When traveling abroad you usually see that person at the airport who’s sprinting to the departure gate, or are you the anxious flyer who lurks around the boarding area for hours before takeoff? If you’ve ever done either, many people probably asks: How early should you get to the airport, really?
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does offer a general rule for average flights, but really, there’s no single answer to this question. The time you’ll need to get to your gate will depend on the airport, time of day, and destination. Here’s how much time you should leave for check-in and security, and how to know when you should add (or subtract) more time.
Domestic Flights: How Early Should you Get to the Airport?
According to the TSA, you should get to the airport two hours before your domestic flight. This leaves time for parking, shuttle transportation, check-in, and getting through security, the TSA says. If you’re skipping any of those steps (for example, if you already checked in online) and are headed for a mid-sized airport, consider shaving off a half hour. If you have TSA PreCheck, you may be able to save yourself an hour—just make sure the airport is one that participates in the program. Also consider cutting it a bit closer if you’re flying early in the morning—airports are typically less crowded before 9:00 a.m., and some may not even be fully functioning if you show up before 6:00, especially if they’re not a busy air hub.
Two hours might seem like plenty of time, but you may want to add 30 minutes or so depending on the airport and the time of year. Massive air hubs like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson (the busiest in the country) can take 45 minutes to navigate across, even on off-peak days. And during busy holiday travel days like those leading up to Thanksgiving, it’s wise to add an hour for airports in cities.
International Flights: How Early Should I Get to the Airport?
For international travel, the TSA says you should get to the airport three hours before your flight. This is especially true for return trips to the U.S., since customs pre-screening and agriculture checks abroad can mean double the security checkpoints, which can translate to long lines even in off-peak hours. Security and customs agents can’t be rushed, and there’s no guarantee that any agent will push you to the front of the line if you’re cutting it close to departure time. You’re also less likely to be able to check-in online or get a mobile boarding pass in other countries than you are in the States.
Peak Hours and Busy Airports
If you’re flying during peak hours (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.), on a weekend, or through a busy airport, err on the side of leaving too much time. Sitting in the terminal or grabbing a snack is a much smaller price to pay than a missed flight.
To calculate how early you should get to the airport, trust TSA-recommended timetables over airline suggestions—the latter has a lot less to lose, and perhaps even something to gain, if you miss your flight. It’s in the TSA’s best interest to keep the airport orderly by helping you stay on schedule.
Budget extra time at the following airports. They’re all either among the world’s busiest, or have U.S. Customs pre-screening abroad—which adds extra lines at your departure airport (but saves you time once you’ve landed).
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