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How Early Do You Really Need to Get to the Airport?

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How Early Do You Really Need to Get to the Airport?

Max ProsperiHow Early Do You Really Need to Get to the Airport?Million Mile Secrets Team

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Airlines are pretty clear about how early you should get to the airport for your flight. Check any airline’s website and it’s not hard to find info on arriving at the airport for a departing flight.

Airlines recommend that passengers show up to the airport anywhere from 90 minutes to 4 hours before the flight. But how early do you really need to get to the airport to catch a flight?

The answer to that question isn’t all that clear-cut. There are a number of factors that will determine just how early you really need to get to the airport. But here’s what you need to consider when determining how early you need to arrive at the airport for your next flight.

How early do you really need to show up to the airport to catch your flight? (Image by Cassiohabib/Shutterstock)

Are You Flying 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 or not you’re traveling internationally. I always tell friends, family, and fellow travelers that there’s some leeway with domestic flights but that international flights are not the time to mess around.

Airlines will often recommend that passengers show up 2 to 4 hours before an international flight. Whether it’s 2 or 4 hours depends on the departure airport.

Personally, when departing from airports in the US, 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 never check bags as I seem to always be able to get what I need in my carry-on bags. For many travelers, checking a bag is unavoidable. If you are planning on checking a bag, you should familiarize yourself with an airline checked baggage policies. Especially the cutoff time when checked bags are no longer accepted.

Average Time Before a Flight Airlines No Longer Accept Bags:

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

For domestic flights, the only time-consuming airport activities are checking in for the flight (if you’re checking a bag or didn’t check-in online) and security screening. For some international flights, there are additional time-consuming steps that you’ll encounter. Read on to find out about these.

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. This is an unnecessary and time-consuming task. Unless for some reason online check-in is unavailable or you need to check bags, you should be able to bypass the ticketing counters and kiosks.

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

When checking in in person, you can expect to spend around 15-20 minutes on average when you check-in for a domestic flight. When checking in for an international flight, you shouldn’t expect to spend more than 30 minutes.

Of course, there are certain dates, times, and scenarios during which airports are busier. Always allow for additional time at ticketing/check-in counters and kiosks around holidays and during severe weather events.

Airport Security

I usually spend the most time at airport security when I’m at the airport for a departing flight. At my hometown airport, a mid-sized airport in the US, I feel comfortable enough to show up just 40 minutes prior to departure.

But wait times at airport security, especially at major international airports, vary a great deal. It’s not uncommon for wait times at airports like Newark (EWR), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), and Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport (ATL) to exceed 30 or even 45 minutes.

It takes me, on average, under 5 minutes to clear airport security in the US. This is thanks to TSA PreCheck, the TSA’s official expedited security screening program. The program costs travelers $85 for 5 years of TSA PreCheck.

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If you travel internationally, you’re better off applying for Global Entry, which comes with TSA PreCheck. The application fee is slightly higher ($100 for 5 years) but you’ll get expedited customs and immigration clearance when you return to the US, plus shorter TSA PreCheck security lines. Here are the top credit cards that offer reimbursement for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck application fees.

Your main hurdle in the US will be clearing airport security. (Image by Arina P Habich/Shutterstock)

Another service to consider is CLEAR. TSA PreCheck might speed up the actual screening process, but you will still have to wait in the line leading up to the podium at which an agent checks your boarding pass and ID.

CLEAR makes it so that you don’t have to wait in that line. Instead, CLEAR allows you to skip that line and proceed directly to the front of the TSA PreCheck or general screening lines. CLEAR costs $179 a year, however, certain programs like the SELECT Black Card offer travelers a three-month free trial.

Using a combination of TSA PreCheck and CLEAR, airport security might not take more than a few minutes cutting down on the time you really need to arrive at the airport.

Immigration, Passport Control, and Even More Security

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

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

You might have to clear immigration prior to departure like at Toronto Airport (YYZ) if you’re headed to the US (Image by JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock)

Airports that require passengers to go through passport control when departing the country will have varying wait times depending on the time of day and number of international flights. That said, its passport control and preclearance on some flights bound for the US that have lead airlines to set recommend arrival times at upwards of 4 hours.

