How Early Should You Get to the Airport?

Conde’ Nast Traveler offers a debate on how early to turn up at the airport.

There are several reasons to head to the airport early:

  • Unpredictable traffic
  • Unpredictable security lines
  • Peace of mind

The argument against? A regular weekly traveler spending an extra half our at the airport in each direction will spend 52 extra hours at the airport each year or more than 2 days each year unnecessarily waiting.

My default is to leave home 1 hour and 15 minutes prior to departure. That puts me at the curb at least 55 minutes out. In Austin PreCheck is right inside the main doors of the airport. Even if PreCheck takes me 10 minutes to clear, and American Airlines starts boarding before its published time, I’ve still got a 10 minute buffer if the goal is to be on the plane at the start of boarding to ensure overhead bin space above my seat.

I’m not going to stress leaving later, or arriving at the airport later. I don’t have to be first to board, I really just want to not be last so I’m not stuck gate checking a bag. If I leave home 55 minutes out I’ve got a comfortable enough margin.

On the rare occasion I’m checking a bag I want to be at the curb just over an hour to departure. If there’s a long line to drop off my bag inside the terminal, I’ll go outside to the sky cap, I can tip a few bucks to check my bag. If there’s a long line for the sky cap that just means a bigger tip..

And at the end of the day if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports. I’ll only add a larger buffer when it truly matters that I don’t miss that given flight.

How early to you head to the airport?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. An on-point article. Am all too familiar with “riding the crowded bus to get on the crowded AA bus” at the legendary Gate 35X out of DCA.
    My rule of thumb for many years has been to leave for the airport so as allow a minimum of 2 hours prior wait time at the airport for domestic flights. I’ve not yet missed a domestic flight by doing this, but came close a couple of times. Which was caused by events you can’t predict, including a colossal wreck on the Baltimore beltway before 5:00 am on a Saturday. Have used a good airport shuttle service for many years, and the drivers can tell you stories about folks who demand to be picked up an hour before their flight departures, for the 1-hour drive to the airport!

  2. The two major factors in an airport arrival time are: 1) how unpredictable is the traffic to the airport and the security line; and 2) how terrible are the consequences of missing the flight.

    That said, I actually find myself getting to airports earlier than I used to. First, modern communications make it easier to get things done while you’re waiting for your flight, so it’s not really “wasted time.” Two, 95% of the time, I have a lounge to go to — and I almost always have a lounge in big city airports where traffic and security delays are the most unpredictable. I budget 45 or 50 minutes for a lounge visit based on typical travel/security delays: this way if something goes wrong, I just miss the lounge time and don’t miss my flight! I also think it’s good for the psyche not to feel so rushed when you travel.

  3. I generally try to time things to be through security one hour before departure, and maybe 1:15 for international. That means different things in different places, but I use my best estimate of all the components to getting me from where I am to getting to the other side of security and then do the math.

    If I’m in a place where there is more unpredictability or it’s unfamiliar — like I’m in midtown and need to get JFK or I’m in a city where I haven’t used the metro before — I add more buffer. If I’m relying on a hotel shuttle and I’m between times, I usually take the earlier one.

  4. Agree with iahphx — 30 minutes waiting in a lounge is just as efficient time as 30 minutes waiting at home (not counting sleep) so I’d prefer to leave a bit earlier, particularly for an airport like DCA where traffic and security can be unpredictable. BWI is much easier though

  5. It totally depends on the airport, both on how crowded it is and what there is to do airside.
    At my local airport in Ithaca NY, there is never a line other than at 6 AM, and nothing beyond security but a couple of candy machines, so half an hour is plenty. On the other hand, when I fly from YYZ, the security lines are unpredictable and there are some great lounges, including Air Canada’s new business lounge with sit-down meals that take some time to make, so there’s a reason to get to the lounge an hour or more before the plane boards.

  6. If traffic is that predictable in Austin, that’s great. If TSA is always 10 minutes or less in Austin , that’s great. Not my experience in most other cities; TSA maybe be 10 minutes or less 90% percent of the time, but when it’s bad, like at MCO or LAS, it can be worse.

    I leave myself 90 minutes between arrival at airport and departure time. So if I hit really bad traffic, I still don’t stress.

  7. Excellent thought starter, Gary
    We live over an hour from DTW, with a variety of highway adventures, and with a large airport comes large parking lots (on and off location). I try to arrive at the parking lot just under 2h prior to departure, which allows the pokey shuttle drivers, TSA lines (with or without pre-Check) and then the haul across the airport to get me near the gate around an hour prior to departure. If I arrive earlier, HELLO SKY CLUB!!!

  8. I know this might seem a silly question but how do you find out what the earliest time you’re allowed to arrive is? I am asking this more in relation to lounge access. I have a sort of strange layover in Doha later this year where my flight in and out of Doha are 2 separately issued tickets. The outbound flight is in QR F the day after my inbound flight arrives and I’d just assume go straight to the Al Safwa lounge with their nice sleeping rooms. Anyone have experience with this? Can I get admittance to the lounge as long as it is within 24 hours of my outbound flight? Sorry if this is off topic but it seemed a related-enough question to the post to take a shot at asking??

