Arriving at the airport at the right time is a very important thing to do. You could arrive too late and miss your flight, or you could arrive too early and end up not knowing what to do with all the extra time.
In this article, we’ll tell you what’s the earliest time you can arrive for a flight, how early can you go through airport security, how early should you arrive during COVID-19, how early to arrive for domestic and international flights, and some other things you should know.
What’s the Earliest You Can Go through Airport Security?
If you have checked luggage, the earliest airports will let you in is usually 2-5 hours before departure. That’s because you can go through security only once you’ve checked in your baggage, and the check-in desks open only a few hours before departure. This varies heavily between each airline and airport, but in general, on flights in North America and Europe, you can start dropping off checked luggage 2 hours before the flight. On international flights, you can drop off checked luggage 3-5 hours before the flight, depending on each country’s regulations.
If you have only hand luggage and you’ve already printed your boarding pass at home, sometimes you can arrive at the airport a bit earlier because you don’t need to wait in check-in lines. It depends on the regulations of each country and airport. Some airports will let you in much earlier, and some will allow going through security only 2-5 hours prior to departure (identical to check-in desk hours).
In general, airports will let you go through security only on the same date of the flight. That said, some airports allow passengers who depart very early to stay the night inside the airport. Security is usually closed during the night, and it opens only 2 hours prior to the first departure. The rules are slightly different for each airport, so your best bet would be to call the airport directly and ask.
In most US airports, you’ll be able to go through security:
- If you’re departing on the same date before 12:00 pm you’ll be able to go through security as soon as the security opens ( 4:00-6:00 am).
- If you’re departing late in the night after 12:00 pm but before the security closes for the night, you’ll be able to go through security after 4:30 pm.
Tip: If you want to arrive earlier, you need to travel only with hand luggage because check-in desks open only a few hours before the flight. If you’re shopping for a new carry-on, check out the Travelpro Maxlite 5, which is one of the best choices. I’ve been using it for a few years now and it’s still going strong! (full review)
During COVID-19, Most Airports Require You to Arrive at the Airport Earlier
Since the pandemic started, traveling requires much more paperwork. In airports, they now have to check each destination countries required paperwork, such as forms, vaccination certificates, test results, and so on. This is usually done by each airline at the check-in counters. This means that even if you aren’t traveling with checked luggage, you’ll have to wait in the check-in lines, just so they can check all of your paperwork.
Obviously, checking all of this paperwork takes more time and much more time is needed for each passenger. That’s why during the pandemic, airports and airlines require passengers to arrive earlier than before, usually 30-60 minutes earlier. If before you could arrive pretty much safely a bit later than what the airline suggested, now you should follow each airline’s suggestions or arrive even earlier.
Most airports now require passengers to arrive an hour earlier. So if before, you could arrive roughly 2 hours before the flight, now it’s closer to 3 hours. As someone who has been traveling during the pandemic, my suggestion would be to not underestimate the lines in airports. One time I arrived 20 minutes before the check-in opened and almost missed the flight due to understaffed airline employees at the check-in desks and long lines.
How Early to Arrive at the Airport
For domestic flights, as a rule of thumb, you should arrive 2 hours before the departure time. This will give you enough time to park your car, check in, go through security, and get to the departure gate. In general, just follow the guidelines recommended by the airline – they’ll say when you need to arrive and when the check-in desks close in an e-mail before the flight. You could arrive a bit later but at the bare minimum, you should arrive 60-90 minutes before your flight.
For international flights, you should arrive at the airport 3 hours before the departure time. You need to arrive one hour earlier because international flights require checking additional paperwork (visas, permits, vaccination certificates, etc.), and your bags are also checked for items that may be illegal in the destination country. Usually, on international flights, the lines in airports take much longer to get through. You could arrive a bit later, but not less than 90 minutes – 2 hours before departure. The airline will usually suggest the exact arrival times in an e-mail prior to the flight, so if you want to stay safe, just follow these guidelines.
Other Things That Influence How Early You Should Arrive at the Airport
Arriving at the airport isn’t a “one size fits all” type of situation. Sometimes you could arrive earlier and sometimes later. In reality, a lot of factors influence this, such as each countries regulations, how busy the airport is, the time and day of the flight, whether you’re flying with a premium or budget airline, and so on.
As mentioned before the rule of thumb is to arrive 2 hours before domestic flights and 3 hours before international ones.
If you think the airport will be super busy, you have checked luggage, you’re traveling during covid, and you’re flying with a budget airline, add another 30 minutes and arrive even earlier than the suggested timeframes. But if you’re flying during weekdays, off-season, with a premium airline, you have only hand luggage and you’ve already checked in online, you can pretty safely arrive 30-60 minutes later and you should be fine.
1. When Flying With Cheaper Airlines, Always Arrive Earlier (+20 minutes)
I’ve had some bad experiences with the budget European airline Ryanair. I’ve learned that I need to arrive at the airport at least 20 minutes before their suggested arrival time, and get in line even before the check-in desks open. They save money by using fewer employees at the check-in desks, which means that only a few desks are open for multiple flights, and the lines are extremely long. The lines can even be 3-10x longer compared to the check-in desks of premium airlines. So if you’re flying with a budget airline, always arrive earlier.
