Before we get to recommendations, let’s debunk three myths that pops up around arrival time at airports:
Myth 1 (my favorite): Airlines always let you move to the front of the security line if your plane is about to leave.
It happened actually to travelers who ran into this problem, some of whom intended to get to the airport moments before the check-in cutoff, but due to hotel-shuttle snafus, inadequate airline staffing, flat tires, traffic jams, or other issues, were not able to do so. They were refused any opportunity to move forward in the line, missed their flights, and had to pay hefty change fees or, in some cases, purchase new tickets.
Myth 2: The flight won’t take off without you if your checked bag is on the plane.
On a domestic flight, that’s simply not true. Unless there is some type of unusual circumstance or behavior, the plane and your bag can leave without you – and checking a bag moments beforehand or losing track of time at the airport bar doesn’t quite count as “unusual.” On some international flights, the rule may hold true, but if you don’t show at the gate for last call, the airline is more likely to pull your bag than hold the flight. Further, if you do plan to check baggage, that’s even more of a reason to get there early. If you don’t meet the baggage check-in cutoff, you most likely won’t make the flight.
Myth 3: They won’t close the door until five minutes before departure.
Again, not true. And not the real issue. If it’s a full flight (like most) and you aren’t in the boarding area within the airline’s specified time frame, they could give your seat to another passenger and bump you without paying any compensation. It doesn’t actually matter whether the airplane door is open or closed. That being said, I’ve taxied away from a gate as early as 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure. Once the plane is full, even if you’re not the one in your seat, it’s going to leave.
Here are my recommendations:
- For domestic flights at a major airport, if you have bags to check, get there two hours early; if you have no bags to check, make it 90 minutes.
- For smaller regional airports, shave it to 90 and 60.
- On busy days, like the day before major festivals, you might want to add an hour.
- For international flights, get there three hours ahead of departure.
Other things to consider:
How big/busy is the departure airport? Review your airline’s guidelines and check-in requirements. For example, Delta states the minimum baggage check-in time for Istanbul is three-and-a-half hours, and you must be at the gate 90 minutes prior to departure.
Is it a busy time of year? Is it a busy time of day? Do you have access to faster lines because of mileage status, first-class tickets, or pre-screening? Are you traveling with a family of five? What would it cost if you all missed your flight? If you like to play with risk, know how restrictive your ticket and/or airline is. You may need to read the fare rules associated with your ticket to determine this (talk about negative utility).
What seems astounding in this hyper-connected world, where so much is at our fingertips, is the suggestion that our time can’t be either worthwhile or productive at the airport (most airports, anyway). We can read a book, watch a movie or a television series, catch up on email, finish a presentation, perhaps work on some new math problems. Or maybe even use it as a time to disconnect.
After all, it’s up to you whether you’re stuck in the security line or kicking back and contemplating the nature of time.