Traveling is fun and exciting, but it can also be very stressful. To make the most of your time away, you want to remove as much of that stress as possible. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to know what time to arrive at the airport.
So, how early should you get to the airport to ensure that your travel plans proceed smoothly? You certainly want to get to the airport early enough, with plenty of time to check-in, check bags, get through security, and find your gate before your flight boards. However, spending extra hours at the airport can be exhausting, so you don’t want to be there too early.
Officially, TSA (the Transportation Security Administration) recommends arriving at the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight.
But it’s more complicated than that. Let’s look at the factors that impact how early you should arrive at the airport for your flight, so you don’t have to worry about getting to the airport on time.
- Know When Airports Are Busier
- Checking Bags, Going Through Security, and More
- Traveling with Children
- Pro Tip: Call Your Airline or the Airport in the Days Before
- Set Your Arrival Time the Day Before
- So, How Early Should You Get to the Airport?
Know When Airports Are Busier
As you might expect, airports are busier on certain days and at certain times, and that impacts how early you need to arrive. Airports and airlines try to offset these busy times with additional staff, but there’s only so much traffic they can handle at a time.
Also, keep in mind that these are general rules of thumb and may vary from airport to airport and city to city. Be mindful of your local conditions. These conditions might include major sporting events or other events happening locally that increase crowds through your local airport.
Busy Times of the Day and Days of the Week
How early should you get to the airport during busy times? Generally speaking, airports tend to be busiest in the mornings, with crowds tapering off throughout the day, especially before you get through security. Most people like to start their travels early in the day, and sometimes, depending on where you’re going, it’s necessary.
The middle of the week tends to be the least busy. People like to go away for weekends, which means bigger crowds at the airport. It also means higher airfares, so if you’re looking to score a deal, be willing to travel mid-week.
Busy Times of the Year
To understand why airports are busier at certain times of the year, just look at school schedules. When school is out of session, families especially like to travel. What’s more, those times often coincide with major holidays.
When you decide how early to arrive at the airport, check your local school calendars to see if the kids are on break. Because the weather is nice and there’s no school, summer tends to be a busy time to travel, so be prepared.
Finally, the week before Christmas and the week between Christmas and New Year’s can be nightmarish for air travelers. It holds true because of the increased crowds and the weather. If a winter storm happens anywhere, the delays will ricochet around the country, and crowds of angry would-be passengers increase as more and more people are grounded.
If you have to travel during this time of year, be aware of weather and airport conditions days in advance. Confirm your flights and seats, and check in as far ahead as possible.
Checking Bags, Going Through Security, and More
There are other things – some of which are within your control – that can slow down or speed up your movement through the airport. But how early should you get to the airport to account for time spent checking your bags and getting through security?
If you don’t plan to check bags for your flight, you may be able to skip an entire line and proceed directly to the security checkpoint when you arrive. To do so, make sure you have all of your boarding documents ahead of time. Print them at home or load them on your phone.
Remember that this means you’ll need to pack everything you want on your trip in a small bag that fits in the overhead compartment. This size varies from airline to airline. Also, you cannot carry liquids or gels in containers larger than three ounces, so buy travel-size toiletries for your flight.
Consider the inconvenience of carrying your luggage with you all day. Especially if you’re traveling with kids, you need as many hands free as possible. It might be worth getting to the airport 30 minutes or so earlier to be unencumbered. You will have to wait for your stuff at baggage claim when you reach your destination.
Getting Through the Checkpoint
Several factors can slow your movement through security. If you have a health condition that might keep you from walking through the body scanners, allow extra time. You’ll also need additional time if you’re going through with small children.
Make things simpler for yourself by being prepared. Have your boarding document and approved identification for you and any kids ready. Be prepared to remove your shoes (if you’re over 12) and jackets, and take all liquids and electronics out of your carry-on.
Here you’ll find the downside to carrying your luggage with you: it may take you more time to remove everything that needs to be taken out and get yourself through the checkpoint. You also increase your risk of having your bag screened, which can cause significant delays.
One of the most unpredictable parts of traveling anywhere is the weather. With air travel, that’s even more true because a storm anywhere in the country can cause significant delays everywhere. Luckily, the National Weather Service operates an Aviation Forecast that you can check to predict if you need to get to the airport even earlier.
Traveling with Children
How early should you get to the airport when traveling with children? Let’s be honest – nothing can slow you down quite like traveling with children. What’s more, kids can be susceptible to stress, and travel is nothing if not stressful. Make it easier on them (and you) by planning for every possible pitfall. Consider the following factors and add extra time accordingly.
Bathrooms and Changing
If you have little ones, you can almost guarantee that you’ll hear “I have to go potty!” right as your flight is boarding, or you’ll catch a whiff of a filthy diaper.
Try to prevent bathroom emergencies by building extra time to make several trips before your boarding time. In addition, plan for the time it will take for your kids to use the bathroom or change diapers. It may not seem like much, but even if it just adds 10 minutes to your travel time, that can be the difference between making or missing a flight.
Providing Meals and Snacks
The chances are high that your kids are on a pretty regular routine at home since it’s good for them. Their bodies and brains are used to waking, eating, sleeping around the same time every day. Nothing can throw this routine off quite like traveling.
Try sticking to their eating and sleeping schedules while traveling for your peace of mind and your kids’ well-being. That might mean grabbing a Happy Meal before your flight boards to eat in the airport or even in flight. That’s going to take some time.
Always pack tons of extra food when flying. You never know when you might get stuck on the runway, and stress can give your kids the munchies too. You’d rather have it and not need it than wish you packed more.
All That Stuff
Gone are the days of zipping through the airport with a shoulder bag and coffee. Now you have strollers, diaper bags, tablets and earphones, blankies and stuffed animals, and so much more. All that stuff is going to slow you down.
Carrying heavy loads will cause you to walk slower, and you can plan on it taking longer to get through security. If you’re traveling with kids, tack on some extra time for peace of mind.
Pro Tip: Call Your Airline or the Airport in the Days Before
Our best advice is to call your airport or airline a day or two before your flight and see what they recommend. Of course, they won’t tell you anything definite, but they should give you an idea of whether they’re expecting larger-than-average crowds or a slow day. That can help you plan.
Set Your Arrival Time the Day Before
Decide what time you need to leave for the airport the day before. That way, you can account for weather and other events that might mean longer lines or bigger crowds at the airport.
Remember to keep the following factors in mind that should cause you to arrive with more than the standard window of time:
- Are you traveling in the morning when airports are busier? What about near the weekend?
- Is it a busy time of year to travel, or are any significant events in your area happening soon?
- Is there inclement weather expected near you or somewhere else in the country?
- Do you have to check bags?
- If you’re traveling with children, have you added all the time you need for bathrooms, food, and so on?
If you cover these points, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect when you get to the airport.
So, How Early Should You Get to the Airport?
Remember, experts agree that arriving ahead by about two hours for domestic and three hours for international flights is enough time. Factor in anything that might slow you down, and always err on the side of caution!
More about our TFVG Author
A seasoned traveller, Dad, and avid sports tourist, James foundered The Family Vacation Guide to share his expert vacation experiences- especially when it comes to being a travelling family man.
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