How Early Should You Get to the Airport, Really?

It’s a polarizing question for both seasoned jetsetters and first-time fliers alike: How early should I get to the airport? There are those travelers who need get to the airport hours before their flight, and those who always cut it as close to takeoff time as possible. But no matter which side of the debate you fall on, nobody likes to waste their time, whether that means sitting around in the terminal or rebooking a missed flight. 

With the coronavirus pandemic adding new logistical hurdles to air travel, from COVID-test checks to short-staffed security lines, it’s become even harder to come up with one answer to the age-old question. It’s more likely that the destination and timing of your travel, as well as a few other key questions, can help you find a sweet spot. Are you traveling domestically or internationally? How big or busy is the departure airport, and what are your airline’s check-in requirements? If you’re re-entering the United States, a COVID-test check must occur before you board the plane, which could add time to the journey. 

And there may be other obscure delays that depend upon the airport you’re traveling through. For example, Delta states the minimum airport arrival time for its flights out of Dublin is four hours before the flight’s departure, and you must be at the gate 60 minutes prior to departure. This might sound dramatic, even for a habitual early bird, but passengers flying to the U.S. from Dublin might not realize that it is one of the few airports outside North America that has a U.S. Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance facility. This means fliers go through customs and immigration before departing Ireland, instead of in the U.S., so it’s best to take the airline’s advice and arrive early.

You can also base your arrival plan on when you’ve booked your flight. Is it a busy time of year? Is it a busy time of day? Do you have access to faster lines because of mileage status, first-class tickets, or pre-screening? Are you traveling with a family of five? What would it cost if you missed your flight? If you like to play with risk, know how restrictive your ticket and/or airline is. You may need to read the fare rules associated with your ticket to determine this.

Below are some general rules of thumb to ensure you always know how early to arrive at the airport—and that you never need to make a mad dash through the terminal to catch your flight again.

For domestic flights

If you’re flying domestic but through a major airport (think New York’s JFK, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, and Chicago O’Hare) and you have bags to check, get there two hours early before departure. If you have no bags to check, you’re enrolled in TSA PreCheck, or you’re able to check in online and acquire your boarding pass on your own, however, you can arrive 90 minutes before your flight’s departure time. 

Check-in time at larger air hubs can take 45 minutes to an hour, according to a Delta analysis of U.S. airport check-in times, and you need to be at your gate ready to board 15 minutes before departure. For smaller airports, Delta advises leaving 45 minutes for check-in procedures, and notes that you must complete check in by 30 minutes before your flight’s departure.

Remember, a domestic flight can and will take off without you if your checked bag is on the plane—unless there is some type of unusual circumstance or behavior—and checking a bag moments beforehand or losing track of time at the airport bar doesn’t quite count as “unusual.” Furthermore, if you do plan to check baggage, that’s even more of a reason to get there early. Those bag drop lines can be long, and if you don’t meet the baggage check-in cutoff (typically 40 minutes before departure for domestic flights), you most likely won’t make the flight. For smaller regional airports—something like, say Bozeman, Montana— you can probably safely shave arrival to the airport to 90 minutes ahead to check bags and 60 minutes out for carry-on bags only.

For international flights

When traveling internationally, certain privileges, like using your TSA PreCheck or checking in online, often don’t apply. With that in mind, airlines advise you arrive three hours ahead of departure time, to be safe. And while you might not need a coronavirus test to depart the U.S., remember that returning still requires proof of a negative COVID test result prior to boarding, which could further delay the process. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the pandemic is causing hefty delays at airports across the globe. “Pre-COVID-19, passengers, on average, spent about 1.5 hours in travel processes for every journey (check-in, security, border control, customs, and baggage claim),” the group says. When travel began to bounce back this spring, peak-hour airport processing times doubled, to three hours. The greatest increases are at check-in and border control (emigration and immigration), IATA says.

On international flights, the plane is less likely to take off without you if your bag is already on board. But if you don’t show up at the gate for last call, the airline is more likely to pull your bag than hold the flight. But, remember if it’s a full flight and you aren’t in the boarding area within the airline’s specified time frame (for example, Delta says at least 45 minutes before departure for international flights; United says no later than 30 minutes), they could give your seat to another passenger and bump you without paying any compensation. It doesn’t actually matter whether the airplane door is open or closed. (This also holds true for domestic flights, but the timeframe is usually 15 to 30 minutes from departure; check your airline’s rules.) That being said, planes can taxi away from a gate as early as 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure. Once the plane is full, (you may not the one in your seat, if you’re late) it’s going to leave.

On days or holidays known to be busy

Special travel times like pre-holiday travel days, i.e. the Friday of Labor Day Weekend, the day before Thanksgiving, and the weekend after Christmas, you might want to add time to the recommendations above.

You’re much more likely to miss a flight if you’re booked on a top holiday travel day, when snaking security lines are most common. Use the MyTSA app to check how busy the airport is likely to be on your departure date and time based on historical data. And if you haven’t already, look into applying for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, which can greatly reduce your wait time in the event of a long line. In 2019, 94 percent of TSA PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes, despite the swell of seasonal passengers.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking airlines or fellow passengers will always let you move to the front of the security line if your plane is about to leave. Not only can there be flat denials for such assistance, but we’ve also received letters from readers who ran into this problem, some of whom intended to get to the airport moments before the check-in cutoff, but due to hotel-shuttle snafus, inadequate airline staffing, flat tires, traffic jams, or other issues, were not able to do so. They were refused any opportunity to move forward in the security line, missed their flights, and had to pay hefty change fees or, in some cases, purchase new tickets.

Additional reporting by Jessica Puckett and Shannon McMahon. This article has been updated with new information since its original publish date.

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