How Early Should You Get to the Airport: 12 Factors to Consider

Updated On: September 13, 2023


Picture this: a group of travellers standing at the check-in counter, nervously glancing at the ticking clock, as beads of sweat form on their forehead. Then we see them frantically running in the airport’s halls, trying to get to the gate before it closes. They have cut it too close and are now in a nerve-wracking race against time.  

We have all been there, haven’t we? At least once? The anxiety, the rush, the fear of missing a flight. But what if we tell you there is a secret to avoiding this frantic scramble? It lies in mastering the art of airport timing. Timing is everything, they say, and nowhere is this truer than at the airport.

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So how early should you get to the airport? In general, travellers have varying preferences and personalities when it comes to their airport experience. However, the majority of passengers aim to strike a balance between avoiding feeling rushed and minimising waiting time before their flight. This can make it challenging to determine the ideal arrival time at the airport. Nevertheless, as a rule of thumb, most airports and airlines advise arriving at the airport minimum of 2 hours before a domestic flight and 3 hours before an international flight. 

But we all know that rules come hand in hand with their exceptions, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. To ensure a smooth and stress-free journey, it’s essential to take various factors into account when determining how early you should arrive at the airport. In this article, we will delve into these factors and provide you with the knowledge to become an expert in managing airport timing.

Destination and Flight Type

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Are you embarking on an international, long-haul adventure or hopping on a domestic, short-haul flight

International flights typically require more time for check-in, passport verification, security procedures, customs, and potential language barriers. Moreover, plane sizes on international flights are usually larger, so boarding usually starts 15 to 30 minutes earlier than on domestic flights. Additionally, suppose you are late for an international flight and are away for the final boarding call. In that case, they will most likely remove your bag and abandon you. 

On the other hand, domestic flights tend to have shorter check-in and security procedures. So, remember your destination and flight type when calculating your airport arrival time.

Airline Requirements and Recommendations

Different airlines have varying check-in and boarding policies. Some may require you to check in earlier than others. At the same time, some might recommend arriving earlier due to specific procedures or security measures. It is essential to check your airline’s guidelines and factor them into your planning. 

Airport Size and Familiarity

Consider the size of the airport you’ll be departing from. Larger international airports with multiple terminals are often much busier than smaller regional airports and require additional time for navigation. Getting lost or confused is natural. Do not stress. Just give some extra time for this possibility.

Familiarise yourself with the airport’s layout beforehand and plan accordingly. For large airports, it is recommended to arrive 3 hours before domestic flights and 4 hours before international flights. 

On the other hand, smaller airports have shorter parking, baggage, and security lines, allowing for a more relaxed arrival time. Ninety minutes before departure time for a domestic flight can be more than enough. 

Time of the Day and Year

Ah, the time of day and the day of the week—a duo that can make or break your airport experience. The earliest and latest flights tend to have the lowest prices, while midday is the most popular time for travellers. As a result, airports are typically busier and more crowded during the middle of the day compared to early mornings and late nights.

Similarly, you need to keep account of car traffic on your way to the airport. Rush hour traffic and congested roads can significantly delay your arrival. If you’re travelling during peak hours, it is crucial to factor in extra time for potential traffic snarls. 

Similarly, flight prices soar during weekends and holidays, especially seasonal holidays and school breaks, when everyone is itching to go somewhere. These periods witness a surge in travellers, leading to longer queues and more bustling terminals. Adjust your timing to account for these busy periods and give yourself some extra time during peak travel days.

Are You a Frequent Flyer?

If you are a globetrotter, you might be more experienced and familiar with airports than a beginner, who might spend more time dilly-dallying about where to go.

Will Someone Drop You Off at the Airport, or Will You Park?

Add the parking factor to the equation when calculating how early you should be at the airport. Passengers who come to the airport by car must remember to add up the time walking from the airport economy parking lots to the terminal and the commute time of the shuttles to the terminals. 

Do You Have Bags to Check-In?

