The Best Time To Leave For the Airport, According to Travel Experts

Updated 08/06/19
Young woman gazes at her smartphone in airport terminal
The Chriselle Factor

Nothing ruins the perfect vacation like frantically rushing to the airport, stumbling through security, and worse yet, missing your flight. In this day and age, it's not always easy to gauge just how much time you need to account for to safely make it to your departure gate. Although most airlines, TSA (airport security), and airport authorities recommend arriving to the airport two hours ahead of scheduled departure for domestic flights, and three hours ahead for international jaunts, there are just so many variables to consider.

Let us count the many events that impact your travel timeline: There's traffic, security holdups (like that one person who forgets to empty their water bottle in accordance with TSA's 3 oz. liquids allowance rule), and last-minute gate changes, for starters. Your arrival time may also depend on your travel comfort level, who you're traveling with, and the type of airport you're headed to.

To parse things out as much as what's within our control as travelers, we rounded up the best tips from around the web about when you should leave for the airport for a smooth and stress-free check-in experience. We also tapped travel experts to share some of the cool airport experiences you can have in 2019.

In General: Arrive Two to Three Hours Before Your Flight

The de facto rule for when to arrive at the airport before your flight is two hours prior to a domestic flight, and three hours before an international flight. However, as we mentioned at the top of this article, there are a number of variables that may be in your best interest to arrive even earlier.

"The two-hour recommendation is fairly standard across the industry," says Heather Lissner, a spokeswoman for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), in an interview with USA Today. "We recommend the two hours so that travelers have enough time to get dropped off or park their cars, check their bags and get through security to their gates."

So when exactly should you arrive to the airport? Really, it just depends.

Airline and Airport Guidelines and Check-In Requirements

With that in mind, it's always a good idea to reference the airport and airline's arrival guidelines and check-in requirements, and work backwards from there. For example, San Diego International Airport (SAN) recommends arriving two hours before any flight. United Airlines for example, requires passengers and bags be checked into their flight between 30 minutes to an hour before departure, depending on which airport you're flying out of.

Consider arriving earlier than the recommended two or three hours if:

  • You're unfamiliar with the airport
  • You need to check in, print a boarding pass, and/or check in luggage with a desk agent
  • You or your travel companion(s) need extra assistance (perhaps you are traveling with a disability, are pregnant, or traveling with kids, for example)
  • You're flying out of a busy, international airport (Fun fact: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has been named the busiest airport in the world for more than 20 consecutive years)
  • You prefer being early to things
  • You're traveling during a holiday

    When It's Ok To Cut It A Little Close

    On the other hand, there are some instances where you may be able to arrive to the airport less than two or three hours before a flight. For example, flying out of a regional airport like San Luis Obispo (SLO) might mean getting through security and locating your departure gate quicker than navigating a larger, busier, international airport like Los Angeles International (LAX). Or, if you've checked in online before your flight, don't need to park your car, are only traveling with a carry-on, and/or traveling solo, have TSA Pre-check status, you may not need the full two to three hours.

    Same goes if you're a frequent jetsetter and are accustomed to the the airport check-in process.

    Helpful Airport Apps

    Thanks to clever apps, easing some travel anxiety is only a few taps away. Just keep in mind that travel is inherently unpredictable, even with these predictive apps.

    To get to the airport, Google Maps, for example can tell you approximately when to leave in order to arrive at your designated location at a specific time. And the schedule feature on ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber can help secure transportation to the airport without risking any scheduling mishaps their on-demand option might cause.

    The travel app TripIt boasts a "Go Now" feature that calculates the best time to leave for the airport based on your current location, flight status, and local traffic conditions. You can even view a countdown clock if you need that extra nudge. TripIt can also store all of your important travel documents—copies of your passport, itineraries, and confirmation documents—in a clean, user-friendly dashboard.

    At the airport itself, the MyTSA app informs you of airport security wait times based on historical data, any airport delays based on current weather conditions, and tips for how to get through airport security quickly.

    Time Well Spent

    So, you've made it to the airport with ample time to spare. Look around; have you noticed that airports have suddenly gotten... cool? From trendy restaurants, art, live performances, upscale vending machines and other amenities, airports everywhere have undergone a renaissance of sorts. For example, a USA Today article reported in 2018 that Denver International Airport (DIA) added a cat to its Canine Airport Therapy Squad, Louisville International Airport (SDF) became an official stop along Kentucky's Urban Bourbon Trail, and micro-hotel company Minute Suites provides napping options for travelers passing through Dallas, Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Atlanta airports.

    Airports offer another opportunity to sample local fare, while some even offer tours. "While waiting in Ben Gurion Airport [in Israel], there are many local delicacies to enjoy from Halva (a sweet confection made from sesame paste and honey), to dates and of course, hummus," says a representative for Tourist Israel. Additionally, "Travelers can buy the famous hummus to take home with them along with iconic Dead Sea products." If you're on a long layover at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, "you should absolutely take advantage of one of the free tours offered by the Airport," says Chris Choi, CEO of VIP Travel.

    Choi recommends booking online in advance, as places are limited.

    Airport lounges are also a comfortable way to await your boarding call. Kate Sullivan, Head of Experience at Secret Fares, says "If you belong to certain loyalty clubs or fly on a particular airline frequently, it's totally worth the annual membership to get access to the lounge. You'll have comfy chairs, power for your phone or laptop, and often even access to coffee and snacks. I'm a personal fan of the United Lounge at Dulles and the Aer Lingus lounge in Dublin." 

    And the list of amenities keeps growing. A number of airports from San Diego to Minneapolis and Nashville offer a rotating performing arts and cultural programming calendar that include everything from arts exhibitions and live musical performances that make arriving early to the airport very much worth the wait.

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