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Key Takeaways

  • You should always get to the airport early - two or three hours early for domestic and international flights respectively
  • There’s generally no such thing as getting to the airport “too early” - the earlier the better
  • However, if you’re getting to the airport more than six hours early for no real reason, you’re probably too early

Nobody likes getting to the airport early. But airlines and federal regulations mandate that we do. But how early is too early?

You only need to be at the airport two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international flights. This normally provides more than enough time to get through security and to your gate on time. Arriving at the airport earlier than this is too early.

As a pilot who’s spent even more time traveling, I’m often asked this question, and this is how I usually respond, no matter where I’m asked this or by whom.

Table of contents


How Early Should I Get to The Airport?

You might be worried about getting there too early and having to wait or arriving too late and missing your flight. The general rule of thumb is to try and arrive at least two hours before a scheduled domestic flight and three hours if you are supposed to take any international flights.

For domestic flights, most airlines will close the boarding gates about half an hour before the scheduled departure time. They'll also start boarding passengers two hours before the plane takes off.

If you are traveling domestically, arriving at the airport a minimum of two hours before your flight is scheduled to depart should give you more than enough time to undergo all the requisite formalities at the airport.

You might even have enough time to stop at a cafe for a cup of coffee and a snack or even shop a bit before boarding your flight.

On the other hand, if you are scheduled to be on any international flights, try to arrive at least three hours before take-off. This way, you'll have enough time to check your luggage in, pass through security, and make your way to the boarding gate.

How Early is Too Early to Get to the Airport?

Almost every airline I’ve ever come across recommends that you get to the airport a minimum of two hours before your flight is scheduled to depart. That said, it's never too early to get to the airport; the above rule is merely a guideline to ensure that you get to the airport with plenty of time to spare, without wasting too much time at the airport.

To this end, unless you have another reason - such as having nowhere else to go - you should probably avoid getting to the airport more than six hours before your flight. This is really to avoid you being bored senseless rather than anything else (even as I pilot, I agree that airports are miserable places).

Although you might want to arrive at the airport in good time to ensure that you don't miss your flight, you certainly don't want to have to wait for too long before you are supposed to check in. To this end, there are some factors that you may want to keep in mind when traveling.

For instance, you need to think about the time it will take for you to check in your luggage, go through security, and pass through the gate before boarding your flight.

Even so, the main factor that will determine the time you arrive at the airport would ideally depend on the type of flight you are taking – domestic or international.

As we mentioned earlier, airlines often have different recommendations for passengers traveling domestically and those taking an international flight.

To this end, you should ensure that you arrive at least two hours before your domestic flight and three hours before an international flight is due to take off.

How Does Check-in Affect Arrival Time?

Even as you think about how early you need to get to the airport, you may also want to consider the process of checking in for your flight. The best way to ensure you don't miss your scheduled flight is to arrive as early as possible.

With regards to checking in for your flight, most airlines will start boarding passengers around 45 minutes before takeoff. Additionally, they may close the boarding gates about half an hour before the scheduled flight. If you arrive after the gates have been closed, you may miss that flight.

Therefore, you'll be safer arriving at the airport between two and four hours before your flight. However, keep in mind that this is a general recommendation and there are a myriad of factors that will affect your total flight experience.

As we mentioned earlier, you should try to arrive two hours before your flight time if you are flying domestically or taking a short-haul flight. For international flights and long-haul domestic flights, we recommend arriving at least four hours before you are scheduled to depart.

Following these general recommendations should do the trick - and you won’t miss your flight.

What About Security Checks at the Airport?

You should also think about how early you can go through the security checks at the airport. For smooth sailing, ensure you have all your paperwork – passports, visas, vaccination documents, and the like – in order, especially if you are planning to travel internationally.

If you are flying for the first time, the security checks might be quite stressful. However, you shouldn't fret. As long as you are informed and prepared, the process should be a literal walk in the park.

Even so, you should try to get to the airport as early as possible. This is one of the best ways to ensure that your check-in goes smoothly and you don't have issues while passing through the security gates.

But how early is too early to go through the security gates for a flight? Generally speaking, you may be able to pass the security check-in earlier at some airports while others will require that you arrive two to five hours before your flight is scheduled to depart.

One of the reasons is because the counters where you need to check in your luggage as well as the security gates might not yet be open for your particular flight.

That said, you shouldn't be too concerned about this if you are only traveling with a carry-on. In such a situation, you may be able to skip the process of checking in your luggage and proceed directly to the security gates – which would save you quite a bit of time.

