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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 are headed. But how early do you really need to be there? The answer to that question isn’t all that clear-cut, and involves a number of factors.
Here’s what you need to consider:
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 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.
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.
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 steps that you’ll need to take.
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.
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.
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.
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 U.S., it takes me, on average, under five minutes to clear airport security. But wait times at airport security, especially at major international airports, can be longer, so plan accordingly. 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.
My speedy trip through security is largely thanks to TSA PreCheck, the TSA’s official expedited security screening program. The program costs travelers $85 for five years of coverage. I didn’t have to pay for the application fee thanks to my Platinum Card® from American Express. Other cards, including the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, also reimburse application fees for TSA PreCheck via statement credit (up to $100).
If you travel internationally, you’re better off applying for Global Entry, which includes TSA PreCheck. The application fee is slightly higher ($100 for five years) but you’ll get expedited customs and immigration clearance when you return to the U.S., plus the shorter TSA PreCheck security lines. Here are the top credit cards that offer reimbursement for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck application fees.
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 where an agent checks your boarding pass and ID.
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, but certain programs like the SELECT Black Card offer travelers a three-month free trial.
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.
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 prior to 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 prior to departure. So plan your journey through the airport based on when the boarding door closes, not the flight’s posted departure time.
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.
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Featured image by aanbetta/Shutterstock.