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Not checking luggage and managing to check in online in advance is the best way to swiftly pass through the airport directly into the laps of security screening. Without luggage check-in, you will likely need about 90 mins to make it to your gate for domestic flights and 2 hours before an international flight.

However, suppose you plan to check in luggage. In that case, you need to consider that in your plan and give yourself some extra time at the airport if baggage check-in queues are so long or the assigned passenger check-in officers are few. 

Some airports offer self-check kiosks where you can check in and print your tag. The self-service kiosk lines are generally shorter than the full-service check-in lines. This option can cut off the time required to check in your baggage to half. However, this service is only available in some airports. 

It would be best to look into the cutoff times for checking bags. Each airline has its cutoff time, which spans 45 minutes to an hour before departure. So do yourself a favour and do some research about the airport you are taking off from and the airline you are flying with. Otherwise, you might be bumped to a later flight to accommodate your bags. So better be early than sorry!

Other precious tips regarding baggage include:

  • Try not to push baggage weight limits. Most airlines worldwide are strict with weight limits, and you need to stick to them. You will cost yourself a lot of valuable time trying to empty an overweight bag or some good amount of money for checking in a bulky bag. 
  • After the Covid Pandemic, people were travel thirsty, and airports reoperated at maximum capacity, even though they were not yet ready to receive passengers. Many workers and baggage handlers were laid off during the pandemic, so airports were massively short-staffed. Thus, Summer 2022 was a nightmare for all passengers around the world. There was a global lost luggage crisis. Some even called it the summer of lost luggage. Nothing can be more nightmarish than losing your luggage on your trip. It would be an excellent idea to add an AirTag to each one of your baggage items to keep track of them and stay at peace that your baggage has made it with you on your trip.
  • Know the liquid low-down rule: all liquids, aerosols, and gels you carry through security checkpoints must be under 100 mL per item and placed in a see-through bag. Women with liquid makeup or perfumes in their handbags, not abiding by the allowed volumes, will say goodbye to these beloved items. Pastes are also considered semi-solids and fall under the gels category.
  • You shouldn’t have sharp items on your carry-on; they should be in your checked-in baggage.

Are You a Solo Traveller or Travelling with a Group?

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Yes, the difference is enormous. When you are travelling on your own, you are in control. In a group, the pre-flight distractions just keep on emerging. Someone may want to use the restroom, some will stop to make their TikTok or Instagram stories, some may want to wander the Duty-free shops, and you just lose them there. Some may want to buy their morning Starbucks or grab a bite from the crowded McDonald’s. It is hard to control and keep track of everyone’s wants.

All these unplanned 5-minute to 15-min breaks add up, and you realise they significantly increase airport time. So, in a group, you must be as early as 4 hours before international flights and 3 hours before domestic flights. The earlier, the better! 

Are You Travelling with Kids?

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Parents know the chores package accompanying a child and are usually aware of how much longer it takes to do anything with kids in tow. Moreover, waiting in long queues at the airport is not mainly an activity that enlightens young children. Children will fuss and bother non-stop. Your child may even have one of their unexpected tantrums because you forgot and packed their favourite toy in the checked-in bag instead of your carry-on. Apart from the extra time you need to add if you are accompanying young kids, a tantrum needs a time budget on its own. 

Suppose you are sending an unaccompanied minor on a flight on his own. In that case, you must account for more time to fill in some paperwork, pay extra service charges to the airline, and get an escort pass to accompany your child to the plane’s gate.

Do You Have an Airline Elite Status or Security Clearance?

If you have a security clearance or an elite status with one of the airlines, consider yourself lucky. With a fast-track security pass, say goodbye to long queues and find yourself a spot in the priority lane of security screening. This will drastically cut off your airport time, or if you are an early bird, it will give you more time to relax in the lounge. 

One example of security clearance for US Citizens is a TSA Precheck. It is a security screening program that makes risk assessments about passengers before arriving at the airport’s checkpoint. It offers an accelerated security screening process where you can keep your shoes on and liquids and laptop inside your bag. CLEAR is another program that offers expedited ID checks.

