Do I really need to get to the airport 2 hours before my flight? Probably not, but there are several things to consider when deciding how early to get to the airport. The answer usually depends on several things including how savvy the traveler is, along with other factors like destination, time of year, class of ticket, whether the traveler has any of the known traveler services like TSA PreCheck and so on.
Family members, rookie travelers and people who read this blog often ask me, “how early should I get to the airport?” What’s the “real” answer, they want to know. Or, they ask how early do I need to get to the airport for an international flight? Or, is so and so airport really busy at this time and should I get there a little earlier?
The truth of the matter is that it DOES does depend on several factors and perhaps most of all on the experience of the traveler asking the question. The fact they are asking the question is a clue that perhaps THEY might need to arrive a littler earlier than a more savvy traveler.
In this guide to airport arrival times I explain the logic in how I answer the question of how early should I get to the airport. Travelers of all skill levels and situations should be able to easily pick a time when they need to be at the airport for their trip after reading through this guide.
How Early Should I Get to the Airport
There are several factors travelers should consider when determining how early to arrive at the airport for a flight. The following questions will help you gauge how early you should consider arriving:
- How experienced a traveler are you?
- When’s the last time you traveled?
- Who are you traveling with? A family? Colleague? Spouse?
- Is your flight international or domestic?
- Are you checking bags?
- Are you parking a car?
- Do you have TSA PreCheck or CLEAR?
- What class of ticket did you purchase?
- What time of day, week or year is it?
- What airport are you flying out of?
I will elaborate on these more in a moment, but first, let’s see what the airlines have to say about how early to get to the airport.
What do the airlines have to say about getting to the airport?
Consistently, airlines suggest travelers arrive anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours before their departure time. For example, Delta Airlines suggests domestic US travelers arrive a full 2 hours prior to departure (below):
Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, provides suggested airport arrival times based on the airport itself and whether your traveling domestically or internationally. You can see from the chart below that Albany passengers are encouraged to arrive at least 90 minutes before your flight whereas in Amarillo, 60 minutes should do the trick.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) notes the following suggestions when determining how early to get to the airport:
“You are encouraged to contact your airline as times may vary depending on the airport and date of travel. In general, please allow time for parking/shuttle transportation, airline check-in, obtaining a boarding pass and going through the security screening process, which includes screening of your carry-on bag. You may check how busy the airport is likely to be on your specific day and time of travel based on historical data by downloading the MyTSA app.“
Practical factors that affect when you should arrive at the airport
Let’s circle back to those factors I mentioned at the beginning of the article and double click on them to see why they might affect how early you really need to get to the airport.
How experienced a traveler are you?
If you are an experienced traveler getting through the potential hurdles at the airport are likely much easier for you. You’ve built up the habits and skills necessary to make this an easy process.
You know what’s allowed through security check points, you understand the physics of getting on/off shuttles, parking your car vs. drop offs, etc. You know how to travel. You probably even have some of the expedited security screening programs like TSA PreCheck or CLEAR. An experienced traveler can shorten his or her airport arrival times more so than novice or less skilled travelers.
If you are a novice traveler you need to factor in a bit more time to account for learning the process or at least dusting off your travel skills that may be tucked away in the deep recesses of your mind. Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve been that THAT airport (that’s been remodels since your last visit), or maybe you can’t remember what the latest TSA Food Rules are, etc.
When’s the last time you traveled?
If the last time you jumped on a flight was 1997, well, things have changed. Occasionally, I run into travelers who fit this description. Often, its an elderly grandmother who hasn’t been on a commercial flight in many many years. And they are often pretty bewildered about new security screening processes or boarding processes, airport configurations, TSA rules, etc.
If you’ve not traveled in quite a while you should strongly consider getting to the airport a little earlier. Ideally, for domestic travel, at least 2 hours is probably not a bad idea if it has been a long long time…
Who are you traveling with? A family? Colleague? Spouse?
If you are traveling solo you will be able to travel faster. Traveling with a family? Depending on their experience level you could likely find yourself going slower.
Traveling with the family means more luggage and more logistics. Unless your family members are experienced travelers, give yourself a little extra time than you might normally need solo.
Traveling with a colleague? If they are a savvy travel pro (and you are not) you might find yourself going a little faster (e.g. traveling with boss, the world traveler). If your colleague DOESN’T travel often they might not have developed the travel habits you have over time. Maybe they check their bag, and you don’t and you find yourself waiting for them before going through security. Or maybe you have TSA PreCheck and they don’t yet.
