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How early should you get to the airport?

minute read

    A hotly debated topic, especially among travel companions, is how early you should plan to arrive at the airport before a flight. It seems most people fall into two camps — the “right on time" camp or the “earlier the better" camp. While you're likely to land at your destination either way, there are several considerations you'll want to weigh before heading to the airport.

    Why do people get to the airport so early?

    If you're like some who prefer to err on the side of being early, arriving at the airport with a large cushion of time to spare could offer many advantages. 


    It's wise to account for the amount of time it will take you to find a parking spot, unload your car and — depending on how big the airport is — wait for a shuttle bus to take you to the check-in area. If you've never been to this airport before, check out their website ahead of time to understand the parking situation. 

    Checking your luggage

    When you first arrive, you may encounter a long line to check your luggage so be sure to account for this possibility. Make sure you know what size luggage is considered overhead vs. checked (check your airline's website if unsure). Also note that if your bag is over a certain weight, you may be charged additional fees.

    Navigating security

    Though it may feel frustrating to wait in line to get through security, it's a very important step that ultimately protects you and everyone in the airport. When you arrive early, there is less stress about how long this portion of the check-in will take. To keep things moving, remove your outerwear and shoes if required as you approach the metal detectors or body scanners. Place your electronic devices and bags on the conveyor belt and listen to instructions from TSA officials. If they usher you to the side of the line for a supplemental inspection don't take offense; this is a common occurrence and just another measure that ensures the safety of everyone.

    Finding your gate

    After security, you can now leisurely find your gate. When you're early, there's no need to run through the terminal while carrying all your bags. You have plenty of time to use the restroom, grab a beverage and get situated, all of which reduces anxiety and prepares you for a successful trip. 


    Inevitably, you'll realize you forgot to pack something. When you have time to spare before your flight, this leaves an opportunity to shop. You'll find many airport stores offer everything from clothing to personal items such as motion sickness medicine, chargers, books and much more. 


    It's nice to have extra time to grab something to eat or sit at the bar. Many airports offer a variety of restaurants or grab-and-go options so you don't have to get on the plane hungry — especially in an era of reduced meal service on most flights. 


    If you're a business traveler you know that any extra moments of time to get work done are helpful. When you arrive early, you'll have time to polish that presentation or answer a few emails.


    Have you ever wondered how to access those comfortable airport lounges with private bathrooms, comfortable seating and free snacks? If you tend to stick to one airline, you can purchase an airline club membership or acquire an airline credit card, which comes with lounge access. Another way to gain access is to get a travel rewards credit card with complimentary Priority Pass™ membership. Keep in mind there is an annual fee to the travel cards that come with this perk. It's a great way to pass the time with luxurious perks at your disposal. Many airlines also offer a day pass for purchase.


    One last advantage of being an early bird is the ability to speak with an airline representative at the gate. If any changes arise in your flight itinerary, you'll have time to fix them and make other arrangements. This may also be helpful for seniors, those with special needs and those who require wheelchair access or other accommodations. 

    How early should you get to the airport in 2024?

    When you do the backwards math and start with your departure time, you'll want to assume a few things.

    • Boarding the plane begins about 30 minutes before take-off (larger planes may even board 45 minutes in advance).
    • Backing up further, you should count on spending at least 20 minutes in the security line.
    • Keep going. Another 20 minutes should be added for baggage check. If you only have a carry-on, you'll save some time there. 
    • Finally, add 20 minutes for parking and shuttle service.
    • When you add in an additional 30 minutes of cushion to go to the restroom, the convenience store and the general time it takes to walk from security to your concourse to your gate, you quickly get to the 2-hour mark. 

    Please note that this timeline is for a national flight. If you are flying internationally, the recommendation is to give yourself 3 hours instead of 2. This is to account for the additional time it takes to get through immigration and customs. 

    Should you arrive 2 hours before a flight?

    It's highly recommended by most airports to arrive at least 2 hours before any flight, but give it closer to 3 hours for international flights.

    Keep in mind though, airports want you to take advantage of their carefully curated shopping and dining options, which you can't do if you're rushing to the gate. So it's in their best interest for you to arrive early.

    A good source of information is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). They even have an app called MyTSA which offers data on how historically busy any airport will be on your specific travel date. 

    Time-saving hacks for getting through the airport

    Have you ever left for a travel adventure feeling on top of the world, only to have your carefully planned trip ruined by a delay at the airport? Here are some time saving hacks to help make the start of your trip a smooth one:

    • Use carry-on luggage instead of full size to avoid checking bags.
    • Check-in to your flight before you arrive at the airport using the airline's app and have your mobile boarding pass ready to go. 
    • Study the terminal map before you arrive to understand how far your gate is from the security checkpoint. Map out any shopping or dining spots you want to hit on the way.
    • When possible choose off-peak times of day to depart so you avoid the crowds. This means choosing flights that leave prior to 7am or after 9:30pm.
    • Don't let baggage delays or trip cancellations ruin your travel plans. Use a travel rewards credit card for all travel-related purchases because many of them offer Trip Cancellation / Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver and Lost Luggage Reimbursement.
    • Get approved for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® or NEXUS. This program expedites traveler screening through TSA security checkpoints. Even better — when you use your Chase Sapphire Reserve® credit card to pay for your Global Entry or TSA Precheck® or NEXUS, you can receive a statement credit of up to $100 every four years as reimbursement for the application fee. 

    Ready for takeoff

    Even the most conscientious planners may face an unexpected obstacle at the airport. Arriving at least 2 hours before a flight gives you the best chance of settling in at your gate stress-free and ready for takeoff. Wheels up! 

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