There are two kinds of people in this world: those who make it to the gate just in time for boarding with a little sweat on their brow, and those who sit anxiously waiting at the gate for hours, terrified the plane will leave without them. Most of us fall into one of these camps (whether we like to admit it or not). But honestly, neither is really the most efficient or effective. So really, how early should you get to the airport before your flight? The short answer is, it depends.
How early to get to the airport for a domestic flight
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends you arrive at the airport two hours before a domestic flight. Nowadays, you can usually check in online for most domestic flights. So unless it’s high travel season or you’ve got a bag to drop, you’ve really just got to worry about getting through security. That means two hours may have you buying overpriced pretzels and weird souvenirs at the newsstand out of sheer boredom. Instead, get there an hour and half before your flight and you should be just fine.
How early to get to the airport for an international flight
TSA recommends you get to the airport three hours early for all international flights. That’s because there are other factors to consider that can add time to your check-in process. For example, many international travelers check multiple bags, which takes extra time to process at the check-in counter, making the line longer and slower. If you plan to check even one bag, you’ll have to prepare for a potentially longer-than-normal line.
You’ll also need to get to the airport earlier when you’re returning to the United States. That’s because the U.S. has much stricter border rules than most countries, so there are extra security measures in place that can delay your arrival at the gate. In Frankfurt Airport, for example, you may need to wait in a separate line inside the terminal near your departure gate to answer additional security questions and have a sticker applied to your passport. Also keep in mind that for security reasons, you may not be able to check in online ahead of time. So even if you only have a carry-on, you’ll need to budget for time at the check-in counter.
Sometimes, you don’t need to get to the airport extra early if you’re flying internationally. For instance, if you’re traveling from one country in the European Union to another, the process is just as simple as if you were traveling domestically in the United States. In this case, two hours will likely give you plenty of time.
What to know when getting to the airport
Not all airports are made equal. Ever landed in the Atlanta airport and, after walking for what feels like an hour, wondered if you were ever going to make it to baggage claim? Well, the same goes for getting from the check-in counter to your gate.
Big airports with lots of traffic require more time to navigate, especially if you’ve never been there before. You may have to catch a tram or bus, or hop on an endless river of moving walkways, to get to your terminal and on to your gate.
Also keep in mind that if you’re traveling back to the U.S. from an international destination, there are actually some airports that require a pre-screening abroad. This can take hours. It’s sort of like going through security twice. Dublin Airport, for example, isn’t kidding when they say you need to get to the airport four hours in advance. So, how early you should get to the airport for your flight really depends on the specific airport and your destination.
Peak travel season
Peak season travel is a whole other animal. If you’re heading out during a busy travel time, you’ll definitely want to add on some minutes (or hours) to your airport arrival. Christmas and Thanksgiving holiday times are two big ones. Those months around spring break can also be extra busy, and definitely watch out for summertime travel.
Peak travel time
Peak travel time at airports is usually around 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., depending on the airport. Weekends are considered peak travel times, too. So if you’re flying during that range or those days, you should get to the airport a little earlier than you normally would.
If you have lots of luggage
Traveling for a long time and hauling a few extra bags? Checking extra luggage can take more time at the check-in counter. You may have to pay extra for the bags or overweight suitcases, so budget a few extra minutes for it.
Similarly, if you’re concerned that your checked bag might be overweight, you should budget some time for the possibility of having to take out items to meet weight. This can take longer than you might think, so add an appropriate amount of time when considering how early you should get to the airport.
CLEAR or TSA PreCheck
If you have CLEAR or TSA PreCheck, you’ll be able to go through an expedited security screening, which typically means a shorter and quicker line than usual. In this case, you can arrive at the airport a little later than you normally would since the security screening process won’t take as long. Just make sure the airport you’re flying out of offers these services — not all do.
No matter how efficient you think your travel crew is, the reality is that traveling in a group just takes longer. Whether you’re flying with friends or with family, you’ll need to budget a little extra time for airport arrival if you plan to stand in the check-in or security lines together. Even an extra 15 minutes can help calm everyone’s nerves.
And if you have kids? You’ll probably need at least an extra 30 minutes to check strollers, get everyone through security and take extra bathroom breaks before getting settled at the gate. No one wants to sprint with a stroller through an airport.
If you’re driving yourself to the airport and leaving your car parked at an airport lot, you’ll need to consider the time it takes to find a spot and walk to the terminal. This is very dependent on what kind of parking situation you’re after. Long-term airport parking on the airport property usually won’t add too much extra time to your journey, unless you’re traveling during peak travel season (in which case you may have to take a few laps to find a spot).
But let’s say you’re parking in a satellite lot that requires you to take a shuttle to the terminal. This sort of parking situation can take longer, especially during peak seasons or weird hours of the night when there are fewer shuttles running. If you’re going this route, budget an extra 30 minutes just in case.
Rental car return
Similar rules go for turning in a rental car. If the lot is on-site, budget some extra time for the company to inspect the vehicle for damages, and to settle any other outstanding payments you may have. If the rental agency office is off-site, you’ll need that extra time to do the full car return and then a bit more to grab the shuttle.
How early you should get to the airport
How early you should get to the airport depends on many factors, and the amount of time you have to calmly (or hastily) walk to the gate can really set the tone of your trip. When in doubt, lean toward the earlier side. Save the thrill and adventure for your destination, not the airport.
Want more travel tips? Check out the Avail blog and see how you can save money on travel expenses, avoid stress at the airport and have a way better experience on the road. Borrowing a car with Avail is definitely one way to do just that.