arrive at the airport will depend on many factors, but one of the most important is whether your flight is domestic or international. Getting through security typically takes less time on a domestic flight than it would on an international one, so you can generally arrive a little closer to your flight’s scheduled departure time. The general recommendation from the TSA is to arrive at the airport about two hours before your domestic flight.

Airport Arrival Time If You’re Flying Internationally

For international flights, you’ll probably want to budget some additional time to get to your gate. Start by checking with the airline you’ll be flying for their specific policies on check-in for international flights. Many major airlines will require that passengers check-in for an international flight at least an hour prior to the scheduled departure time. Combine this with the time that you’ll need to get through airport security and it’s easy to see why it is recommended that you arrive at the airport about three hours before your scheduled international flight.

Other Factors to Consider

In addition to whether you’re flying domestically or internationally, there are some other factors worth keeping in mind as you plan your arrival to the airport. Start by thinking about the time of day you’ll be traveling to the airport. Will you be heading there during rush hour? If so, or if there are any known road closures/detours on your route to the airport, then you may want to set aside some extra time to get there.

If you plan on taking a taxi or ride-sharing service from your home to the airport, you’ll also want to consider the availability of these services. If you’ll be leaving for the airport in the middle of the night for an early-morning flight, for example, you may have a harder time finding a ride. It may make sense to arrange/schedule a ride to the airport ahead of time rather than relying on an on-demand ride-sharing service.

You may also need to budget more time if you’ll be going through security or checking in for your flight at a busy time of day (such as first thing in the morning or in the afternoon). Lines for check-in and security will likely be longer during this time and it may take more time to get to your gate.

Speaking of your gate, the size of the airport and your familiarity with the airport should be taken into consideration when deciding how early to leave for your flight. If you’ll be flying out of a smaller airport, then you shouldn’t have very far to walk in order to get to your gate. On the other hand, if you’ll be flying out of a large airport with many terminals and gates, then it may take some time to get where you need to go. This could be especially true if you’re not familiar with the layout of the airport. You may want to consider checking out a map of the airport and becoming familiar with your specific terminal ahead of time.

Will you be checking any bags prior to your flight? If so, be sure to check with your airline to find out what their policies are regarding checked baggage. Some airlines will require that all bags be checked within a certain amount of time before your flight’s departure time. As a result, you may need to get to the airport event earlier if you plan on checking any bags. On the other hand, if you won’t be checking any bags, you may be able to save yourself a little time since you’ll be able to get through the check-in process more quickly.

If you are checking any special equipment, such as a firearm, be sure to budget even more additional time prior to your flight. The airline will have specific procedures they’ll need to follow in order to safely check your special equipment.

Finally, if you qualify for TSA PreCheck or any similar programs that allow you expedited passing through security, you may be able to arrive at the airport a little later than would otherwise be required. This is because you’ll be skipping the traditional security line, which can save you a nice chunk of time. Still, you’ll want to set aside at least 15 minutes to get through security even if you’re a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry passenger.

Tips for a Stress-Free Trip

Feeling stressed out about budgeting enough time at the airport before your flight? It doesn’t have to be that complicated. There are a few tips you can follow to free up time before you even leave for the airport and save yourself some stress in the process.

For starters, consider booking flights as early in the morning as you possibly can. Not only will this help you avoid potential delays, but it can also save you time in traffic. If you book a 6AM domestic flight, for example, you’ll need to arrive at the airport by 4AM. Depending on how far you live from the airport, this could mean getting on the road around 3AM or 3:30AM; traffic should be minimal at this time, as should check-in and security lines.

You can also save time before you leave for the airport by laying out your clothing and other essentials the night before. This way, all you need to do is wake up, get dressed, and grab your suitcases before you leave. You might also consider making an easy breakfast the night before that you can eat on your way out the door, such as overnight oatmeal.

If you’ll be relying on a taxi service for a ride to the airport, check ahead of time to see if your taxi company allows you to schedule your pick-up. This way, you won’t be relying on taxi availability on the day of your flight.

In the days leading up to your flight, keep an eye on road closures and other posted delays that could affect your ability to get to the airport in a timely manner. Free apps like Google Maps make it easy for you to check your route and be alerted of any potential delays.

Last but not least, take some time to become familiar with the airport out of which you’ll be flying, especially if you don’t fly often. You can find airline and terminal maps on most airport websites; these maps can help you get a better idea of where to go once you arrive and how to find your gate.

Killing Time at the Airport

If you arrive to the airport a little too early, you may have some time to kill at your gate. However, it’s better to be too early for your flight than too late. And the good news is that airports are really stepping up their game these days when it comes to their amenities and offerings.

There are plenty of ways to kill time at the airport before your flight. If you’ve brought a laptop or tablet, find a charging station and plug in. You can be productive by answering some emails or simply relax and stream your favorite show or movie.

Depending on the time of day you’re arriving at the airport, there may also be some restaurants and shops open in your terminal that are worth checking out. Treat yourself to a nice breakfast or, if it’s later in the day, stop at the airport bar and grab a drink.

If you’re an airline rewards member, check to see if your airline has a lounge at the airport. In some cases, you may be able to redeem airline points to use these lounges or even pay an “admission” fee. If you’ll be spending a lot of time at the airport before your flight, this may be worth it because these lounges are often equipped with such amenities as private work stations, napping stations, and even game rooms. Some of these lounges even offer free snacks and refreshments so you can relax and kill time before your flight.

Another option for killing some time before your flight is to take a power walk through your terminal. This can be a great way to get a little exercise before your flight and to see all that your terminal has to offer. This will be easiest if you don’t have a lot of luggage to carry on the plane with you, or if you have a carry-on bag that is easy to maneuver.

The Bottom Line

Generally speaking, your best bet is to plan to arrive at the airport at least two hours before a domestic flight and at least three hours before an international flight. This should give you enough time to check in, check any baggage, get through airport security, and get to your gate with time to spare. Of course, there are always special considerations to keep in mind when deciding how early to leave for your flight as well, such as:

  • the size of the airport
  • your distance from the airport
  • the time of day
  • whether you’re checking bags
  • your airline’s specific policies

Ultimately, it’s always better to arrive a little too early for your flight than it is to arrive late. You don’t want to be “that person” making a mad sprint to your gate at the last minute, nor do you want to miss your flight completely and ruin your trip. The more often you fly, the more comfortable you’ll become with your ability to time your arrival at the airport. In the meantime, feel free to use this information as a guide for your next trip!

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