One thing is certain: Travel is back. And with it has come large crowds and stress-inducing congestion at the country’s airports. The number of air passengers being screened each day at TSA security checkpoints has reached and often exceeded prepandemic levels during the first half of 2023, and those numbers are only expected to grow further with demand for travel showing no signs of abating.
“At nearly every airport, there may be periods during the day when the number of passengers who need to be screened by TSA will exceed the capacity of the security checkpoint,” Lorie Dankers, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), tells AFAR. “Because of these peaks, TSA is advising all travelers to plan ahead and arrive early enough to complete every step of the airport travel process. How early you need to arrive depends upon each airport.”
For years, TSA recommended arriving at the airport at least two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight—guidance that airlines such as United and American still include on their websites. And that advice seems to be the most commonly referenced in the industry.
However, “That may work at some airports, but not all. Some need more [time], some need less [time],” says Dankers, explaining why the agency no longer provides a concrete timeline for when travelers should arrive at the airport.
Dankers’s advice is to “arrive in plenty of time in case you encounter delays in any aspect of the travel process. What about unexpected traffic delays getting to the airport? What if it is difficult to find a parking place at the airport and that sets you back 20 minutes? The line to check a bag is longer than expected and it takes 25 minutes to complete that task. The TSA PreCheck or general screening lane is busy, doubling what you anticipated would be the time to get through security. The line for Starbucks—or some other coffee stop—has more people than you expected or the wait to use the restroom is longer than usual.”
She notes that all of these potential slowdowns can pile up. Says Dankers, “So, ask yourself how comfortable you are to be rushed through every step of the travel process or whether you are willing to plan ahead and allow plenty of time.”
Are you an arrive early or arrive late airport person?
In the world of travel—even a postpandemic travel world full of long airport lines and ample cautionary tales about building in more buffer time for getting to and through the airport—one thing hasn’t changed. There still remains two fundamental types of air travelers: those who like to arrive at the airport (ridiculously) early and those who like to show up (way too) close to their flight departure time, regardless of whatever the official or unofficial advice may be.
Sam Sferrazza, a Toronto-based stand-up comedian and film producer, is clearly on team early, or team “early at the airport girlies,” as he puts it.
“I’m here at the airport representing some of my favorite people once again, the early at the airport girlies. We are at our favorite part of the airport, which is after security,” Sferrazza said in a recent TikTok video that garnered more than 1 million views. “We have two hours of goofing off, getting coffee, getting treats, and having a good time. . . . This is when the early at the airport girlies thrive. This is when we get to luxuriate in our timeliness,” he added.
Sferrazza isn’t alone in enjoying being extra early at the airport.
“Cutting it close at the airport is not a thrill I volunteer for,” says Harriet Baskas, founder of StuckatTheAirport.com, a blog about airports and their amenities. “Traveling by air can be stressful for anyone for any number of reasons, most of which are out of your control. Showing up early to avoid the stress of having to wait on a long line or run to a gate is one thing you can control, so do that.”
Baskas notes it’s not just about personal travel style but also about the fallout if you miss your flight. “Airlines are packing ’em in these days and, especially this summer, if you miss a flight your chances of getting on the next flight as a courtesy standby could be slim,” says Baskas. “Even if you have status with an airline, and even if there are a few empty seats, you’ll likely be offered the middle seat, not the nice aisle or window seat you spent time carefully picking out.”
Baskas encourages people to get to the airport early enough to have time to spare. She notes that many airports are chock full of distractions, including everything from art and history exhibits to interesting shops, eateries, and bars. Baskas likes to arrive at least two or three hours prior to departure and bring work, a book, a list of phone calls to make, and her walking shoes—“those long concourses are great for making sure I hit my daily steps.”
When we polled the AFAR staff on the topic (a group of avid and frequent travelers), of those who voted, two-thirds claimed to be early at the airport types, and one-third raised their hand as late airport people.
“I’d rather walk straight to my gate and board immediately than spend time wandering. I’ve never met an airport worth the time I’d rather spend at home or at a destination,” wrote AFAR’s marketing activations manager Maggie Smith in a Slack thread on the topic.
Ami Kealoha, branded and sponsored content director at AFAR, is also team late—well, sort of. “When I’m traveling solo, I tend to push it to the last possible minute. I like arriving right when it’s time to board,” stated Kealoha. But, she added, “I’ve missed more flights than I care to admit and learned the stress isn’t worth it, so I’m somewhat reformed.”
Lyndsey Matthews, AFAR’s senior commerce editor and a staunch member of team early, chimed in, writing “I have a recurring nightmare about missing flights before I travel, and to avoid living that hellish experience in real life, I aim to get to the airport at least two hours, if not somewhere in the three-hour window before take-off.”
Matthews added that to “truly luxuriate in my timeliness—and start my vacations as early as possible” she has invested in the Amex Platinum Card so that she can access airport lounges in most terminals.
While travelers might be steadfast in their camps, there is some actual factual guidance on this matter and a growing number of resources and tools that travelers can lean on to more accurately time their journey from the front door to the airplane door.
