Home Airports A Guide For How Early YOU Should Arrive At The Airport Nowadays

A Guide For How Early YOU Should Arrive At The Airport Nowadays

by SharonKurheg

Everywhere you look, you’ll read that travel this summer is going to be crazy.  In fact, nearly 81% of Americans reportedly plan to go!

Hotels are getting fuller, cars are getting sucked up for rentals, and, of course, despite airline meltdowns here and there, there are LOTS of people flying (Florida’s had such an increase in aviation that the FAA had to get involved because of all the flight delays).

The rule of thumb for airports has generally been to arrive 2 hours early for domestic flights and 3 hours for international. That may or may not still be the case. In fact, at least one airport has been promoting a recommendation of “3-2-1” for a while:

  • get to the check-in counter 3 hours before your flight
  • be in line at the TSA checkpoint 2 hours before your flight
  • arrive at your gate 1 hour before take-off

I see some of you sneering already.

Hey, if you do this all the time and have your system down pat and can get from your car to the gate in 45 minutes, you do you. But also realize that the majority of the flying public isn’t you 😉 and those are the people this post is for.

So for the rest of you, is that really how long you should give before arriving at the airport? Honestly, it depends. Let’s break it down:

Check In/Bag Drop

The actual time it takes to check in and get the stickers for your bags, if you’re using check-in kiosks, is pretty low…just a couple of minutes. It’s the queue for the bag drop that’s the time suck, with the potential for the queue going way beyond the however many switchback lanes of stanchions they have set out.

Don’t think that time of day has anything to do with waits, either. We had a 7 am flight to HI this past February. So we stayed at MCO’s on-site hotel the Orlando Airport Hyatt Regency (here’s what we thought about it) and got to the check-in area around 5:45 am (which was much later than I wanted, but SOMEONE insisted we’d have plenty of time. He’s since apologized). Anyway, Delta’s bag check line was so long that at 6:15 am we had only gotten up to the switchbacks – and I think there were 3 or 4 lanes of those. That’s when we asked the “line monitor” if we could get bumped to the front so we didn’t miss our plane.

Besides the plethora of people going on vacation, another problem is that many airlines only have 2-3 reps for check-in/bag check. So if a group of travelers has a problem, say with a bag being too heavy, that representative is going to have to work with them for a while, which knocks available reps to only 1-2 for ALLLLLL those people.

So give yourself about an hour, if not more, to check your bag. Well, except for….exceptions ;-).

Exceptions

If you’re not checking a bag and doing only carry-on, you won’t have to worry about the baggage drop line. You just have to take a couple of minutes to do the electronic check-in, and you’re on your way to the TSA security checkpoint.

If you’re flying first class domestic, or first or business class international, most airlines in a selection of airports should have a special line and you’ll be able to not have to stand in the regular queue with us commoners ;-).

It also goes without saying that airports that are small have fewer planes flying to and from them. Fewer planes mean less passengers. That means less people in the queues. So obviously, as the good blog says, Your Mileage May Vary.

Ways to save even more time

Most, if not all airlines let you check-in online. If yours does, and you’re only doing carry on, you could potentially enter the airport and go straight to the TSA security checkpoint (it doesn’t make sense to do it if you’re checking bags because you’ll still need to get a bag tag/sticker at the kiosk).

Of course, even if you’re checking bags, there’s always this option, too. It should save you some time; I just couldn’t tell you exactly how much time, because it depends on the day.

TSA/Security Checkpoint

If you’re lucky, you may only have to wait a few minutes. If you’re not lucky, or are traveling during a very busy time, your wait could be significantly longer.

The MyTSA app has gotten really good at telling you how long the approximate waits are for the TSA security checkpoint at your U.S. airport of choice. Check it for several days ahead of time, around the time that you would be getting there, so at least you won’t be surprised if you have a 45-60+ minute wait.

Exceptions

People who have TSA PreCheck get to stand in a much shorter line, since they’re “trusted travelers.”

People who have CLEAR membership get to stand in a shorter line before getting to the TSA officer who checks their ID. After that, you get sent to the TSA PreCheck X-ray queue, or the regular X-ray queue, depending on whether or not you have TSA PreCheck.

Depending on what airport you’re using, you may be able to make a reservation time, ahead of time, to get in the regular queue. These are the airports that currently (well, as of March, 2022) offer such services (some are permanent, some are pilot programs).

Finally, some airlines offer exclusive security lanes (granted, only at certain airports) if you buy upgraded tickets. For example, having United’s Premier Access gets you through the TSA checkpoint’s exclusive security lanes, AND you have access to dedicated airport check-in lines and priority boarding. If you buy a Business Select Fare on Southwest, or have their A-List or A-List Preferred status, you can use their Fly By Lane, which gives you direct access to the front of the ticket counter and TSA checkpoints at certain airports.

Other Things To Consider

Obviously, not every flyer or flight is the same and you need to take several other things into consideration:

  • Able-bodied adults will generally get through an airport faster than those flying with young children, seniors, or people who need to take more time.
  • Airports that are larger will take more time to negotiate. It takes forever to get through Salt Lake City’s new airport. Key West’s airport? Not so much.

Feature Photo (cropped): Cory Doctorow (yes really!) / flickr

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

9 comments

Jim May 17, 2022 - 4:38 am

The last comment is key, “Airports that are larger will take more time to negotiate.”. Fly out of and into a smaller airport, and it’s quick and less stressful, at least the ones that I’ve used.

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Hilton Shumway May 17, 2022 - 9:59 am

Also some airports take longer to get inside. My home airport is experiencing a fair degree of curb congestion so depending on when you show up you might be looking at 10 minutes or much more from driving into the loop to reaching the curb

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Debbie Johnson May 17, 2022 - 7:04 pm

“Airports are getting fuller” ? Great use of the English language. Not!

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SharonKurheg May 17, 2022 - 7:17 pm

Hi Debbie! If you read our blog with any sort of regularity, you’ll see that we tend to write more in the familiar form than with perfect grammar. Of course, we’re perfectly capable of the latter. However ours is a conscious choice to write our narrative in the way that most people in the U.S. use the English language in these modern times. IOW, “we ain’t publishing no book; it’s just a travel blog, y’know?” Kindly forgive what you perceive to be a transgression.

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Not an English Major May 18, 2022 - 12:52 pm

🎤 drop!

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SharonKurheg May 18, 2022 - 12:54 pm

LOLOL! Thank-you. I try 😉

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Amy May 18, 2022 - 3:14 pm

Just traveled this weekend thru Atlanta everything you said is true that TSA line is long my TSA precheck got left off my ticket and it was a long wait but they were moving pretty good

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greg brett May 20, 2022 - 4:26 am

This isn’t possible because they won’t let you check in or bag drop until all the other passengers on early flights bag drop Frist so it don’t matter how early you get there they keep you waiting and you will be late

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Peggy Kwoka May 22, 2022 - 11:00 pm

If you are going to drop a rental car, the time from yhe drop location to the checkout line varies tremendously depending on the airport. It can be as few as five minutes (Knoxville) or as many as 60 (Minneapolis).

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