Exactly How Early to Get to the Airport (to Never Miss Flights)

No matter what factors are at play, here’s when you need to arrive at the airport so you can always board on time and free of stress.
Last updated Feb 6, 2020 | By Lindsay Frankel
Exactly How Early to Get to the Airport (to Never Miss Flights)

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Missing a flight can be a real nightmare. Sometimes, it’s out of your control, especially if you had a connecting flight that was delayed. Or maybe you just happen to be flying through one of the worst airports if you’re running late. But other times, it’s a matter of not getting to the airport early enough.

While airlines issue guidelines regarding when they think you should arrive at the airport, they don’t account for a variety of factors that could make your journey through the security checkpoint longer or shorter. Things like whether you have TSA PreCheck or whether you have children traveling with you.

So in the interest of making sure you don’t get to the airport any earlier than necessary (let’s face it: It’s typically not that fun of a place to hang out), we’ve compiled a guide to let you know exactly how much time you should allow before your flight.

Keep in mind, most airlines have an unpublished policy known as a “flat-tire policy.” If you miss your flight, it allows you to get on the next available flight at no charge as long as you arrived within two hours of your original flight’s departure time. As an airline agent once explained it to me: since airlines experience delays that are out of their control without reimbursing passengers, passengers should be afforded the same understanding without fees when something impacts their ability to get to the airport on time.

But not all airlines have the policy, and even for those that do, it can still be a huge hassle to miss your flight. You should plan the best you can and utilize the policy only when the unpredictable happens.

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How early should I get to the airport for a domestic flight?

Different airlines have different guidelines. For example, American Airlines recommends you arrive within 1.5 hours of your departure time, while Southwest has different suggested arrival times for each airport. And the TSA doesn’t supply a specific recommendation, but notes that you can check how busy your airport is on your day of departure with the MyTSA App.

To play it safe, we’re going to recommend arriving 120 minutes before your departure time. So if your flight is at 3:15 p.m., then you should arrive at the airport at 1:15 p.m. However, if one of the following scenarios applies to you, add or subtract minutes accordingly.

If you can’t print your boarding pass ahead of time

Add 15 minutes. Not only does this mean you’ll need to allow time to check in at the airport, but it could also be an indication that you’ve been chosen for Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS). Usually, you won’t be able to print your boarding pass ahead of time if you’ve been flagged for this additional security measure. If you see SSSS on your boarding pass when you finally print it, expect it to take extra time to get through security, since TSA agents will want to inspect the items you brought with you.

If you have to check a bag

Add 15 minutes. Unless your airline provides curbside baggage check-in, you’ll probably need to wait in line to check your bag. It won’t be as long as the security line, but it can take time, especially if you’re traveling out of a busy airport or that particular airline happens to be experiencing any sort of issues that require in-person customer service.

If you have CLEAR

Congratulations. You can subtract 15 minutes. CLEAR uses biometric data to verify your identity, so you can use your fingerprints and irises to get through the initial identity check rather than showing your documents to a TSA agent. CLEAR customers can often enjoy shorter lines for the physical security screening as well. If you’re just interested in trying CLEAR, you can sign up for a two-month free trial.

If you have TSA PreCheck

Hurray! You can subtract 15 minutes. According to the TSA, in January 2020, 94% of TSA PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes in the security line. When we looked at the numbers we noticed that TSA PreCheck saved customers up to 41 minutes at busy airports, with the average time saved being closer to 15 minutes.

This shorter time in line is because you won’t need to remove your shoes, jacket, or belt, or take items out of your bag when going through the screening process. You have to be approved for TSA PreCheck at an in-person appointment that includes a background check and fingerprinting, but that time won’t take long to pay off if you’re a regular traveler.

And you may not have to spend a dime to get this expedited experience either. There are many credit cards that reimburse for TSA PreCheck at this point.

