When you go to the airport to catch a flight, does it seem like you’ve got a lot of time to spare? When you follow TSA recommendations that you be at there at least two hours before departure, does it seem like too much? How much time should you really figure? Realistically, how soon do you have to be at the airport to catch your flight?
A couple of variables impact how soon you have to be there. First, is it a domestic or international flight? This analysis will focus on domestic flights, but whatever you figure for a domestic flight, add an hour if it’s an international flight.
Next, how big is the airport? Smaller airports require less of your time than big international airports. This analysis will focus on big international airports, so if you’re airport is not that big, subtract ten minutes from the base time.
When are you travelling? If you’re travelling during holidays or departing on a Friday or Sunday, this will add time, as noted below.
Finally, this analysis looks at how long it takes once you arrive at the airport. You will have to account for the time it takes to get to the airport, park your car, and take ground transportation to the terminal.
Once inside the terminal, figure it will take 5 minutes to print your boarding pass at a kiosk. If you have not checked in beforehand, figure 15 minutes to check in. If you’ve checked in online, but still want to check your bags, figure 10 minutes just to check your bag. What it boils down to is if you’ve checked in online and are not checking bags, you can sail right through the check in process in 5 minutes. But if you have not checked in online or are checking bags, you should figure a total of 15 minutes at check in. If it’s a Friday or Sunday, or you’re travelling during peak period, figure 30 minutes.
Do you have expedited security? On a normal day with TSA PreCheck, security should require no more than 10 minutes. Without it, figure 15 minutes to get through security. On a Friday or Sunday, or during peak periods, figure 30-45 minutes.
Time to walk to your gate. Figure 10 minutes.
Most importantly, remember, boarding time is different than departure time. Boarding time is what you’re trying to hit. Boarding cut-off is usually 15-20 minutes before departure time. It does you no good to make your departure time and find you’re standing at the gate with the Jetway closed while you look out the window at the plane you could’ve been on.
Add it all up, and this is your base time. Let’s look at some scenarios:
Normal day – checked in online – not checking bags – TSA pre-check – walk to gate – boarding process = 40 minutes
Normal day – checked in online – not checking bags – no TSA pre-check – walk to gate – boarding process = 45 minutes
Normal day – did not check in online – not checking bags – TSA pre-check – walk to gate – boarding process = 50 minutes
Peak time – checked in online – not checking bags – no TSA pre-check – walk to gate – boarding process = 1 hour 5 minutes
Peak time – checked in online – checking bags – no TSA pre-check – walk to gate – boarding process = 1 hour 15 minutes
Peak time – did not check in online – checking bags – no TSA pre-check – walk to gate – boarding process = 1 hour 40 minutes
How Soon Do You Have to be at the Airport to Make Your Flight?
As a general thing, it should rarely take you more than 1 hour 45 minutes from check-in to gate even at peak times.
But be careful. Don’t try to cut it too thin. The above scenarios assume everything goes according to plan, and there are no set backs. One malfunctioning kiosk or a clueless family who’s never been through security before, and you could miss your flight. Build in 5-10 minutes of “what if” time.
Beware of cut-offs for checking bags. Baggage cut-off is usually 30-40 minutes before departure time. Lastly, don’t make the mistake of waiting to head out for the airport because your flight has been delayed. Sometimes flights show up earlier than expected, or the airline substitutes a different plane and suddenly your departure time is moved up.