Overall, the recommended arrival time would be different depending on a variety of factors. If you feel that you'd be more comfortable arriving earlier, then try to get to the airport as soon as you can before your scheduled flight.

This might be the case if you are traveling as part of a large group or with children. It would also apply if you are flying for the first time, if you think you may need help with your baggage, and feel that you may need more time before checking in.

With regards to going through security, it would be best if you are as proactive as you possibly can. For instance, you should consider packing everything you will need.

You may also want to think ahead and anticipate any problems that you may encounter during your voyage. In all of these situations, it is better to arrive earlier rather than later.

What Are Some Additional Flying Tips to Consider?

Now that you have a good idea about how and if you need to arrive early to the airport, there are several tips you may want to keep in mind while traveling by air.

Most of these tips are based on my own personal experiences as a pilot and travel and will ensure that you save time, arrive in good time for your flight, and just have peace of mind before, during, and after your journey.

Whether you are a frequent flier or you are on your maiden journey, you certainly don’t want to encounter any problems or obstructions. The following tips will come in handy the next time you are scheduled to fly:

a) Check-in Online

You can save yourself a great deal of time by checking in online. Many airlines will offer you this option. Online check-in will allow you to save your boarding pass on your phone or print it out.

A word of caution though: online check-in is still new, so you may want to double-check your flight details and boarding time to ensure that the pass has the correct information.

b) Plan Your Transportation

Before you leave for the airport, plan and think about the means of transportation you'll be using. Consider the total distance between your home or hotel and the airport. If you'll be driving, you may want to watch out for crowded streets and avoid setting out during the rush hour.

Although you may prefer to take yourself to the airport, it is recommended that you get a friend or a family member to drop you off. You could also save yourself a great deal of stress by hailing a ride-sharing or taxi company like Uber.

The advantage of both of these options is you'll have peace of mind without worrying about things like parking, which could waste a fair share of time.

c) Consider Popular Travel Times

If you have flown before, you probably know that airports tend to be crowded during certain times, such as peak seasons, vacation periods, and big national and religious holidays. In case you'll be traveling during these periods, try to arrive at the airport as early as possible.

If you plan to fly during Thanksgiving, for instance, you can be sure that there'll be a long and winding queue ahead of you. Even if you arrive within the recommended two to four hours, you may still have to wait in line.

A good strategy, therefore, would be to arrive five to six hours before your flight is scheduled to take off. This way, you may just be able to avoid these crowds of fellow travelers.

d) Plan for the Airport

Whether you know the airport like the back of your hand or it’s your first time taking a flight from it, you should plan ahead. You should also set aside some time for passing through the airport. Many air travelers arrive late because they underestimated the size of the terminals at airports or because they are not familiar with a particular airport's setup.

If you are catching a flight from a major international airport, factor in the time it will take you to find your bearings and arrive at the right gates.

Additionally, you should give yourself some headroom because you may have to walk and navigate through the airport – which could prove to be time-consuming.

e) Get Your Departure Time Right

Many people arrive at airports either too late or too early just because they got their departure time wrong. If you are not sure about your scheduled departure, get in touch with the airline you'll be using.

You can also check and double-check this information from the airline's website or mobile app.

Today, it is even possible to request some airlines to send you a reminder - such as an email - with all your flight details on the day of your flight.

You can also check in online and print out your flight ticket, which would ideally have all the information you need about your boarding and departure time.

f) Keep Yourself Informed

Whether you are flying for the first time or you are a frequent flier, knowing the applicable rules and regulations could end up saving you a great deal of time.

The better you understand and follow the established guidelines, the easier and smoother the check-in and airport security process will be for you.

For instance, most airports will ask you to remove your laptop from your carry-on luggage and place it on a separate tray. If you know this, you can prepare yourself in advance by carrying your laptop in your hand so you don't have to open your carry-on.

Additionally, you should keep abreast of the applicable baggage fees and rules that your chosen airline has in place, as United Airlines for example has a completely different set of fees when compared to American Airlines.

Understanding these rules before you buy the ticket will help you save time because you'll typically have a list of what you'll be able to put in your checked baggage and carry-on.

g) Travel Light

A good rule of thumb to help you save time at the security gate or at any airport for that matter would be to travel as lightly as you possibly can. This is easy if you pack smart and only take the essentials.

If you are traveling with several electronics, pack them on top of your clothes. On the other hand, if you have liquids in your luggage, place them inside labeled bottles and clear sealable bags.

Ensuring that you can easily access these liquids may also save you time during the security check.

h) Dress Appropriately

To make sure you have a hassle-free and stress-free flight, make sure you dress comfortably and appropriately, keeping your travel documents where you can easily reach them.