Edited by: Juan Ruiz
& Keri Stooksbury
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The question of how early to get to the airport has been a point of contention ever since commercial flights became available to the masses. Some travelers like to get to the airport at the crack of dawn for a 2 p.m. flight, while others often have to run from security to the gate before the jet bridge door closes.
While all flyers have different preferences, most people like to get to the airport early enough that they don’t feel rushed, but also prefer to minimize the amount of time they have to spend waiting around for their flight to board. Because of this, it can be hard to know how much time to give yourself at the airport.
In this guide, we will help you answer that question by breaking down the top factors you should consider when deciding how early to get to the airport.
Generally speaking, most airlines advise that you arrive at the airport at least 2 hours prior to a domestic flight, and at least 3 hours prior to an international flight. That said, there are many factors to consider that will help you decide how much time you should budget for at the airport.
This factor is easy to overlook, but it is an important one to keep in mind. Put simply, you’ll want to budget more time for yourself if you’re traveling out of a large international airport, as these airports are often much busier than smaller regional airports.
Flyers who are traveling to an international destination should arrive at the airport earlier than domestic flyers. This is because international flights can have additional check-in requirements, like passport verification, that need to be completed before you receive your boarding pass. Further, international flights tend to begin their boarding process 15 to 30 minutes earlier than domestic flights due to the larger plane size.
The season in which you are traveling can have a big impact on how busy the airport you are flying out of might be. For instance, you’ll find that wait times are much lower during winter flights than they are for flights during the summer when the demand for travel picks up significantly.
Similarly, the time of your flight can also impact how busy you might expect the airport to be. Have you ever noticed that flight prices are often the cheapest for the earliest and latest flights of the day? This is because midday flights are significantly more popular amongst travelers.
Given that, you can expect the airport to be significantly busier for midday flights than it will be for early morning or late night flights.
If you’re traveling by yourself, you’ll be able to move through the airport significantly faster than you would if you were traveling with a group of people, so consider this when deciding how much time to budget for. This is especially important to keep in mind for families traveling with small children.
Not checking bags is a great way to save time at the airport, as it allows you to head straight you security screening as soon as you arrive.
For those that do plan to check bags, some airports offer a self-check kiosk that allows you simply drop your bag at the desk when you are done. However, airports that do not offer a self-check kiosk will require you to wait in line with all other passengers who are waiting to check their bags as well — and these lines can be quite lengthy depending on the number of agents on staff.
Hot Tip: Need to check baggage? Many airline co-branded cards offer a free checked bag as a benefit. Read our guide on whether or not you need to pay with your airline credit card to receive free checked bags and other perks.
Those that have airline elite status or have a co-branded airline card that offers priority check-in can greatly speed up the time it will take to check their bag or check-in for their flight when they arrive at the airport. This is because those with elite status and/or priority check-in have a dedicated line that effectively allows you to move to the front of all others currently in line.
While the requirements for airline elite status can vary significantly by the airline, both American Airlines and United Airlines offer priority check-in as a benefit for those who hold the Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, and the United Club℠ Infinite Card, respectively.
If you’re wondering how TSA PreCheck and CLEAR differ, here is a quick explanation.
TSA PreCheck offers expedited security screening so that you can keep your laptop and liquids in your bag and keep your shoes on, and it offers shorter lines than standard security. CLEAR, on the other hand, expedites the ID check portion of the security process. After your identity is verified with CLEAR, you can go right to the front of the general security line, or TSA PreCheck line if you also have it.
There are tons of credit cards that offer a TSA PreCheck membership as a card benefit, but currently, the only credit cards that offer a full complimentary CLEAR membership are The Platinum Card® from American Express, and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express.
Once you’ve made it through all of the pesky items like checking your bags and airport security, the last big item that you might want to budget some time for is a visit to the airport lounge.
Airport lounge access is easily one of our favorite credit card perks as it significantly enhances the experience of waiting for your flight. Instead of waiting at the gate, or overpaying for some barely edible pizza at the food court, you’ll have a nice place to relax where you can kick back, charge up your devices, and enjoy complimentary food and drinks (including alcohol, too!) while you wait for your flight to board.
In our view, the best credit card when it comes to airport lounge access is the Amex Platinum card, which offers access to 8 lounge networks including Amex Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs (when flying with Delta), Priority Pass lounges (upon enrollment), and much more. That said, there are many great credit cards with airport lounge access.
As you can see, while 2 to 3 hours before your flight might be a good general guideline, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to deciding how much time to allow at the airport.
Instead, you might be better off treating each trip on a case-by-case basis depending on the factors we’ve outlined in this guide.
That said, those who are looking to dramatically improve their airport experience should consider adding a premium credit card to their wallet, as many offer both the ability to speed up airport security with TSA PreCheck and/or CLEAR and allow you to relax in an airport lounge with the time you’ve saved — a win-win.
The general guideline on how early to get to the airport for an international flight is 3 hours. That said, you might want to adjust that time based on factors like what time of day/year you are traveling, how many people you are traveling with, whether you plan to check bags, whether you have priority security clearance, and more.
The general guideline on how early to get to the airport for a domestic flight is 2 hours. However, those traveling at a very busy time of year or out of a large airport might want to allow more time.
The best way to get through airport security faster is by having TSA PreCheck and/or CLEAR. The fee for TSA PreCheck is $78 every 5 years, while CLEAR is $189 per year. Fortunately, you can get complimentary access to both programs through certain travel rewards programs.
The amount of time to get through airport security will vary based on how busy the airport is. This can change based on the time of day or time of year you are traveling, along with how large the airport you are traveling out of is.
Yes, most airlines allow you to check-in for your flight online via their website or mobile app to save time at the airport.
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