What the airlines require
Ultimately, it’s the airlines that make the call on how long before your flight they will allow you to check in and check bags (though some late birds might argue than even here there is some wiggle room if you factor in human kindness and one’s ability to successfully plead and negotiate) and whether or not you can board at the gate. Most U.S. airlines, including United, American, and Delta, will cut off check-in for domestic flights between 30 and 45 minutes prior to departures and for international flights between 60 and 75 minutes before departure time. Obviously, checking in online beforehand, which you can typically do up to 24 hours before departure, gives cut-it-closers the ability to skip this step if they only have carry-on bags and head straight to security.
As for when passengers need to be at the gate to be able to board, for domestic flights, it’s typically 15 minutes before departure, and for international flights it’s between 30 and 60 minutes before departure. But again, this varies by airline and airport so always double-check.
Early birds should be warned that there are also often limits on how early you can check in as well. For instance, American Airlines reminds its passengers that you can’t check bags more than four hours prior to departure when flying with American from certain domestic hubs.
At some international airports, the check-in window is even shorter. Even if you arrive extra early, you might not actually be able to check in, check bags, and go through security until closer to your departure time. So again, research the policy for the exact airports you are flying out of and airlines you are flying with.
The timing can vary pretty dramatically at different airports
As the TSA’s Dankers noted, the two-hour rule for domestic flights and three-hour rule for international flights may not work for all airports.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, recommends that travelers arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to their scheduled departure time for domestic flights, and three hours for international flights, again citing the most consistent recommendation.
Earlier this year, however, online loyalty and miles publication Upgraded Points, conducted a study in which it ranked 50 major U.S. airports based on how early you should arrive to make your flight. It analyzed a combination of factors, including airport size, number of passengers, and average TSA wait times, to determine how early passengers should arrive. It found that Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is the airport requiring the most amount of predeparture time, advising travelers to arrive a little more than three hours before takeoff, regardless of whether it is a domestic or international flight. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) ranked second, with a recommended arrival time of 2 hours, 59 minutes before departure, followed by John F. Kennedy International Airport, for which it recommended getting to the hub 2 hours, 58 minutes before departure. Also up near the three-hour mark were Houston (IAH), Dallas–Fort Worth (DFW), Miami (MIA), San Francisco (SFO), Charlotte (CLT), Philadelphia (PHL), and Newark (EWR).
Among the world’s other busy airports, Heathrow recommends arriving two hours prior for flights within the United Kingdom and Europe and three hours prior for long-haul flights; and Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport suggests three hours before a long-haul flight and 90 minutes prior to flights within Europe.
A spokesperson for Los Angeles International Airport offered similar advice—two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. But the LAX rep added that those times are prior to boarding time, not prior to when the plane leaves.
The changing airport landscape—and what it means for arrival times
Whether you’re an early bird or a late bird, the changing dynamics of air travel have meant that everyone has had to adapt somewhat. Since the pandemic, airport staffing (which was greatly reduced when air traffic plummeted in 2020) often remains strained as airports work to staff back up, which has increased wait times for just about every service—sometimes to the degree that even arriving at the suggested times doesn’t guarantee getting to the gate on time. And the steadily growing number of travelers heading into the skies means airports are getting more crowded.
Airports, themselves, are changing, too. Major airport renovation projects, some of which were put on hold or slowed down considerably during the pandemic, are back in full effect, including at major hubs such as LAX and JFK airport in New York. And while their aim is to ultimately make hubs more amenable to the increasing number of passengers, in the interim there can often be construction-related delays at some of the country’s busiest hubs.
How to get through the airport more quickly
Luckily, TSA has been investing in numerous enhancements to help bring security line wait times down, including identification scanning devices that allow travelers to scan just their ID and not pull out a boarding pass when going through security, and next-generation x-ray scanners that allow even non–TSA PreCheck travelers to leave their liquids and laptops in their carry-on bags—helping the security lines to move along faster.
The MyTSA app provides access to information on delayed flights and allows travelers to see how busy the airport is likely to be on a specific day and time of travel based on historical data. Many airports now provide frequently updated information on their websites and mobile apps, as do the airlines regarding whether your flight is scheduled to depart on time or is experiencing a delay.
There’s also the trusted traveler program TSA PreCheck, which for $78 for a five-year membership allows travelers at numerous U.S. airports to enter a usually shorter TSA security line and keep their shoes on and laptops and liquids in their bags. Alternatively, travelers can also invest in a Clear membership, another security expediting service, that costs $189 for an annual membership.
For many travelers, these services are a total game changer and alter the way they think about airport arrival timing.
“I used to arrive two to three hours before a flight, but then I got TSA PreCheck and now going to the airport about an hour beforehand is totally doable,” notes AFAR’s assistant editor Mae Hamilton. But, she adds, “I can’t cut it too close because my main airport is LAX.”
Those who don’t have either TSA PreCheck or Clear can check to see if their departure airport is one of several U.S. airports that allows travelers to reserve a security line time slot and jump to the front of the line—free of charge.
“An increasing number of airports have reservation systems for security screening,” notes Baskas. Securing a spot at the head of the line “could mean you’ll avoid having to stand on those hours-long security lines we often see during the summer.”
Although travelers seem pretty set in their ways on this issue, the resounding advice from most experts and officials in the airline industry appears to be to err on the side of caution rather than risk missing a flight, especially given how unpredictable airports and air travel can be these days. But even as a lifelong and responsible member of team early myself, there’s a part of me that has to tip my hat to the resolute defiance of team late—you die-hard rebels, you.
This story originally appeared in June 2019, and has been updated to include current information.