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How Early Should You Actually Get to the Airport?

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Some people love the thrill of cutting it close.

Photo by pihhha/Shutterstock

Some people love the thrill of cutting it close.

What is truly the best strategy for getting to the airport for an on-time departure? We hunted down some expert advice to help resolve the age-old dispute between those who like to arrive early and those who like to arrive late.

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On a recent morning a few days after The Atlantic published a story about the fact that there are two types of airport people, those who like to arrive early and those who arrive late, AFAR’s internal messaging Slack channels went off the rails for a few hours as the entire staff here got up in arms about airport arrival styles. Lines were drawn, and divisions were forged.

“I looooove strolling up to the gate just as they are about to board. It is a sick obsession with minimizing my total travel time as much as possible. And my husband wants to kill me for it,” wrote Anni Cuccinello, director of audience development at AFAR.

Lyndsey Matthews, AFAR’s desination news editor and a staunch member of team early, chimed in. “I HATE it when people jump the security line. Oh, your time is more valuable than mine? UGH NO.”

Anique Halliday, AFAR’s director of product, said for her it’s a matter of perfectly nailing the timing. “I usually time it so I walk straight from security onto the plane. It’s the unhinged efficiency psycho in me,” Halliday wrote on the rapidly expanding thread.

As the debate raged on, we put the issue to a Slack vote. Of the staffers who voted, 23 were team early and 10 were team late.

Maggie Fuller, associate editor at AFAR, is among those who are not fans of excess time at the airport. “I don’t have a cutting-it-close strategy per se; I’m just sort of a late person. I also hate waiting at the airport, so I’ll stay home until I really have to leave,” Fuller explained to me in the aftermath of the AFAR early-versus-late showdown.

“I’m usually walking up within 5 or 10 minutes of the first boarding call. Does this mean that I’m often sitting on the edge of my seat, mentally urging the Lyft driver to just go faster, or nervously fidgeting while waiting to go through the security checkpoint, calculating which line is going fastest? Yes, but it makes the whole thing a little more exciting,” added Fuller.

What is exciting or extremely satisfying to some is downright nerve racking to others.

“Cutting it close at the airport is not a thrill I volunteer for,” said Harriet Baskas, founder of StuckatTheAirport.com, a blog about airports and their amenities. “Traveling by air can be stressful for anyone for any number of reasons, most of which are out of your control. Showing up early to avoid the stress of having to wait on a long line or run to a gate is one thing you can control, so do that.”

Baskas said she encourages people to get to airports early enough to have time to spare. She noted that modern airports are chock full of distractions, including everything from art and history exhibits to interesting shops, eateries, and bars. Baskas likes to arrive at least two or three hours early and bring work, a book, a list of phone calls to make, and her walking shoes—“those long concourses are great for making sure I hit my daily steps.”

Clearly travelers are steadfast in their camps. Emotions aside, there is some actual factual guidance on this matter and a growing number of resources and tools travelers can lean on to more accurately time their journey from the front door to the airplane door.

What the officials advise

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) no longer provides concrete guidance about precisely what time travelers should arrive at the airport, simply stating on its website that travelers “are encouraged to contact [their] airline as times may vary depending on the airport and date of travel. In general, please allow time for parking/shuttle transportation, airline check-in, obtaining a boarding pass and going through the security screening process, which includes screening of your carry-on bag.” Not the most helpful advice.

Previously, TSA had recommended arriving at the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight—guidance that airlines such as United still include on their websites. TSA also encourages travelers to download the MyTSA app to access information on delayed flights and to check how busy the airport is likely to be on a specific day and time of travel based on historical data.

But ultimately, it’s the airlines that make the call on how long before your flight they will allow you to check in and check bags (though some late birds might argue than even here there is some wiggle room if you factor in human kindness and one’s ability to successfully plead and negotiate), and whether or not you can board at the gate. Most U.S. airlines, including United, American, and Delta, will cut off check-in for domestic flights between 30 and 45 minutes prior to departures, and for international flights between 60 and 75 minutes before departure time. Obviously, checking in online beforehand, which you can typically do up to 24 hours before departure, gives cut-it-closers the ability to skip this step if they only have carry-on bags and head straight to the gate.

As for when passengers need to be at the gate to be able to board, for domestic flights, it’s typically 15 minutes before departure, and for international flights it’s between 30 and 60 minutes before departure. But again, this varies by airline and airport so always check (and then check again).

Early birds should be warned that there are also often limits on how early you can check in as well. For instance, American Airlines reminds its passengers that you can’t check bags more than four hours prior to departure when flying with American from Denver (DEN), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Las Vegas (LAS), Orlando (MCO), Portland, Oregon (PDX), Salt Lake City (SLC), or Seattle (SEA).

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, recommends that travelers arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to their scheduled departure time for domestic flights, and three hours for international flights, which seems like the most consistent recommendation.

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Among the world’s other busiest airports, Heathrow recommends arriving two hours prior for flights within the United Kingdom and Europe and three hours prior for long-haul flights; Tokyo’s Narita Airport notes that check-in time generally starts two hours prior to departure time and ends one hour prior to departure time; and Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport suggests three hours prior to a long-haul flight and 90 minutes prior to flights within Europe.

A spokesperson for Los Angeles International Airport offered similar advice—two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. But the LAX rep added that those times are prior to boarding time, not prior to when the plane leaves.

The changing airport landscape

Whether you’re an early bird or a late bird, the changing dynamics of air travel have meant that everyone has had to adapt somewhat. Since September 11, security screenings have become more involved, which has increased security line wait times—sometimes to the degree that even arriving at the suggested times doesn’t guarantee getting to the gate on time. And the steadily growing number of travelers heading into the skies means airports are getting more crowded.  

TSA reported that it is predicting that this will be the agency’s busiest travel season ever, with 263 million passengers and crew expected to pass through security checkpoints nationwide between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend this year. That is an increase of 10 million more passengers compared to last year.

Airports, too, are changing. Major airport renovation projects to make hubs more amenable to the increasing number of passengers mean that in the interim there can often be construction-related traffic delays at some of the country’s busiest hubs.

And then there is the way that airlines respond if and when passengers miss their flights. “Airlines are packing ’em in these days and, especially this summer, if you miss a flight your chances of getting on the next flight as a courtesy standby could be slim,” said Baskas. "Even if you have status with an airline, and even if there are a few empty seats, you’ll likely be offered the middle seat, not the nice aisle or window seat you spent time carefully picking out."

Just as the airport experience is getting more complicated, it is also arguably getting more pleasant, too. Baskas mentioned all the ways in which some airports are enhancing their shopping, dining, and visitor experience overall, which can help strengthen the case for arriving early.

Technology can help, too. Just before Memorial Day weekend, LAX launched a FlyLAX Twitter hashtag intended to offer travelers real-time airport information, everything from the number of spaces available in the parking structures to security line wait times and current traffic information.

There is also the MyTSA app; many airports now provide frequently updated information on their websites and mobile apps, as do the airlines.

Although travelers seem pretty set in their ways on this issue, the resounding advice from most experts and officials in the airline industry appears to be to err on the side of caution rather than risk missing a flight, especially given how unpredictable airports and air travel can be these days. But even as a lifelong and responsible member of team early myself, there’s a part of me that has to tip my hat to the resolute defiance of team late—you die-hard rebels, you.

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