Some cobranded airline and credit cards offer these benefits, like the Centurion® Card from American Express.

Are You Planning to Lounge Around?

After you finish all the annoying routine procedures in the airport, we believe you SHOULD budget some time for staying in one of the airport lounges. How can you miss such a treat? 

One of the top perks of premium credit cards and some airline-specific cards is that they offer free lounge access in airports, depending on their type of course. Not only do premium credit cards speed up security procedures, but they will allow you to relax with the time you have saved — a win-win. Many people like to go to the airport at the crack of dawn just to enjoy these luxurious places. 

Lounges are a haven for passengers; they prime you for the holiday phase. It is where you kick back, dust off all stresses, and put on the “Holiday Mood.” They are quiet, clean, comfortable, and with free Wi-Fi access. But the actual cherry on top is that they offer unlimited access to delicious free, fresh, warm food and refreshing drinks. Forget the stale overpriced pastries, barely edible pizzas, and dirt-tasting coffee, and lounge around to enjoy your cards’ best commodities. 

If you are not a premium credit card holder, you can still purchase a day pass at some airport lounges. Our advice is, next time you plan your next vacation, research your specified airport lounge and check out their entry requirements. Thank us later!

Personal Preferences and Peace of Mind

Lastly, we must not neglect our personal preferences and peace of mind. Are you an early bird or a night owl? Are you a traveller who prefers a stress-free experience with plenty of time to spare? Or perhaps you are comfortable with a bit of adrenaline-inducing hustle, running through security checks to the gate just before the gate closes? 

Consider your own temperament and comfort level. After all, the goal is not just to catch a flight but to embark on a journey with a sense of excitement and tranquillity. But still, while we acknowledge that travellers are different, we will have to side with the early birds to guarantee you get your flight. 

“Mastering the Art of Airport Timing” Guide

We have collected some precious travel tips to help you breeze through the airport to enjoy a stress-free journey:

  • Familiarise yourself with security screening procedures and have everything prepped. When passing it through the X-Ray machine, you must remove liquids, laptops, tablets, watches, and mobile phones from your bag. 
  • Check in online for your flight, preselect your seats via the airline’s website or app, and use a mobile or print-at-home boarding pass. The more paperwork you get off your shoulders, the faster you proceed.
  • Limit your stuff to the carry-on only to avoid checking-in baggage to walk through the airport like a boss.
  • If you will check in, pack light and only essentials. We know the urge to pack a month’s worth of clothes for a 5-day trip, but you must master the art of packing.
  • Take an Uber or public transportation to the airport to avoid the parking fuss and commute time. Some airports also feature valet parking that helps you jump from your car to the terminal.
  • Book flights off-peak times which are usually flights at the crack of dawn (4 am – 6 am) and very late evening flights (anything after 9 pm). 
  • If you have the luxury of flexibility, choose flights in off-peak seasons. This will offer you two advantages: You will avoid crowds and get the best rates and off-season deals.
  • If your flight is in peak season, be extra cautious and add an extra hour or two to each type of flight type, especially if you are not a frequent traveller or quickly feel stressed out about travelling or you are travelling with kids or a group.
  • Research your airline guidelines and get familiarised with the airport facilities beforehand to save valuable time wandering aimlessly around the airport.
  • Remember that boarding begins 45 minutes before take-off, and the boarding gate closes about 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
  • If it is a feasible option offered at your airport, sign up for a trusted Traveller Program like the TSA Precheck or the Global Entry Program. This will help you whizz past the queues in a blink of an eye.
  • Wear comfy shoes. Walking or running through the airport with uncomfortable sneakers is a nuisance you want to avoid.

In conclusion, the question of how early to get to the airport depends on a multitude of factors which all significantly determine the optimal arrival time. By carefully considering these factors, treating each trip on a case-by-case basis, and planning accordingly, you can transform your airport experience from a chaotic frenzy to a seamless gateway to adventure.  

So, next time you prepare for take-off, remember the art of airport timing—it’s the secret to unlocking a stress-free journey. Bon voyage!

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