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.
The General Guideline for How Early You Should 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.
The Most Important Factors That Influence How Much Time You’ll Need at the Airport
What Airport Are You Traveling Out Of?
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.
Are You Traveling on a Domestic or International Flight?
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.
What Time of Year Are You Traveling?
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.
What Time of Day Are You Traveling?
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.
Are You Traveling by Yourself or With a Group?
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.
Do You Have Bags To Check?
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.
Do You Have Airline Elite Status or Priority Check-in?
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.
Do You Have TSA PreCheck and/or CLEAR?
By far the biggest time saver when you are at the airport is by having TSA PreCheck and/or CLEAR. Both of these allow you to skip the extremely lengthy general security lines at the airport.
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, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, the Centurion® Card from American Express and the American Express® Green Card.
Are You Planning to Visit an Airport Lounge?
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, many great credit card options offer complimentary 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 information regarding the Centurion® Card from American Express and American Express® Green Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
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