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How Early Should I Get to the Airport?

By The AirHelper | Last updated on

man sleeping at airport

A thousand times I’ve asked myself, “How early should I get to the airport?

No matter what I do, I always fear missing a flight. Since I’ve never even come close to that happening, I’m not sure where this fear comes from.

As if that weren’t bad enough, I’m a frequent traveler. I split my time between New York and San Francisco and therefore I have to fly 6 hours each way twice a month. With the number of flights I take on a regular basis, my fear of missing a flight really makes no sense. Especially because I often experience flight delays and therefore end up spending a lot of time in the airport.

But nonetheless, it’s there.

To mitigate this as much as possible, I stick to a pretty strict pre-flight routine:

  • I always take the earliest flight I can to avoid flight delays.
  • I leave out clothing the night before so I can shower and get dressed as quickly as possible – and I microwave coffee from the day before because I usually leave before the coffee shops open.
  • I make sure I’m in an Uber (I don’t have a car) with enough time to arrive at the airport exactly 90 minutes before my flight.

Then something small inevitably happens. I’ll see a bit of traffic. I’ll run late getting out the door by a couple minutes. The security line has people in it (no joke, my lateness paranoia is real). Then the silly thoughts start happening. “That’s it,” I think. “I’m going to have to sprint to my gate and I’ll still be lucky if I make it before the doors shut.”

Did I mention that I’ve never even come close to missing a flight? All my irrational fears aside, the one thing I know I’m doing right is that I’m doing everything in my power to arrive at the suggested time before my flight. Part of the reason I haven’t missed a flight is because I heed the buffer. In the end, I’d rather have too much time at the gate than not enough.

If you’re not the kind of traveller who is okay with pulling up to the airport about the same time your flight is boarding, then it’s important to remember that the suggested buffer time varies depending on the type of flight: domestic or international. So if you’re like me and want to make sure you never have to (rationally) worry about missing a flight, read on to learn how early you need to be. Often it is the flight that is delayed rather than you, but in those cases you can claim delay flight compensation. Also, at AirHelp we provide different ways to take the burden of you ensuring you get what you are owed if the airline is at fault for your flight disruptions. For instance, our free flight delay compensation calculator will quickly tell you how much the airline owes you.

Note that if you are late you have to pay yourself, so that is another good reason to be on time!

How Early Should I Get to the Airport for a Domestic Flight?

As mentioned, I always arrive at the airport 90 minutes prior to my domestic flights. I also never check baggage and I always check-in online. Therefore, when I do get to the airport, there’s not much left to do but go through security.

However, I recently researched the suggested time of arrival prior to a domestic flight and most airlines suggest arriving two hours prior to a domestic departure.

If you think that’s too much time, consider the following: whether the day you’re flying is a peak day and time*, whether or not you have to check your baggage, and how many people you’re travelling with (a group will usually slow down the whole process).

*To find out your airport’s peak times, go directly to their website – the busiest days/times might not be as obvious as you’d expect!

How Early Should I Get to the Airport for an International Flight?

How early do you have to be for international flights? A little bit more goes into preparing for international travel, so most airlines suggest that passengers arrive three hours prior to international departures. There’s not as much fudge factor in this, even if you carry on your bags or travel outside of peak times. In fact, if you travel during peak times, you may need to tack on an extra hour to that buffer! With costly international flights, it’s best to play it safe and do exactly what the airlines and airports recommend.

Need more convincing to arrive early? Whether you’re flying domestic or international, you can avoid being bumped on an overbooked flight by checking in as early as possible.

Always Check the Airline’s Website for Little-Known Requirements

Before my recent research, I thought I knew exactly what needed to be done to avoid missing a flight – I’m a bicoastal resident and frequent traveler after all! I was wrong.

Through my research, I discovered a few lesser-known guidelines and even rules enforced by airlines. Here are a few you should know:

Peak Times

Every airport experiences different peak times/days based on a number of factors. One airport could have a peak time every Friday evening while another’s peak time could be Tuesday mornings. Make a practice out of checking your airport’s peak time before you decide when you should leave for your next flight. (This can be easily found on the airport’s website if you simply Google the airport name and the term “peak time”.)

Baggage Check-In Requirements

I almost never check a bag so I didn’t realise that most airlines require bags to be checked in by a certain time prior to departure – or they won’t allow you onto your flight. So if you like to cut it close when planning when to leave for your trip, you could end up forgetting to incorporate this potential snag. Google “baggage check-in requirement” with your airline’s name to learn their cut off time.

Check-In Requirements

Similar to the baggage check-in requirement, some airlines require you to be checked in by a certain time prior to your flight (such as an hour before – even if you aren’t checking baggage). With the ease of checking in on your phone or laptop up to 24 hours prior to your flight, there’s no reason to wait until you get to the airport to check in.

Gate Arrival Requirements

Like the check-in requirement, some airlines won’t let you onto your plane if you arrive at the gate too late. This leads me to my next point…

Departure Time is Not Equal to Doors Closed Time

Just because your flight departs at a certain time doesn’t mean you have until that last minute to get on the plane. Many airlines will stop boarding 15-30 minutes prior to departure. And if the flight is full, they’ll close the doors (and even leave) early.

Your ticket could go to standby passengers

How can the flight fill up if you’re not there? Some airlines will start accepting passengers who are standing by for a flight if you’re not at the gate by the cutoff time. And if that happens to you, the airline can bump you from your flight without owing you any compensation.

Enjoying Your Wait Time

Some people hate waiting at the airport more than anything. But if you view the wait as an opportunity to enjoy some time to yourself, then it might not be so bad!

There are plenty of ways to enjoy your time waiting for your flight, including reading a book or magazine, calling that friend you’ve been meaning to call but just never had time, or even catching up on some work. (Most airports have gates fully equipped with tables, outlets, and WiFi, creating a pretty decent work environment.) And of course, there’s always the shops, restaurants, and lounges. You can also check out your rights for flight claim, which can come in very handy if you experience delays or cancellations.

Why not take some time just for you and travel with the knowledge that you’re unlikely to miss your flight?

Flight delays happen, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept them. You may be entitled to as much as €600 in compensation if your flight was delayed, cancelled or overbooked within the last three years.