The eternal dilemma: how early should I be at the airport? Is it better to go early and risk getting bored waiting too long for your flight or go later and risk missing it?
This is the most stressful question when preparing to leave for the airport. It all boils down to several factors.
Are you flying domestic or international?
How big is the airport?
What time is your flight scheduled for?
Do you travel with a checked luggage or just with a carry-on?
Have you checked-in online or were you planning on doing it at the airport?
This article will help you determine the best time to go to the airport depending on the details of your trip.
How early do I need to be at the airport?
Domestic flight from a small airport at off-peak hour with only a carry-on and online check-in
This is the best scenario possible, meaning the one where you have very few steps to go through at the airport. If you're in this situation, arriving 45min prior to your flight should be enough.
The only thing you need to do before boarding is going through security check, so just make sure that you know how to go through it quickly.
International flights from a large airport at peak hour with a checked luggage and check-in at the airport
That's the worst case scenario. If you're ever in this situation (and if I were you I'd avoid it as much as possible), be at the airport 3h before departure.
If you're lucky, you won't need that much time, but I wouldn't risk it, considering all the obstacles in your way.
First, you need to go to the counter to check-in. Since you also have a luggage to drop off, you can't take the line for check-in only (which is usually faster). You migt end up queuing up for some time there.
After that, you need to go through the security check. Again, at peak hour, even with the best tips in mind, it will take some time.
Than, you have to go through immigration and queue up again.
And finally you have to go to your boarding gate. All of this in a large airport with long escalators and hallways where it's easier to get lost.
3 hours prior to your flight is a safe bet. I strongly recommend no less than 2h30 if you want to push your luck.
In between these scenarios, count 1 to 2 hours prior to your flight
In the end, the size of the airport isn't the biggest handicap. The worst is peak hour, as it might create traffic jams at every step. If you're traveling at peak hour, add 30 min to the following scenarios:
- Domestic flight with just a carry-on but check-in at the airport: 1h
- Domestic flight with a checked luggage: 1h / 1h15
- International flight with a carry-on but check-in at the airport: 1h30
- International flight with a checked luggage: 2 hours
Domestic flights VS International flights
Very logically, you should arrive earlier at the airport if you're flying abroad. The main difference between a domestic flight and an international one is the border check. There is always a line for the security control: you need to take that into account.
Depending on the size of the airport and the time of your flight, count between 20 and 45 more minutes compared to a standard domestic flight.
Peak VS non-peak hours
Obviously again, traveling at peak hour guarantees that you'll need to arrive early, because there will be a longer queue everywhere: at the counter, at the security check and at immigration.
Count an additional 30min to 1h compared to non-peak hours.
My travel tip on this? Fly early in the morning or late at night (red-eye flight): the tickets are usually less expensive because fewer people travel at these time and the airport is not as busy.
Online check-in VS checkin-in at the airport
Every time you can, check-in online: among other advantages, it systematically saves you time at the airport.
Even if you have a luggage to drop at the counter: airports usually have a line for passengers who don't need to check-in but just to drop their luggage. This line is faster than the main one.
However, better be there early than just on time
Call me chicken but I'm the kind of person who's rather wait a bit longer and be sure to catch his flight rather than risk missing it and ruin his trip. I always know how to stay busy at the airport so I don't mind staying there an extra 30 min.
The general rule is to arrive at the airport no later than 2 hours prior to departure for domestic flights and 3 hours for international ones.
In any case, you should always consult the airline and airport guidelines before leaving. All the more so since the closing of your gate may vary greatly from one carrier to another: some give you a timeframe of 45 min while others will only tolerate 15 min.
You might want to add an extra half an hour (2h30 for domestic and 3h30 for international flights) if you’re not a frequent traveler and might be anxious before the flight. The same applies if you’re not familiar with the airport or if you’re flying on a busy day.
The common misconceptions
"I tracked my flight status: it says it's delayed so I can come later
First of all, delays and cancellations statuses aren’t always precise and are likely to evolve without being updated online in real time. Secondly, some airlines will require you to check in at the initially required time despite the delay. It’s not the brightest idea of the century, but you should follow this guideline if you don’t want to be considered a no-show and be denied boarding. And you wouldn't even be eligible to a compensation for boarding denial.
"If I'm late, people and airport staff will let me cut the line"
Would airport personnel let you advance to the front of the line if you’re about to miss your flight? Not awlays. This is (unfortunately maybe) not a right or a privilege, so don't count on that when considering oversleeping.
"Ive checked-in, the plane will wait for me"
There is no check-in guarantee, especially for domestic flights. For international ones, the airline is more likely to remove your luggage from the cabin than wait for you if you never showed up for the last call.
Final Words on How Early Should You Be at the Airport
In the end, keep in mind that you should allow yourself enough time not to be stressed out before departure. And should you be scared of getting bored at the airport, you can always take a look at this post on how to spend your time there.
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