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How early should I (really) get to the airport for my flight?

Times are tough for travelers. But with the world preparing to reopen in 2021, we're here to keep you dreaming and planning for your next adventure - whether that's a staycation or flying off to parts unknown. Until then, we've got the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates to keep you up to date and ready to go.

It’s everybody’s worst nightmare. You’ve booked your flight, packed your bags and arrived at the airport only to find long check-in and security lines. If you’ve ever missed a flight (or even come close), you know how it can disrupt your entire travel plans.

Even in COVID times, the standard rules about when to arrive at the airport usually apply:

  • For domestic flights, plan to arrive at the airport 2 hours early
  • For international flights, plan to arrive at the airport 3 hours early

In most cases, that should give you plenty of time to make your way to the gate. You’ll probably even have a chance to grab a bite to eat or charge your phone before takeoff.

Keep in mind that boarding typically begins 45 minutes ahead of takeoff, and closes about 15 minutes before. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have until the scheduled departure time to make it to the gate!

It can be confusing to know when to arrive at the airport to get through security lines.

But, as with most rules, there are exceptions. You can arrive at the airport a little closer to your flight time if you are:

  • Checking in online and using mobile or print-at-home boarding passes
  • Not checking any bags
  • Arriving with a rideshare or public transportation (and don’t need to park or return a rental car)
  • Flying at an off-peak time
  • Using a familiar airport
  • Part of a Trusted Traveler Program (like TSA PreCheck)

Looking for a few more minutes to sleep in or finish packing? Here’s a rundown of ways you can arrive at the airport a little later and still make your flight.

Arrive at the airport later by skipping the check-in counter.

New travel technologies are constantly making the entire experience of flying a lot easier, especially when it comes to checking in. Mobile boarding passes allow you to skip the check-in counter, especially if you don’t need to check bags.

By packing light and printing your boarding pass at home — or using a mobile boarding pass, if available — you can arrive at the airport a little later than the recommended times. You can also review carry-on baggage size limitations and pay fees online before you get to the airport.

If you can skip the check-in counter, 90 minutes should be plenty of time to make it to your gate for domestic flights.

Arriving two hours early for international flights (while still saving an additional 30 minutes for passport control) with your carry-on luggage and boarding pass should be sufficient.

How early should I get to the airport if I’m flying during peak travel times or a holiday?

Traveling during peak travel times (Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Years, spring break, etc.) can easily add an additional hour at security. During holidays, it’s best to be extra cautious and arrive up to three hours before domestic flights and up to four hours before international flights

You’ll especially want to save additional time during the holidays if you:

  • Don’t travel frequently
  • Feel stressed about travel, and want extra time to help ease your worries
  • Are traveling with kids, require a wheelchair or help getting to the gate and need extra time boarding

If you plan to travel during the holidays, check out Skyscanner’s Best Time to Book to help get a good deal on airfare. 

How early should I get to the airport if I’m traveling with kids?

Parents know all too well that it takes much longer to do most things with children in tow. That’s why it’s a good idea to add as much as an additional hour so you have plenty of time to manage extra luggage and make sure your family is traveling safely. Plus, you’ll want to get to the gate early to take advantage of priority boarding with small children.

This means families with young kids should plan to arrive at the airport up to three hours before domestic flights and up to four hours before international flights.

When is the best time to avoid crowds at the airport?

If you have the luxury of flexibility, it’s always a good idea to travel during off-peak times throughout the year. This usually means targeting the “shoulder” seasons of spring and fall and the slower periods in the weeks before or after major holidays. That allows you to not only get the best off-season deals but also avoid the crowds.

The same goes for the time of day you travel. Aiming for flights that leave between 7 and 8 in the morning will put you between heavier travel times in the early and mid-morning. Likewise, you’ll typically find fewer crowds in the late evening, around 9:30 p.m. and later.

It may not get you extra sleep, but traveling during these times can save you a half hour or more once you arrive at the airport.

Arrive at the airport a little later by carrying on your bag and using a mobile or preprinted boarding pass.

How late can I arrive at the airport if I have TSA PreCheck®?

Trusted Traveler programs like TSA PreCheck® and Global Entry help travelers get through security lines (or U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the case of Global Entry) more efficiently. But they’re no guarantee that you won’t still encounter lines when you get to the airport.

No matter what program you’re part of, it’s a good idea to check your airport’s website ahead of time to make sure they have lines dedicated to your program. While you’re there, check the number of security lines available and see if they offer real-time updates on wait status.

Even with these programs, you should still plan to arrive at least 60 to 90 minutes before departure for domestic flights, and 90 minutes to two hours early for international flights. Add extra time for peak travel periods.

Save time by arriving at the airport through a rideshare or public transportation.

Getting to the airport with a rideshare or public transportation can be relatively stress-free because it saves time that would otherwise be spent finding parking and taking shuttles from a parking lot. However, you’re still vulnerable to rush hour traffic jams.

If you know you’ll be traveling during a peak time, it’s probably still a good idea to plan on the standard two hours for domestic flights and three hours for international flights. If you’re heading to the airport at a slower time of day, then you can consider arriving a little later. Plan ahead and book your rideshare in advance or check public transportation schedules to make sure you don’t get stranded on the way.

No matter when you arrive at the airport, check your flight status frequently.

No matter when you arrive at the airport, a canceled or delayed flight can ruin even the best of plans. Don’t forget to check your flight status frequently before you leave and when you’re en route (that is, if you aren’t behind the wheel). Most airlines have apps now to keep you in the know about potential delays, your boarding time and your flight’s gate number.

Chances are, following the two-hour domestic, three-hour international rule will allow you plenty of time before boarding, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Frequently asked questions

Has COVID-19 changed when I should arrive at the airport?

COVID-19 has slowed down many processes that we considered normal before the pandemic, and travel is certainly one of those. While the basic procedures of checking in for your flight, checking bags and going through security are still the same, many airports and airlines have added health-screening procedures.

Some of these require a COVID-19 test before you get to the airport and some require proof of immunization or other documents, such as a passenger locator form. Be sure to check the requirements at the specific airports and countries you’ll be traveling through. Also, our panel of Skyscanner experts has compiled a list of answers to common COVID-19 travel questions that can help.

How can I make sure I leave my home or accommodation to arrive at the airport on time?

Savvy travelers rely on many tools to help stay on track and on time. One of the most essential tools for any traveler is Google Maps. Not only can it help you find the best route and public transportation options (or even link to rideshare options), it can also help you get to the airport on time. Use the “Arrive by” option to plan your route and method of getting to the airport. Google Maps will update the time you need to leave based on current traffic conditions. You can even set an alarm to alert you when it’s time to get out the door.

What time should I arrive at the airport with an unaccompanied minor?

If you’re sending your child on a flight alone, there are additional steps to go through when you arrive at the airport. Aside from the usual check-in process, you’ll need to fill out additional paperwork, pay any service charges to the airline and obtain an “escort pass” to accompany your child to the gate. It’s probably a good idea to plan for at least an extra half hour to an hour, depending on the time of day and the season, to make time for these steps.

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