What’s the best airport arrival time?

Everyone has a different strategy for avoiding a missed flight…here’s how to figure it out before your next trip.

4 March 2022
What’s the best airport arrival time?

Here’s an ice-breaker question for your next dinner party. Ask any traveler their opinion on what’s the best airport arrival time and watch the fun happen.

How early do you need to get to the airport to make your flight?

When it comes to this particular travel issue, everyone has an opinion and it’s entirely unique to them. Add those opinions to the strong suggestions laid out by airports and airlines and it can seem like there’s no real answer.

The real answer is: “It depends.”

With travel surging back and airports getting busier, the lead time to avoid missing your flight might be different than your pre-pandemic strategies. Even the most experienced travelers miss flights. Here’s what you need to analyze to find the best airport arrival time.

But first, what do “they” say is the best airport arrival time?

The most common recommendation follows the popular “3-2-1” airports seem to like:

– Arrive at the airport check-in three hours before your flight
– Be in line at airport security two hours before your flight
– Be at the gate one hour before your flight.

This recommendation is approved by airports and the TSA but not by the airlines. It helps to look at the motivations behind the advice:

  • The TSA doesn’t like to be rushed or screen stressed out travelers.
  • Airports want you to shop and dine, which you can’t do if you’re running to the gate.
  • On the other hand, airlines don’t like bored travelers waiting around at the gate.

The problem with this recommendation is that it fails to take into account factors like travelers with mobility concerns, seasonal lulls or surges, or experienced travelers with security clearances.

Step 1: What airport?

Smaller regional airports have fewer crowds, but they also have less staff. You’ll avoid big crowds flying out of a smaller airport but you might notice you need about the same amount of time simply because the staffing levels are lower. Larger airports have more staff, more security lines, and more travelers too.

Most travelers are very familiar with their local airport and have little difficulty figuring out how early to arrive.

I visit my parents in South Dakota often, and know from many flights you can get to Rapid City airport one hour before your flight and it’s fine (that includes parking).

The tricky part is when you’re navigating an unfamiliar airport on the return trip. This is especially true if you need to return a rental car.

Rule of thumb: plan to arrive earlier at an unfamiliar airport. Add an hour just to be sure.

Step 2: What day and time?

The time of day can have a big effect on the best airport arrival time.

Early morning flights are often the least busy, but mornings may also be the time when the security checkpoints are staffed with less people.

The day of the week and time of year can also affect how early you need to arrive. Leisure travelers tend to fly right before and after weekends.

Airports are typically less busy Tuesdays through Thursdays, but holidays can make those days of the week just as busy as the weekends.

Rule of thumb: If you’re flying after 7 am, give yourself a little extra time—a half hour should do it.

Step 3: International or domestic trip?

For most travelers, arriving two hours prior to a domestic flight and three hours for an international flight is the standard recommendation.

Experienced travelers with security services like TSA pre-check who aren’t checking bags may find they need less time. Less experienced travelers, those traveling with seniors or children, and those checking bags may need more time.

Rule of thumb: Add extra time to your calculation if you’re taking an international flight.

Step 4: Who’s traveling?

Who you are traveling with will affect how early you need to arrive. You’ll need to survey your traveling group asking questions like:

  • Do you plan to check a bag? How many bags?
  • Do you want to eat a meal or buy a snack for the flight?
  • Do you have any mobility needs? What’s your typical speed of getting through an airport?
  • Do you have TSA pre-check or any other service that lets you get through security faster? 

There’s no rule of thumb for this calculation. You’ll need to adjust your airport arrival time based on the answers you receive from your group of travelers.

The final answer to “What’s the best airport arrival time”

Start with a minimum of 75 minutes if you’re traveling alone with TSA PreCheck and taking your bags with you. Then add:

  • 40 minutes for a busy airport or holiday, and
  • 40 minutes for travel companions, and
  • finally, 40 minutes for an international flight and/or flying out of an unfamiliar airport.

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Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.