Here’s How Early You Should to Get to the Airport to Make Your Flight

published Dec 21, 2023
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Traveler passenger walking with a yellow suitcase at the modern Airport Terminal
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Figuring out how early you need to get to the airport to be on time for a flight is tricky. Give yourself too much time, and suddenly you’re spending $18 on a sandwich. Arrive at the airport too late, and you risk not being able to check your bag. So, what is the sweet spot of airport arrival times? It depends on your travel plans, but here’s how to figure out the best time to get to the airport for your next trip. 

Consider a few things before you decide how early you need to get to the airport. Are you traveling internationally or domestically? Are you checking a bag? Did you double-confirm that your carry-on follows the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines? Once you’ve got a handle on what you’ll need to do at the airport, you can better gauge how much time you’ll need. 

Domestic vs. International Flight

Generally, the TSA recommends travelers get to the airport two hours before the departure of a domestic flight. Are you traveling abroad? Arrive at the airport three hours before your flight takes off. (Remember: Airlines typically begin boarding 30 to 50 minutes before a flight’s scheduled departure time — you can find your boarding time on your boarding pass.) 

International flights board closer to 50 minutes before take-off, and most airlines require passengers to be at the gate at least 30 minutes before an international flight departs and 15 minutes before a domestic flight departs. (Delta notes that passengers traveling back to the United States should be at their international airport gate 45 minutes before a scheduled departure.) 

All airlines caution that some airports require additional security checks, so you should always consult the airport and carrier rules. For example, Southwest Airlines requires you to verify your passport for international travel at least one hour before your scheduled departure time. 

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Checking a Bag

American Airlines recommends the same arrival times the TSA offers — two hours for domestic and three hours for international flights — and the airline notes that’s with or without checked bags. The biggest consideration for checked bags is the cutoff time. 

On many airlines, you must check your bag at least 45 minutes before your domestic flight and at least 60 minutes (one hour) before an international flight to guarantee it’ll be on your flight. You should always review your carrier’s specific requirements to ensure your luggage gets on your plane. (These cutoff times refer to when your bag needs to be handed off to airline personnel, not when you can get in line to start the checking process.)

Using a Carry-On 

Beyond potential long lines at the security checkpoint, the most significant time suck is likely not being prepared to go through security. Before getting to the airport, ensure your carry-on bag doesn’t exceed your airline’s size limits. The max size for American Airlines, United, and Delta is 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Southwest allows larger baggage, with the upper limit at 24 x 16 x 10 inches. See what your airline requires to ensure you’re within the limits.

If you can’t get your bag through security or need to be pulled out of line for items not allowed in a carry-on, you’ll spend longer in the security line than planned or may even need to get out of line and check a bag. Another pro tip: Pack your maximum 3.4-ounce liquids in a quart-size baggie so you can easily pull that baggie out if necessary. 

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Getting Through Security

If you don’t need to print a boarding pass or check a bag with your airline, you can head straight to the security line. Of course, the wait time depends on how busy the airport is, but TSA PreCheck — which costs $78 for five years — is generally quicker. With PreCheck, you’ll likely spend 10 minutes or less making your way through the checkpoint. It’s usually faster than the general security line because you don’t need to remove your shoes, belt, or light jacket, and you can keep your computer and liquids inside your bag. 

TSA doesn’t provide wait times for specific airports, but you can see a third-party report from Bounce or check the MyTSA App for real-time reports from travelers. You can also use the app to see an average wait for a future date and time. 

Also, remember that busier times of the year, like around Thanksgiving and Christmas and summer holidays like the Fourth of July, might cause longer wait times than usual. You may also need to allow for extra time at customs and immigration when traveling internationally back to your country of residence.

After looking at what might take the most time before your flight, you can better understand how early you need to get to the airport. When in doubt, follow the TSA’s recommendations for two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before you fly to another country.