Assess the travel skills of your travel companions and adjust your arrival time accordingly.
Is your flight international or domestic?
International travel will add some extra time to your trip and should be taken into consideration when determining how early you plan to arrive at the airport. Passport checks, perhaps additional security checks and more introduce a little extra time needed to get to your gate and ready to board the plane.
If you are traveling internationally considering adding an extra 20-30 minutes at least, unless you are a real travel pro.
Are you checking bags?
As a general rule, we encourage travelers to avoid checking bags. We’ve written extensively on this subject, but the main reason is that checking a bag adds time at the beginning and end of your trip and introduces risk of loss or damage to your possessions.
If you plan on checking a bag you should factor that into your airport arrival time and add at least an extra 15 minutes, perhaps longer depending on the time of season and airport busyness.
Are you parking a car?
Some airports (like say, Ontario Airport in SOCAL) have super easy parking situations. Others, like Boston Logan or JFK and others are more complicated and will require you factoring in a shuttle ride or long walk. Do your homework on the parking situation at your airport when deciding when to arrive at the airport and plan accordingly.
Do you have TSA PreCheck or CLEAR?
Travelers of all skills levels should strongly consider signing up for a known traveler program like TSA PreCheck or CLEAR. Doing so will greatly enhance your airport experience, speed up your airport security line times and reduce the amount of time you need to arrive at the airport – perhaps by as many as 15 or 20 minutes.
I’ve arrived (late) at the airport with 30 minutes to spare and because I had TSA PreCheck I breezed through the lines and made my flight with ease. I dont’ recommend it, but it’s nice to have that to fall back on when your day goes haywire.
What class of ticket did you purchase?
The class of your ticket may affect your airport security screening process depending on if you have other known traveler programs like TSA PreCheck. Most airlines have a special security line for first class travelers which can make it a little easier (and quicker) to get through the checkpoint. This factor, however, doesn’t play into things too much, really and travelers should weight some of the other factors noted in this article a little heavier.
What time of day, week or year is it?
Ever traveled to Orlando in the Summer? Good lord…that airport is chaos. Every screaming child in the known world is on their way to Disneyworld (or leaving and not happy about it). Traffic around the airport can be rough and the sheer number of people IN the airport can be daunting.
Travel pros can still navigate this fairly well and shave a few minutes off the time needed for a non-skilled traveler, but even still it might be worth considering at least leaving for the airport a tad earlier (say 20 minutes) than you might ordinarily do for a non-peak time of year.
Other time-factor to consider when determining your airport arrival time is the time of day and week. Often, Monday mornings are quite busy with business travelers flying out for the week. Additionally, if your flight time has you arriving at the airport around traffic rush hour consider leaving for the airport a little earlier. No need to stress out while sitting in traffic at 5PM at LAX trying to park you car.
What airport are you flying out of?
One final point to consider is the airport you are flying out. Some airports are markedly busier than other airports. Some of have pretty good infrastructure in place to get people in and through security. Others…not so much. And just because the airport is small doesn’t mean you can breeze through. I’ve been stuck in an insanely slow security line at State College Airport (SCE) a time or two. If it is an airport you’ve NEVER been to consider adding 20 minutes (at least) to arrival time unless you are travel ninja already.
So, how early should I get to the airport for a domestic flight?
Assuming you have at least some experience traveling (let’s say at least 3-5 times in recent years) I’d recommend trying to arrive at the airport at least 1.25 hours before your flight. Based on your skill level and the many other factors noted above, adjust accordingly.
Ok, how early should I get to the airport for an international flight?
I recommend arriving at least 2 hours early for an international flight, but more experienced travelers could cut that down to 1.5 hours and adjust based on the other factors we introduced throughout this article.
At the end of the day, while there are, as noted earlier, many different factors to consider when picking out time to get to the airport the single greatest factor to consider is how experienced a traveler you are.
If you travel fairly regularly (and by regularly, I mean probably 5-8 times a year and recently) you will likely know what you need to know and can probably shorten your arrival time a bit.
If you don’t fit into that bucket, you need to add more time and perhaps as much as an extra 30-45 minutes or more depending on the variables mentioned throughout this article. It’s as simple as that.
It’s easy right? Figuring out how early to show up the airport really depends on you and your experience. Use the guide above to help you develop your travel habits. Over time and with each trip you will get a little better at surviving the airport and will continue to go even faster. You will also get more confident in shortening the time you arrive at the airport. Happy Traveling!
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