How Early Do You Really Need to Get to the Airport?

INSIDER SECRET: Credit cards like The Platinum Card® From American Express and the Chase Sapphire Reserve card waive the fees for TSA PreCheck, which saves time at airport security. 

Airlines are pretty clear about how early you should get to the airport for your flight. Check any airline’s website and it’s not hard to find info on arriving at the airport for a departing flight.

Airlines recommend that passengers show up to the airport anywhere from 90 minutes to 4 hours before the flight. But how early do you really need to get to the airport to catch a flight?

The answer to that question isn’t all that clear-cut. There are a number of factors that will determine just how early you really need to get to the airport. But here’s what you need to consider when determining how early you need to arrive at the airport for your next flight.

How early do you really need to show up to the airport to catch your flight? (Image by Cassiohabib/Shutterstock)

Are You Flying Domestic or International?

The first thing to consider when determining just how early you’ll need to arrive at the airport to catch your flight is whether or not you’re traveling internationally. I always tell friends, family, and fellow travelers that there’s some leeway with domestic flights but that international flights are not the time to mess around.

Airlines will often recommend that passengers show up 2 to 4 hours before an international flight. Whether it’s 2 or 4 hours depends on the departure airport.

Personally, when departing from airports in the US, I show up around 45 minutes prior to departure. For many solo travelers, this should be enough time.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you plan on checking bags. I never check bags as I seem to always be able to get what I need in my carry-on bags. For many travelers, checking a bag is unavoidable. If you are planning on checking a bag, you should familiarize yourself with an airline checked baggage policies. Especially the cutoff time when checked bags are no longer accepted.

Average Time Before a Flight Airlines No Longer Accept Bags:

  • Domestic Flights (within the US): 45 minutes prior to departure
  • International Flights (from/to the US): 60 minutes prior to departure

If you miss these windows, you will still be able to make your flight but will not be allowed to check any luggage.

For domestic flights, the only time-consuming airport activities are checking in for the flight (if you’re checking a bag or didn’t check-in online) and security screening. For some international flights, there are additional time-consuming steps that you’ll encounter. Read on to find out about these.

Checking In for Your Flight

With nearly every airline offering online check-in through a browser or an app, you should never wait until the day of departure to check-in for your flight at the airport. This is an unnecessary and time-consuming task. Unless for some reason online check-in is unavailable or you need to check bags, you should be able to bypass the ticketing counters and kiosks.

If you need to check-in at the airport, make sure to prepare for long lines. (Image by Sorbis/Shutterstock)

When checking in in person, you can expect to spend around 15-20 minutes on average when you check-in for a domestic flight. When checking in for an international flight, you shouldn’t expect to spend more than 30 minutes.

Of course, there are certain dates, times, and scenarios during which airports are busier. Always allow for additional time at ticketing/check-in counters and kiosks around holidays and during severe weather events.

Airport Security

I usually spend the most time at airport security when I’m at the airport for a departing flight. At my hometown airport, a mid-sized airport in the US, I feel comfortable enough to show up just 40 minutes prior to departure.

But wait times at airport security, especially at major international airports, vary a great deal. It’s not uncommon for wait times at airports like Newark (EWR), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), and Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport (ATL) to exceed 30 or even 45 minutes.

It takes me, on average, under 5 minutes to clear airport security in the US. This is thanks to TSAPreCheck, the TSA’s official expedited security screening program. The program costs travelers $95 for 5 years of TSA PreCheck.

I didn’t have to pay for the application fee thanks to my Amex Platinum Card. Other cards including the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve card also provide waived application fees for TSA PreCheck (via up to $100 statement credit).

Your main hurdle in the US will be clearing airport security. (Image by Arina P Habich/Shutterstock)

Another service to consider is CLEAR. TSAPreCheck might speed up the actual screening process, but you will still have to wait in the line leading up to the podium at which an agent checks your boarding pass and ID.

CLEAR makes it so that you don’t have to wait in that line. Instead, CLEAR allows you to skip that line and proceed directly to the front of the TSA PreCheck or general screening lines. CLEAR costs $179 a year, however, certain programs like the SELECT Black Card offer travelers a three-month free trial.

Using a combination of TSAP reCheck and CLEAR, airport security might not take more than a few minutes cutting down on the time you really need to arrive at the airport.

Immigration, Passport Control, and Even More Security

At some international airports, another hurdle is immigration and passport control upon departure. This is the case at many airports in Europe and even flights to the US from Canada.

At Toronto International Airport (YYZ), it’s not uncommon for passengers bound for the US to spend a half hour, possibly even longer, at US Immigration and Customs Preclearance.

You might have to clear immigration prior to departure like at Toronto Airport (YYZ) if you’re headed to the US (Image by JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock)

Airports that require passengers to go through passport control when departing the country will have varying wait times depending on the time of day and number of international flights. That said, its passport control and preclearance on some flights bound for the US that have lead airlines to set recommend arrival times at upwards of 4 hours.

For international departures from the US and Mexico, you shouldn’t need much more time than if you were traveling domestically. However, for international flights departing from other countries, it’s important to follow an airline’s recommended arrival time guide. Major US and Canadian airlines including Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, and United each provide a guide for passengers on their websites.

Finally, you might even find yourself encountering additional security. On some flights bound for the US, there is additional security and screening procedures at the departure gate.

On a flight I took from Sydney to Los Angeles, I had to clear security and passport control right at my departure gate. Once the departure gate is assigned and opens up for passengers, the wait time to clear secondary screening and passport control can often reach 20 to 30 minutes.

You might need to clear secondary screening before certain flights like flights from Australia to the US. (Image by Tooykrub/Shutterstock)

Generally, there is far-less leeway when it comes to international flights for how early you need to show up at the airport. For domestic flights, you might be able to push the limits of an airline’s recommended arrival time.

Airline Boarding Policies

For those of you really looking to press your luck, there is one last thing to consider. Let’s say you’ve managed to check-in for your flight, clear security, pass through passport control, and make your way to your gate with 5 minutes before posted departure time. You might think you’ve made your flight. Unfortunately, you actually missed your flight.

In the US, airlines close the boarding door 10 minutes prior to departure. Airlines outside of the US close the boarding door even earlier. Air Canada, for example, closes the boarding door 15 minutes prior to departure while Air France closes the boarding door 20 minutes prior to departure.

Airlines close the boarding door prior to departure time so plan accordingly. (Image by Chadawan Heemsuhree/Shutterstock)

So while you might think you can arrive at the gate just a minute before departure time, you’d be mistaken. Airlines close the boarding door prior to posted departure time.

Travelers should plan how early they plan on arriving at the airport for a flight around the time at which the boarding door closes, not departure time.

Bottom Line

Airlines have long told passengers to show up 90 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights and up to 4 hours for some international flights. These are reasonable recommendations, however, you might be able to show up at the airport much closer to departure time.

If you’re familiar with an airport, can bypass the check-in counters, and are enrolled in expedited security programs like TSAPreCheck, you may be able to show up much later than you think. As always, though it might not be the most enjoyable experience to hang out in an airport, you should never press your luck to the point to which you miss your flight.

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Featured image by aanbetta/Shutterstock