Your bag is packed, you’ve got your travel documents in order and you’re ready to fly—but how early should you actually get to the airport? Even the most seasoned travelers have had their share of experiences sprinting to catch a plane or arriving too early and getting stuck in a terminal for hours on end.
While the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) recommends travelers arrive two hours before a domestic flight and three hours prior to an international trip, “those are just general times,” says Richard Duncan, the Assistant General Manager of Public Safety and Security at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the world’s busiest airports.
After all, there are dozens of factors to consider when deciding how early to get to the airport, according to Harriet Baskas, the travel writer behind the blog Stuck at the Airport. You’ll want to leave extra time beyond the two or three hour guideline during peak travel times—like big holidays and summer vacation seasons, when more people clog up security lines. You should also consider leaving more time if you’re parking or checking a bag, and factor in whether you’re familiar with the airport and how large the terminal is.
It’s also worth considering whether you or your travel companion gets stressed while traveling, says Ben Schlappig, who writes the airline and travel blog One Mile at a Time. If that is the case, “arrive plenty early and don’t cut it close. It’s not worth being stressed every step of the way just so you can save a few minutes.”
How early should I get to the airport for an international flight?
With fewer routes, a greater chance of needing to check a bag, and passports and visas involved, there’s more potential delays to making an international flight on time. Duncan of Hartsfield-Jackson says a traveler’s best bet is to check with the airline, “because they may have more information that impacts travel” than the airport or the TSA does.
Both United and American Airlines require travelers to check in at least 60 minutes before most international flights. Each airline lists certain routes, destinations and airports that require an earlier check-in or arrival at the gate, (like a trip to Micronesia or a flight from Dublin to the U.S.), so make sure to check beforehand.
Another reason to leave three (or more) hours before your international flight: Just because you’re running late, doesn’t mean you can skip to the front of the security line. You might be at risk of missing your flight, but that “does not give you automatic right to move up the line,” says Duncan.
And if you think your flight crew will hold the plane for you, think again: “That almost never happens,” Schlappig says. Some planes close the doors up to 20 minutes before departure, so not only do you have to be checked in and make it to the terminal with time to spare, but you also need to be at the gate ready to board with ample time. And with fuller planes and limited number of flights per day to international destinations, you may not get automatically rebooked on the next flight. Instead, you could be forced to pay for new ticket if you miss your flight.
How early should I get to the airport for a domestic flight?
The TSA recommends getting to the airport two hours before a domestic flight, but there are certain factors that could influence whether you should leave earlier or later to catch your flight.
Travelers like Schlappig who have applied for and are enrolled in the TSA’s Precheck program, for example, can go through an expedited security line without removing their shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or light jackets, which speeds up the process. It’s also worth considering how familiar you are with the airport—if you’re flying out of your home airport and you know you can breeze right through to your gate, you could shave some time off the recommended two hours.
Still, some airlines require travelers to check in a certain amount of time before even domestic flights, too. If you’re taking a domestic flight from Anchorage, Los Angeles or Miami on United, for example, you’ll need to check in 60 minutes before your flight if you’re checking a bag and 30 minutes before if you’re taking carry-on luggage.
And don’t underestimate those small airports, Baskas points out. Oftentimes, smaller airports have limited staffing, so getting through security could take just as long as a major hub.
What do I do if I get to the airport too early?
Airports used to be a dreaded place to spend a few extra hours. But if you find yourself at the airport with time to spare, there’s plenty to do for entertainment and relaxation.
Not only has free Wi-Fi and a plethora of power outlets become the norm at most airports, but “there are also airports that go above and beyond,” Schlappig notes. “Changi Airport in Singapore has a butterfly garden, movie theater, gym, pool, and much more.”
Many airports are stepping up their game when it comes to shopping and dining, too, according to Baskas, who writes the Stuck at the Airport blog. She urges flyers to check out airport websites ahead of time, and scope out amenities “including walking paths, spas, art and history exhibits and live concerts and performances.”
If you’re dealing with a major delay, Steve Mayars, Director of Customer Experience at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, says many travelers don’t know there’s an option to buy a one-day pass to an airport or airline lounge. These lounges can offer perks like showers, snacks, drinks and more.
And if you’re looking to save money, there are plenty of free things to do, too—like going on a long walk to stretch your legs, enjoying an art exhibit and relaxing in a meditation room. In Atlanta, for example, there’s an installation that resembles a ‘rainforest,’ and the airport also has a multisensory room for children with autism and their families, says Mayars.
“Airports are moving towards giving customers what they want,” Mayars says, “That’s the future of travel.”
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