How Early Do You Really Need to Get to the Airport?

How Early Do You Really Need to Get to the Airport?

As in, really.

By Aly Walansky

Sometimes you think you've gotten to the airport with plenty of time to spare — you even fantasize about having a civilized drink in the lounge before your flight. And instead, you find a whole big mess in the security line... even if you're TSA Pre-Check. And then of course there are the times when you sail right through everything only to have 90 extra minutes at the airport that you'd have rather used seeing your destination.

Frequent travelers know the standard guidelines: two hours before your flight if traveling domestic, three hours if international. But are those guidelines truly one size fits all?

The answer is simple... in that it’s not simple at all. Rather, it's about finding the right balance based on the airport, your ticket class, if you’re checking bags, the day you are flying and if you have TSA Pre or not. “If you’re flying economy on a busy travel day — say Friday or Sunday — and don’t have TSA Pre, and you're flying out of a major airport like one of New York’s or LAX, then you need two hours,” says travel expert Johnny Jet. “If you’re flying out of Erie, Pennsylvania, where there’s just a couple of flights, then I show up an hour before.”

And you should know that options like CLEAR or TSA Pre do indeed save time, but they are not a fail-safe, so you can't totally rely on them. That line is not always operational in every airport, and sometimes, the TSA Pre line is longer than the regular one! As well, your Pre certification may not appear on every boarding pass.

“I have all the bells and whistles and I get to the airport early myself because you just never know if there’s going to be an accident or construction or if the TSA Pre line will be closed,” says Johnny Jet. “It’s better to be safe than sorry, since planes are flying almost at capacity so if you miss your flight the chances are you won’t get on the next one. If you do it will cost you more money and you will most likely be sitting in a middle seat.”

People with elite status, Pre-Check, certain credit cards, and other preferential statuses do indeed have access to priority security lines, if those lines are available. But they may be held up anyway for another reason.

“The main determining factor with this is whether or to you are traveling with checked bags. Airlines have cutoff times for when you must check-in by if you are traveling with checked bags,” says Benji Stawski, a contributor for The Points Guy. So, even if you are departing a small airport like Nashville, you must still check in at least 45 minutes before your departure.

As in all areas of life, timing is everything, and what you will encounter at the airport is often based on when you are going. “The busiest times of days for airports are weekdays in the early morning and then again in the afternoons so midday is ideal,” says Stawski. Unless it’s a holiday such as Thanksgiving weekend, your best bet is to travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday, which are the slowest travel days. “Despite the TSA’s recommendation of two hours, if you’re departing during one of the peak times listed above from a major airport such as LAX, JFK, or ORD, I would suggest arriving at least 2.5 hours before domestic flights. Your best bet is to follow airports on Twitter as they regularly post about average security wait times,” says Stawski. You can also find current wait times on the TSA app.

During holiday season, the wait times will be longer, so prepare to arrive as much as 3.5 hours before your flight. (Really!) Although this may sound a bit too much, consider that security is not the only place where you will need to wait in line. “You can also expect to wait for a check-in kiosk and then again to drop off your bag. Furthermore, there will be a long line of cars in the drop off area,” says Stawski.

Looking to save time? During busy times, your best bet is to be dropped off at the arrivals level and then take the elevator up to the departures level. It takes a few minutes extra to get there, but you’ll make up for it by bypassing that traffic jam below!

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