How early should I *actually* get to the airport for my flight?

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Ever missed a flight, or come close? If so you know how nerve-wracking this experience can be.

Disclaimer: Always check the latest guidelines for your airport, destination, and review current CDC guidelines before booking travel. Or check with your friendly travel professional for guidance!

FAQs on when to arrive at the airport

How many hours before my flight should I arrive at the terminal?

Even in this post-Covid world, the standard rules about when to arrive at the airport still tend to apply:

  • For flights within the US (from the US) which we call domestic, arrive at the airport terminal 2 hours before your flight time.
  • For flights leaving the country, add one more hour, making that 3 hours before your journey (flight) begins.
  • Most of the time, the above time frames should give you plenty of time to make your way to the gate after passing through security, and even give you time to use the restroom, charge devices, or even grab something to eat.
  • Boarding still tends to begin 45 minutes ahead of takeoff time, and the gate closes about 15 minutes before the scheduled flight time, so plan to be at the gate no later than this, but earlier is better.

Of course, there are exceptions! You can arrive a bit later, more near to your flight time:

  • If you are not taking any checked luggage
  • If you are flying when the airport isn’t busy, during an off-peak time
  • If you’re familiar with the airport as an experienced traveler and know you don’t need as much time as recommended
  • If you use TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or another trusted traveler program that gets you through security much faster
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How early should I get to the airport during holidays or other peak travel times?

Peak season travel is times like holidays, think Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Year’s, Easter, spring break. Any time more people than usual would be traveling, and this is really anytime kids are out of school or when families get together extra. This can add an additional hour at security without even a lot of extra effort. During peak times, it’s best to be extra careful and arrive up to 3 hours before domestic and even up to 4 hours before international air travel.

You’ll want to save additional time during the holidays even more so if you:

  • Feel better to have more time than needed “just in case”
  • Have special needs travelers for any reason, such as wheelchair assistance, children, or special needs
  • Don’t travel by air often

How often should I check on my flight’s status?

A delayed or canceled flight can ruin the best of plans, even, obviously, if you arrive early to the airport. I would recommend checking your flight status:

  • The night before your departure, and morning of
  • Just before you leave for the airport
  • Just as you arrive, in case it’s canceled and you can turn around before parking and hauling your bags into the airport if it’s safe to do so

Airline apps are great for keeping you informed, and that’s always one I would use, but I also use regular flight trackers too. These will give you potential delays plus the gate number (which can change too).

Most likely, the 2-3 hour rules noted earlier are fine, but if you’re not sure, it’s better to be on time than to miss your flight.

How can I make sure I leave my home or hotel to get to the airport on time?

Smart travelers rely on several tools to stay on time and get updates. Google Maps is amazing – it helps you locate the best public transportation options and routes, but also can link to ride share in some cases, and if you use the filter for your route by arrive “by”, it can help you know the average expected times during this time of day. It’ll even update the time you need to leave based on current conditions of traffic.

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How late can I arrive at the airport if I have a Trusted Traveler Program like TSA Precheck?

Programs like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry (which I definitely recommend!) help travelers get through security or U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the case of Global Entry much more quickly most of the time, but there are no guarantees you won’t still wait in any lines when you get to the airport.

Whatever program you’re part of, it’s a fabulous idea to review that airport’s website in advance of your trip to ensure they have areas dedicated to your particular program. They might mention real-time updates on wait status, so look for that as well as number of check in areas or lines.

Even with these, I would still recommend planning to arrive at a minimum of 60 to 90 minutes before domestic flight departures and 90 minutes to 2 hours prior to international flights, adding, of course, extra time for peak travel dates.

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Should I adjust my times if traveling with kids?

Parents know it takes much longer to anything with children than without. So it’s a great idea to add time so you have plenty of time to manage all that luggage & ensure your family is traveling safely, maybe even up to an hour more. You’ll want to get to the gate early to take advantage of priority boarding with small children. Families with younger children may wish to arrive at the airport up to 3 hours prior to domestic and up to 4 hours prior to departure of international flights.

If I’m taking an Unaccompanied Minor for a flight, how early should we arrive?

If you’re sending a child on a solo flight, there are some additional steps when you arrive at the airport. Other than the usual check-in process, there’s additional paperwork, possibly service charges that need paid to the airline & you’ll need to get an escort pass to take the child to the gate. Absolutely it is a good idea to plan for at least an extra 30-60 minutes, depending on how busy the airport may be to make time for these steps.

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What is the best way to avoid crowds at the airport?

If you have flexibility, it is always a favorable plan to travel during off-peak times. This typically happens during the shoulder seasons of fall or spring as well as slower periods in the couple of weeks before or after major holidays. That can get you off-season deals and also avoid the crowds!

This applies as well to the time of day you plan to travel. Choosing flights that leave around 7am or 8am will put you right in between heavier travel times in the early and mid-morning. Also, you’ll usually find less crowds around 9:30 pm or later. Traveling during these times can save you a 30 minutes or more once you get to the airport.

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What has changed since Covid-19 in terms of airport arrival?

Many processes that we considered normal before the pandemic have gotten slower. While many basic procedures remain the same, such as checking in at the airline counter or kiosk, bag checking & security have new health-screening procedures that add time to this. At times, you may be asked to provide a negative COVID-19 test result, immunization documentation or other documents at check in. Be sure to check with your friendly travel professional or look online to find out the requirements at the airports and destinations you’ll be traveling to or through.

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How much later can I arrive at the airport and not miss my flight?

Let’s say you’re not checking bags – in this case, you could possible skip the check-in counter & arrive at the airport a little bit later. You’d have to check in online or on the airline’s app or website, then download or print your boarding pass before arriving. When you do the above and pack light, you can arrive at the airport a little later than the recommended times.

You should also review carry on bag fees, limitations, etc. online before you arrive at the airport. If you need to, you should be able to print your luggage tag and boarding pass at an airport kiosk and then drop off a checked bag at a designated spot—all without waiting in a long line. If you can skip the check-in counter, 1.5 hours should be sufficient time to get to your gate on time for domestic flights. Two hours for international flights (while still saving an additional 30 minutes for passport issues) with your carry-on luggage as well as your boarding pass should be good as well.

I sure hope this information helps you plan your next flight!

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