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

Finally, you might even find yourself encountering additional security. On some flights bound for the US, there is additional security and screening procedures at the departure gate.

On a flight I took from Sydney to Los Angeles, I had to clear security and passport control right at my departure gate. Once the departure gate is assigned and opens up for passengers, the wait time to clear secondary screening and passport control can often reach 20 to 30 minutes.

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

Generally, there is far less leeway when it comes to international flights for how early you need to show up at the airport. For domestic flights, you might be able to push the limits of an airline’s recommended arrival time.

Airline Boarding Policies

For those of you really 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 5 minutes before posted departure time. You might think you’ve made your flight. Unfortunately, you actually missed your flight.

In the US, airlines close the boarding door 10 minutes prior to departure. Airlines outside of the US close the boarding door even earlier. Air Canada, for example, closes the boarding door 15 minutes prior to departure while Air France closes the boarding door 20 minutes prior to departure.

Airlines close the boarding door prior to departure time so plan accordingly. (Image by Chadawan Heemsuhree/Shutterstock)

So while you might think you can arrive at the gate just a minute before departure time, you’d be mistaken. Airlines close the boarding door prior to posted departure time.

Travelers should plan how early they plan on arriving at the airport for a flight around the time at which the boarding door closes, not departure time.

Bottom Line

Airlines have long told passengers to show up 90 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights and up to 4 hours for some international flights. These are reasonable recommendations, however, you might be able to show up at the airport much closer to departure time.

If you’re 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 much later than you think. As always, though it might not be the most enjoyable experience to hang out in an airport, you should never press your luck to the point to which you miss your flight.

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Featured image by aanbetta/Shutterstock

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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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some airlines are in a hurry to close their counter, especially if they only have 1 flight a day – for international, i recommend allowing 2 hours at least, especially if it’s a busy travel time – TSA wait times vary a lot, so better to get that over with and have to hang out airside than be stuck in the terminal when the flight is boarded and gone (i say this as a volunteer at SFO, where unfortunately we see way too many folks come to us for help, which we’re unable to give – we don’t have phone numbers to call the gate to wait for a passenger, and we don’t have any pull with TSA to get late pax thru security any faster)

I would never cut it as close as 45 minutes before departure. I’ve seen TSA Pre-Check closed or even with long lines.

There are too many factors that cause you to be delayed. Recently I was on my way to the airport and there was an accident on the highway. This caused us to just make our flight despite us leaving home with plenty of time to spare.

I’d never cut it that close either, but then again I’m super paranoid and will do just about anything to make sure I don’t miss my flight with a plan A, B, and C.

That said, the last few times I’ve flown domestically, I probably could have arrived about 45-60 minutes prior to my flight and still have made it. So it probably just boils down to your personal preference and comfort level.

45 minutes seems way to little, especially at some airports(las vegas, Orlando, and laguardia come to mind). Even with precheck, I often encounter long waits, plus sometimes requiring trams to get to the gate.

Also, there are places that don’t have precheck or don’t have it open. Terminal 5 in O’Hare rarely has precheck available, even if it is listed on the website. If I had gone by that, I would have completely missed my flight.

I also feel like some flights will start boarding 45 minutes from departure these days, making the possibility of missing rather high.

Probably depends on your personal comfort level and experience with the airport. I definitely do NOT have that comfort level haha.

That said, I do have CLEAR and TSA PreCheck, and thinking back to the last few times I’ve traveled domestically, I have flown through security in about 5-10 mins.

To each their own!

Actually, many airlines know connecting flights are always late and will wait until just before take off to close doors and they have many runway delays .

I am surprised at the airport arrival information. I would NEVER show up at the airport based on the times given. Considering the doors to a flight close before the actual departure time and lines for security can fluctuate greatly from day to day, I always try to arrive at least 2 hours before a flight. I also now live overseas. We always get held up at security because my husband has a titanium rod in his leg (this even happens in the US with TSA precheck). Then each airline operates its own way. Just flew to Israel on El Al Israel Airlines and the airline recommended arriving 3 hrs prior to departure. We got there 2.5 hrs beforehand and barely made the flight even though El Al has its own terminal and was only checking in people for that particular flight. I would much rather get to the airport early than miss a flight and ruin a well-planned holiday.

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