How Early Should You Get to the Airport If You Don’t Want to Miss Your Flight?
Whether you're a frequent flier, an anxious traveler or both, here's how early you should get to the airport so you don't miss your flight
It’s a dilemma that divides the traveling population: how early to get to the airport. While some travelers insist on arriving multiple hours before a flight for fear of long airport wait times or missing a flight, others prefer to live life on the edge, arriving at the gate just as the airline staff is making the final boarding call. For anyone who prefers stress-free travel, neither option is ideal—arriving too early means spending hours at an airport terminal waiting for your flight. While cutting it too close, especially if you’re flying out of these airports with long security wait times, means you could actually miss your flight.
And if you think stressing over airport arrival time is the stuff of newbie travelers, think again. Even the pros get anxious. “I was recently going through an airport with my daughter, and she asked me, ‘Why are you so nervous? You’re a travel expert!'” says Pauline Frommer, travel journalist and co-president of Frommer’s Travel. “I’m nervous at the airport because I am a travel expert. So many things can go wrong, and I’ve experienced most of them over the years.”
Missed flights can derail vacations, scuttle business trips and make an already stressful situation that much worse. And they can be costly too, when you consider airline fees for rebooking flights and potential charges for missed hotel nights, rental cars or transfer services. Don’t want to miss your next flight? Our experts share their tips on how early you should get to the airport.
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How early to get to the airport
Not surprisingly, there’s no one answer for how early you should get to the airport to catch a flight. The decision depends, at least to some degree, on your risk tolerance. Low tolerance for risk? Stick to the high end of the suggested times below. Like to live dangerously? Then consider these recommendations prudent, and decide how closely you want to adhere to them.
And don’t forget to consider the delays you might encounter before you even set foot in the airport, advises Frommer. Traffic, outdated airport parking facilities, shuttle wait times, long walks to security and more can all eat away at your arrival time.
How early to get to the airport for a domestic flight
It depends on a number of factors, including whether you’re flying from a regional or international airport, whether you’ll spend time at a lounge and how far you live from the airport, says Anton Radchenko, co-founder and travel expert at AirAdvisor, which helps air passengers obtain compensation for flight disruptions.
For domestic flights, he recommends arriving two to three hours before your flight. “If it’s holiday time, then it makes sense to arrive early, because the lines will be longer and the airport will be more crowded, so you need to factor that in.” A cushion of at least two hours is what will give you space for everything without needing to rush.
Michael Holtz, founder and CEO of luxury travel agency SmartFlyer, lands on the shorter end of the time arc. “An hour and a half prior to your departure will allow ample time for check-in, security checks and any other things that may come up at the airport.”
How early to get to the airport for an international flight
For international flights, Radchenko says to allow time for additional processes, such as passport and visa screening, customs checks and more thorough security screening. “Plus, international airports have longer check-in lines and a lot of moving parts, so arrive at least three hours before your scheduled departure.”
Holtz says that you can get through in two hours, but “some destinations are exceptions to this. For a destination like Israel, the process may take two and a half to three hours due to enhanced security measures.”
When to get to the airport if you’re traveling with kids or pets
Kids and pets do add an extra wrinkle to travel plans. If you have kids or are traveling with pets on one of these pet-friendly airlines, Radchenko says to add at least 30 minutes to your arrival window. This is especially true if you’re flying your pet in the plane’s cargo hold.
As for kids, you already know your child’s habits, but the excitement of travel might throw you some curveballs. “What if your kid needs to grab a quick snack or wants to go to the toilet multiple times?” asks Radchenko. “These small things take up time, and most people don’t realize that.”
How early to arrive at the airport if you have TSA Precheck, Global Entry or Clear
Paying extra for security clearances, such as Clear, TSA Precheck or Global Entry, allows you to zip through lines faster, says Frommer. “But it gets pricey to join these things,” she says. “If you’re not a frequent traveler, you may not want to make the investment.”
Regardless of access to these programs, Holtz says to arrive at the airport with the same allotted time, allowing for potential traffic and other unforeseen delays. “These programs ensure a smoother experience within the airport, but building in time accommodates the presence of other travelers, making the overall process quicker and more efficient,” he says.
Tips for moving through the airport more quickly
The basic rules apply here, including checking in online, having your ID ready at security and making sure you know TSA’s carry-on rules. But here are a few more tips you may not have considered.
Research the airport ahead of time
“Get a layout of your airport beforehand,” says Radchenko. That way, you’re aware of the correct terminals and the locations of the entry gate and check-in points. He suggests taking advantage of the best travel apps, specifically the AtAirports app, which maps all major airports.
Check wait times in advance
Security wait times vary from airport to airport, and the best time of day to fly at one airport may not be the same as another. Frommer likes the MyTSA app, which displays current wait-time information, even down to the terminal. “Check it the day before or two days before you travel, and if the TSA lines are packed, you can get to the airport earlier,” she says.
Assess fellow passengers
Want to know what can hold you up the most in the airport? Your fellow passengers, says Frommer. “The people who don’t know what to do or who are overburdened,” she says. “If I see a mother with a stroller and several small children, my heart goes out to her, but I’m not going to stand behind her.” Instead, she says, suss out the pros and get behind them.
Take advantage of perks
If you’ve bought a ticket for a premium cabin, have airline points or know the best time to ask for a flight upgrade, Holtz says to take advantage of potential perks. “You may find that fast-track services are already included in your fare, which can expedite your airport experience.”
What to do while you’re at the airport
Kemal Yildirim/Getty Images
So you erred on the side of caution and arrived early for your flight—really early. Here are some ideas for how to pass the time:
- Bring a new book or listen to a podcast while you wait, says Radchenko.
- If you’re flying internationally, do some duty-free shopping.
- Do like Frommer does, and find a place to plug in your laptop and get some work done.
- Eat in the airport before your flight, which is also one of our tips for getting some sleep on the plane.
Holtz and Radchenko are both fans of airport lounges, another perk of frequent flyer status or premium tickets. Depending on the lounge and how busy the airport is, access can sometimes be purchased. But Frommer cites overcrowding in lounges as a reason they’re not worth bothering with.
About the experts
- Pauline Frommer is an award-winning travel journalist, editor and talk show host. She is co-president, with her father, founder Arthur Frommer, of Frommer Media, the company that publishes Frommer’s Travel Guides.
- Michael Holtz is the founder and CEO of SmartFlyer, a full-service luxury travel agency for curious travelers. With more than 33 years of experience in the travel industry, Michael is known as Mr. 2A, named after his choice seat on every plane.
- Anton Radchenko is a travel expert and co-founder of AirAdvisor, a claims-management company that protects air passenger rights and helps passengers claim compensation in cases of flight disruptions all over the world.