2. On Holidays, Weekends, and Peak Travel Months, the Lines Are Longer (+20 minutes)
If your flight is on Friday or over the weekend, if it’s during summer, when most people go on vacations, or if you’re traveling during the holidays (for instance, Christmas) arrive at least 20-30 minutes earlier. Even the time of the flight matters – you should arrive earlier for mid-day flights and a bit later for early morning or late night flights. With more people in the airports and fully-booked flights, the lines at the security and check-in desks will be much longer.
3. During COVID-19 Everything Takes Longer (+30 minutes)
During covid, airlines need to check much more paperwork, and usually, they do that at the check-in desks. This means that everyone has to wait at the check-in lines, even people without checked luggage, which results in very long lines. Plus, there always are a few people who hold up the line because they don’t have all the required paperwork, and they end up trying to get them as quickly as possible or arguing with the airline employees.
When traveling during the pandemic, make sure that you have all the required paperwork, such as filled-in forms, test results, vaccination certificates, and so on. That’s why you should arrive at least 30 minutes earlier than you would normally.
4. Add Extra Time for Shopping at Duty-Free Stores, If Needed (+20 Minutes)
If you want to spend some time shopping for souvenirs in duty-free stores, add another 20-30 minutes on top. If the check-in opens only two hours before the flight, get in line a few minutes before it does to ensure that you’ll have enough time.
5. Add Extra Time if You’re Departing from a Large Airport (+15 minutes)
Some airports can take 30 minutes just to get from security to the designated gate. I remember when I was flying to China with a layover in the huge Amsterdam Schipol Airport, I got to the gate just 15 minutes before it closed, just because this airport was so huge. I think I literally walked a few kilometers to get there. To put it into perspective, Amsterdam Schipol airport is roughly 27 square kilometers long, which is about 1/9 of the whole city of Amsterdam! Airlines usually try to choose the closest gate possible, but sometimes you might get unlucky and have to walk a very long distance.
6. Travel Only with Hand Luggage (-30 Minutes)
If you don’t bring any checked luggage, and instead travel only with a carry-on and a personal item, you could print your boarding pass at home. When you’ll arrive at the airport, you won’t need to wait in the check-in lines and you’ll be able to go straight to security. That way you can save 15-60 minutes, depending on how busy the airport is and how long the check-in lines are. From my own experience, you can pack everything into a single suitcase (carry-on) and a small backpack (personal item) for most trips if you become a more minimalistic packer.
7. Always Check-in Online to Save Some Time (-30 minutes)
By checking in online, you can save about 15-60 minutes by not waiting in the check-in lines at the airport. That’s why it’s always a good idea to check-in online. Airlines usually open up online check-in 24-48 hours prior to the departure, with the exception of European budget airlines, which allow checking in even 30 days before the flight.
You’ll be able to check-in online only if the destination country doesn’t require visas or to inspect the documents of all passengers. Even if you have checked luggage, checking in online will still be beneficial, because instead of waiting in the long lines for check-in desks, you’ll be able to hand your luggage over at the baggage drop-off points, which is usually much faster.
8. Apply to TSA PreCheck for Faster Airport Security (-5 minutes)
If you live within the United States and you’re a US citizen, you can apply to the TSA PreCheck program. This will give you small benefits which will save about 5 minutes on each flight. Instead of waiting in the regular lines at airport security, you’ll be able to use the TSA PreCheck lines, which usually are much faster. People with TSA PreCheck don’t need to remove belts, jackets, and shoes, and not remove laptops and toiletries from their backpacks. That said, it’s a paid service, which costs 85$ every five years.
9. Follow the Airport Security Rules to Go Through Security Faster (-2 minutes)
If you know the rules for airport security before you arrive at the scanners, you can save a few minutes. You need to follow the 3-1-1 rule (all liquids and gels need to be stored in 3.4 oz containers or less, and packed into one transparent, quart-sized bag), you can’t carry dangerous goods, and you should place some items in plastic containers (take off jackets, belts, and watches, take out any metal objects, your wallet, and your phone from your pockets, and take out electronics, toiletries, and foods from your bag).
Tip: Instead of getting a new Zip-Loc for every flight, get a TSA-approved 1 quart-sized, transparent bag for your toiletries.
10. Remember to Check at What Time the Gate Closes
The gates usually close 30-40 minutes before the departure, which means that after that, you’ll no longer be able to board the aircraft. Baggage drop-off usually closes 40-60 minutes before the flight. So make sure to learn both of these deadlines for your flight because they’re different for each destination.
It will usually be noted in your boarding pass. Arrive early enough so you can make it in time, and if you’re late, always reach out to any open desks and let them know that you’re late for the flight. Usually, the airline employees will help you make it in time.
Arriving at the airport on time is a really important thing to do. If you want to arrive earlier, usually, you’ll be able to do that only if you don’t travel with checked luggage. That said, you’ll only be able to go through security on the same day of the flight. If, however, you want to arrive just in time, be there 2 hours before domestic flights and 3 hours before international ones.