If you have children

Add 25 minutes. Sorry, but it’s common knowledge that traveling with small humans takes longer. Between diaper changes, extra carry-on bags, potential temper tantrums (mostly theirs, though maybe sometimes also yours), and slow-moving feet, you can expect it to take significantly longer to get your entire family through security and to the gate on time.

If your airport is under construction

Add 30 minutes. This might vary based on your airport and the scope of the construction. For example, when Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport was under construction, Delta recommended that passengers arrive an additional hour early. To be safe, allow at least 30 minutes of extra time, and check how busy your airport is prior to arrival on the MyTSA App.

If it’s Thanksgiving or another holiday

Add 30 minutes. This past Thanksgiving was the busiest travel day in TSA history. If you’re traveling on a major holiday, the airport is going to be clogged with people — and despite the festive season, you shouldn’t expect any of them to be in a good mood.

If you want to eat a meal or enjoy an airport lounge

Add 30-60 minutes. Let’s say you have a credit card with Priority Pass and you want to enjoy a glass of champagne before your vacation or print some documents before your business trip. Or you might just want to have time for your kids to eat something before they get on the plane. Either way, don’t assume that the standard two-hours-early arrival will give you any time to relax. Add some additional time, and arrive up to three total hours before your departure.

How early should I get to the airport for an international flight?

While most airlines recommend arriving even earlier for an international flight, guidelines vary. American Airlines recommends at least two hours, Southwest suggests 90-180 minutes, depending on the airport, and travel bloggers often cite three hours as a rule of thumb.

You can use the MyTSA App to check how busy your airport will be on your departure date, and set your expectations from there, but we’re going to recommend you play it safe and start with a baseline recommendation of arriving 180 minutes prior to your departure time.

After that you should add or subtract time, just as we indicated for domestic flights.

How to calculate your arrival time

Let’s walk through a few examples of what you do with all this information now. Say you’re taking a domestic flight on Thanksgiving that departs at 10:00 p.m. A baseline of arriving two hours early for a domestic flight means you should aim for 8:00 p.m., but then you would add and subtract time from that baseline as follows:

Your scheduled departure time 10:00 p.m.
Your recommended standard arrival time 8:00 p.m.
You have to check a bag +15 minutes
You have TSA PreCheck -15 minutes
It’s a holiday +30 minutes
When you should arrive at the airport 7:30 p.m.

In some situations, you may need to arrive even earlier though:

Your scheduled departure time 10:00 p.m.
Your recommended standard arrival time 8:00 p.m.
You have children +25 minutes
Your airport is under construction +30 minutes
You have to check a bag +15 minutes
You want to eat a meal +30 minutes
When you should arrive at the airport 6:20 p.m.

Now, let’s say you’re traveling internationally and your flight leaves at 10:00 p.m. You would use the same method to calculate your arrival time, only you’d start with a 7:00 p.m. target arrival time, since we recommend arriving 180 minutes prior to your departure for international flights.

Your scheduled departure time 10:00 p.m.
Your recommended standard arrival time 7:00 p.m.
You have TSA Pre-Check -15 minutes
You have CLEAR -15 minutes
You can’t print your boarding pass ahead of time +15 minutes
When you should arrive at the airport 7:15 p.m.

The bottom line on when to arrive at the airport

First and foremost, remember that you’re not the only one traveling. U.S. airlines transported 926 million passengers in 2019, which means you not only have to account for your own needs at the airport, but also the hundreds of other people who will undoubtedly be trying to make it through check-in and security at the same time as you.

That said, you can definitely save time at the airport by signing up for CLEAR or TSA PreCheck, since those lines will be shorter. You can also get a better idea of airport wait times by using the MyTSA App. And if you do end up with extra time at the airport, you can make it more enjoyable by utilizing your Priority Pass Membership or booking access to a lounge with LoungeBuddy.

If you make sure to account for all the factors we mentioned, you can keep calm at the airport knowing that you (probably) won’t miss your flight. And if the unexpected happens and you’re still late, be sure to ask an airline agent immediately if the flat-tire policy applies to you. Enjoy your travels!

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