Many travelers have heard the standard refrain for busy travel periods – get here two hours before a domestic flight, and three hours before an international flight. But you may not understand the details of what that really means. Here’s a quick rundown to help you on your next trip.
When we talk about coming in early, we’re speaking about the entire travel experience — from parking your car or taking transit, getting to the terminal, checking in with your airline, dropping off bags, and getting through the security checkpoints. Frequent travelers have this down to a science. Practice makes perfect and, honestly, they’ve learned from mistakes to get it just right.
For the rest of us, think of this process in simple steps. Take each step into account, add up the time and think backwards from your flight boarding time, not the departure time.
Step 1: Calculate Your Arrival
Think about your travel style and when you want to arrive at the gate. Many airlines begin boarding 30 minutes before departure, so work back from that time, rather than the flight departure time. Do you like to get in early so you can get a bite to eat, drink some coffee, and read a bit before your flight? Or are you the type that likes to arrive just as everyone is boarding? Or something in between? Work back from that boarding time and arrive at least two hours for a domestic flight and at least three hours for an international flight.
Step 2: Define Transit Times
Do you park at the airport garage and walk in? Maybe that takes you 10 to 15 minutes. Do you go to an off-site lot and shuttle in? Plan for 20 to 25 minutes for that process. Or, if you take light rail or other transit, don’t forget to calculate your time to walk from the stop to the terminal.
Step 3: Think Through Terminal Tasks
Once you’re in the terminal, do you have to check in bags, print a boarding pass from a kiosk, or get a loved one needing a wheelchair to the gate? Maybe you’re all packed, have your boarding pass printed at home, and are ready to go straight to the checkpoint. Add up those times. Anticipate a line at the ticket counter even if you have your bag tags already printed. Do you know where you’re going to find your ticket counter? Do you have several in your party that you have to corral to make sure they all get to the same spot on time?
Step 4: Plan for Peak
Peak travel periods at the airport are holiday periods, all summer long, and particularly Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
Factor in these peak periods when anticipating your wait at the security checkpoints. And think through all the variables:
- Do you have TSA Pre✓® or another Trusted Traveler or Premium airline program status? Those programs will speed your journey.
- Do you have carry-on bags that will require more time to get through the scanners? Maybe child car seats or loved ones that need extra time to take off their shoes and belts? Or computers that need to be separated from your bags? Factor in extra time.
- Remember to check your TSA rules before you go. And don’t forget to empty your liquids before entering the checkpoints.
Step 5: Consider Checkpoints
During our peak periods we suggest you plan for at least 45 minutes to get through the checkpoints, potentially up to an hour. We’d rather you get through faster than expected than get to the last 20 minutes of your plan and encounter a longer line than anticipated. Plan for the unexpected — multiple buses of tour passengers or school groups, a baseball team in line in front of you, or a delay at the checkpoint for reasons like changing out K9 teams. Don’t forget to account for your post-security walk to the gate or train ride to another terminal.
Step 6: Add It Up
Here’s one scenario of how it all adds up, but consider how your travel needs may be different.
For a domestic flight departure of 11 a.m., plan to be post-security by 10:30 a.m. at the very latest — use boarding time as your target arrival, rather than the departure time. Then, work backwards to calculate your airport arrival time:
• 25 minutes to park in a shuttle lot and get to the terminal
• 20 minutes at the ticket counter for boarding pass and bag check
• 45 minutes for security
• 15 minutes to take the train or walk to your gate
In this scenario, that means arrive at the airport between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m., particularly during the peak travel periods.
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