How early do you really need to get to the airport?

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Airlines are pretty clear about how early you should get to the airport: anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours before your departing flight, depending on where you’re going. But how early do you really need to be there? The answer to that question isn’t all that clear-cut and involves several factors.

Here’s what you need to consider:

How early do you need to show up to the airport to catch your flight? (Photo by oneinchpunch/Shutterstock)

Important factors to consider

Will you be checking any bags?

If you need to check luggage, you’ll need to account for the time this will take. To expedite the process, we recommend that you pay for your checked bags online before arriving at the airport. In doing so, you may be able to quickly and easily print out your bag tag from an airline kiosk without having to wait in line or talk to a customer service agent (though this option isn’t always available).

Average time before a flight after which airlines no longer accept bags:

  • Domestic Flights (within the U.S.): 45 minutes prior to departure
  • International Flights (from/to the U.S.): 60 minutes prior to departure

If you miss these windows, you will still be able to make your flight but will not be allowed to check any luggage.

Is the flight domestic or international?

The first thing to consider when determining just how early you’ll need to arrive at the airport to catch your flight is whether you’re traveling internationally. I always tell friends, family, and fellow travelers that while there’s some leeway with domestic flights, international flights are not the time to mess around.

Airlines will often recommend that passengers show up two to four hours before an international flight, depending on the departure airport.

Personally, when departing from airports in the U.S., I show up around 45 minutes prior to departure. For many solo travelers, this should be enough time.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you plan on checking bags. I seem to always be able to get what I need in my carry-ons. But if you are planning on checking a bag, familiarize yourself with your airline’s checked baggage policies, especially the cutoff time past which checked bags are no longer accepted.

How busy is the airport going to be?

Consider the time of year

If you plan to travel during the holidays, take extra consideration, and plan accordingly. With an increase in the number of travelers, you could run into more traffic on your way to the airport and longer lines once you arrive. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to arrive:

  • 2 hours early for domestic flights
  • 3 hours early for international flights

This will give you plenty of time to check your bag (if needed) and make it through security. Plus, a little extra time will go a long way in keeping your anxiety at bay, which is key to a pleasurable travel experience.

Those booking holiday travel should also consider using a credit card that offers travel protections. Delays and cancellations happen, unfortunately, and seem even more common during peak travel times (think Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.). The right credit card can reimburse you for things like trip delays and cancellations and baggage delays, too.

Consider your departure time

Your departure time can often affect how busy the airport is going to be when you arrive. If you’re leaving on a 4am flight on a Tuesday morning, chances are the airport is not going to be as crowded as it would be at 9am on a Friday morning. This, of course, isn’t a hard and fast rule. But it’s definitely something to consider.

Most time-consuming steps at an airport

Checking in for your flight

With nearly every airline offering online check-in through a browser or an app, you should never wait until the day of departure to check-in for your flight at the airport. Unless online check-in is unavailable or you need to check bags, this will let you bypass the ticketing counters and kiosks.

If you need to check-in at the airport, prepare for long lines. (Image by Sorbis/Shutterstock)

When checking in in person, you can expect to spend around 15-20 minutes on average in line for a domestic flight. When checking in for an international flight, plan for up to 30 minutes.

Always allow for additional time at ticketing/check-in counters and kiosks around holidays and during severe weather events.

Airport security

Immigration, passport control — and even more security

At some international airports, another hurdle to get through is immigration and passport control upon departure. This is the case at many airports in Europe and even flights to the U.S. from Canada.

At Toronto International Airport (YYZ), it’s not uncommon for passengers bound for the U.S. to spend a half-hour, or possibly even longer, at U.S. Immigration and Customs Preclearance.

Those wait times will vary depending on the time of day and number of international flights but are a large factor in why airlines may recommend arrival times for some flights of four hours in advance.

For international departures from the U.S. and Mexico, you shouldn’t need much more time than if you are traveling domestically. However, for international flights departing from other countries, it’s important to look up and follow your airline’s recommended airport arrival time. Major U.S. and Canadian airlines, including Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta and United, each provide a guide for passengers on their websites.

Even once you clear the hurdles above, you might even find yourself encountering additional security. On some flights bound for the U.S., there can be additional security and screening procedures at the departure gate that can run another 20 to 30 minutes. That happened to me on a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles.

You might need to clear secondary screening before certain flights like flights from Australia to the U.S. (Image by Tooykrub/Shutterstock)

Airline boarding policies

For those of you looking to press your luck, there is one last thing to consider. Let’s say you’ve managed to check-in for your flight, clear security, pass through passport control, and make your way to your gate with five minutes to go before the posted departure time. You might think you’ve made your flight. Unfortunately, you missed it.

In the U.S., airlines close the boarding door 10 minutes before departure. Airlines outside of the U.S. do it even earlier. Air Canada, for example, closes the boarding door 15 minutes prior to departure, while Air France closes the boarding door 20 minutes before departure. So plan your journey through the airport based on when the boarding door closes, not the flight’s posted departure time.

Bottom line

Airlines have long told passengers to show up 90 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights and up to four hours for some international flights. These are reasonable recommendations, but if you are familiar with an airport, can bypass the check-in counters, and are enrolled in expedited security programs like TSA PreCheck, you may be able to show up later than that. Remember, though, that while it might not be the most enjoyable experience to hang out in an airport longer than necessary, you should never press your luck to the point to which you miss your flight.

For the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, please subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets email newsletter.

Featured image by aanbetta/Shutterstock.

Meghan Hunter is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, she covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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