  9. “And at the end of the day if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports.”

    This is a ludicrous conclusion.

    Most people (a) don’t fly much (b) don’t want to miss *any* flights (c) miss flights for unusual reasons, if ever.

    On the other hand, this putative “business traveler” who is literally on the road weekly and “wastes” 2 days in airports is sitting in the lounge getting email done, checking a Powerpoint, and, well *being on time for his/her meeting in the next city*.

    But by all means, tell everyone in America who lives with more variable traffic, the knowledge a car can break down, a TSA that can be wildly unpredictable, etc. to do it your way!

  10. When I fly from AUS I sing the same tune but my home airport is JFK/LGA so NYC traffic can be either 30mins or 1hr 10mins. But I try to time it perfect regardless.

    Also assuming you’re only talking domestic.

  11. Austin is that predictable. With the new toll roads, pre-check and Clear it’s 50 minutes door to gate. I flew 145k miles last year and I think there was one time when there was a wreck that made it dicey.

    To the person that gets to the airport for a minimum 2 hour wait… I hope you don’t fly all the time because that’s a huge chunk of time you’re giving up. I much rather risk a (very) occasional screwup and issue rather than guaranteed extra airport time

  12. @ Gary — I don’t view arriving at the airport early as wasted time (after all, I can always read your blog on my phone while waiting! 😉 ) , so I try to leave more of a margin than you. I try to make sure that I always arrive at the curb about 1:15 before departure for domestic flights, so that generally means leaving home 1:35 to 1:45 before departure. For international flights, I generally try to arrive at the airport 2 hours before departure.

  13. Since it’s an hour and a half drive to the airport with no traffic, and I go from Central to Eastern time, I leave four hours before departure (but really three hours). That usually gives me about an hour of buffer time before boarding. For example, if I book an 8am flight (Eastern), I leave my house no later than 4am Central. Which is why I don’t book flights earlier than 10am unless I’m spending the night near the airport!

  14. BOS is my home airport and I live about 20-25min car ride away, with normal traffic. In general I try to be at the gate just prior to the published boarding time and count backwards from there and factor in pre-check and whether I have a to check a bag which generally comes to leaving the house about and an hour before departure for domestic flights and two hours prior for international flights (as I am usually checking a bag and can do a quick lounge visit if I want to). My last early morning flight, I was door to gate in just under 30min.

  15. I use Waze to calculate the time to the airport and the TSA website to see how much time is required to clear security add 30 minutes and go. I want to spend as little time in airports as possible. Missing a flight for me is not the worst thing in the world.

  16. @GB, take your question to the flyertalk.com Airlines forum thread for Qatar Airways. They can answer your specific question there!

  17. Fortunate enough to live within a 15 minute drive to SNA. It’s never taken more than 15 minutes curb to gate, even checking a bag (though that’s with status and precheck) so I prefer to leave home an hour before departure traveling by myself (if there’s horrible traffic, I’m still through security at boarding). The wife doesn’t like to cut it as close. If she’s with me we have to leave at least 90 min in advance. 105 if the baby is going. And if we are flying out of LAX to save a connection forget about it; leave a minimum of 3 hours before departure.

  18. Stress takes years off your life. Better to be a bit early than to stress over traffic. I generally target 1 hour for domestic and 2 hours for international. The consequences of missing the latter can be quite severe and they often board early. Security is never >5m thanks to CLEAR and precheck but traffic is never 100% certain when you have to take 3freeways during rush hour (and maybe cross a bridge).

  19. I always plan on being at the airport two hours before my flight. First, I have DL skyclub and Priority Pass, so I can always find some place to whip out my laptop and make any extra time there productive. Second, ya never know if the Uber/Lyft is going to take a while, or what the traffic will be or how long security will be. Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time at airports since the mid 90s because of that, but I’d rather be sitting at an airport killing time than watching my flight take off as I approach the airport.

  20. I arrive hours early and work in the lounge (or in the terminal if need be). Anywhere in the world if I have power and net-access, I can work. No screwing around, no stress over traffic (30-minute delay, who cares?), no worries over the length of any line I encounter, no effort spent calculating how much time I need. Easiest thing in the world.

    Why on earth would I want to ride unnecessarily-thin time margins that can only create problems?

    This approach would have made sense 25 years ago, since we all traveled (and communicated with our office and clients) very differently then.

    Not great advice in 2018.

  21. Since Los Angeles traffic is so unpredictable and LAX is so congested that it might take 30 minutes just from the airport entrance to gate 4 or 5, I tend to leave myself a whole hour to get to the airport, even though I live only 12 miles away.

    Once I get to the terminal, though, it’s usually a cakewalk (with TSE Pre, natch). As others here have noted, the time spent in the lounge can be as productive as the time at home. I definitely prefer having to spend a little extra time at the airport than getting stressed out because I might miss the flight.

  22. Bag cutoff is usually 45 min so I plan on being curbside at 1 hour. That even leaves time to hit the lounge!

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