How early should customers arrive to an airport before their flight

How early should you get to the airport?

Let’s face it, there’s something weirdly enjoyable about sitting down in the airport — perhaps with a nice cup of coffee or a cold beer — and watching frantic travellers running past!

As a seasoned aviation expert with years of experience, I’ve seen my fair share of passengers running through airports, desperately trying to catch their flights. I’ll admit, there’s also been times when it has been me arriving at the aircraft, drenched in sweat and out of breath!

So to avoid the last-minute panic, how early should you arrive at the airport? 

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule, there are general guidelines to help you gauge your arrival time for both domestic and international flights. This article will provide you with the essential information to help you plan your airport arrival and minimise travel-related stress.

General Guidelines for Domestic and International Flights

Domestic flights

Checking the time to arrive before a domestic flight

For domestic flights, it’s generally recommended that passengers arrive at the airport at least 1–2 hours before their scheduled departure time.

Check in for domestic flights can close as little as around 30 minutes before departure, so at tiny airports you could get away with leaving it ultra-last minute and arriving at the airport with around 45 minutes until the flight departs.

However, one long security queue, or a stand change to the furthest corner of the airport, and it’s likely you’ll end up running.

Arriving 1–2 hours before departure allows ample time for check-in, baggage drop-off, and security screening. However, during peak travel seasons, such as holidays, it’s wise to add an extra 30 minutes to account for potential delays and increased passenger volume.

For international flights, passengers should plan to arrive at the airport 2–3 hours before departure. This allows for additional time needed for passport control, immigration, and any potential last-minute travel document issues. Keep in mind that this is a general guideline, and individual circumstances, airport size, and airline policies may affect your specific arrival time.

I know what you’re thinking — THREE HOURS?

Two hours used to be the recommended “general” rule for international flights. But as airports have expanded, distances between international terminals have got increasingly far. Some airport gates have walks of over a mile. And, forget the moving walkway, you could need a separate bus or even a train ride between gates.

An extreme example is King Fahd International Airport. Not only is the airport a Guinness Book of Records winner for being the largest sized airport in the world, occupying 300 square miles, it’s bigger than the neighbouring country of Bahrain.

International flights

Checking the time to arrive before a domestic flight

Why you shouldn’t arrive at the airport too early…

Although rare, extreme situations can cause massive delays at airports. Disruptions at security checkpoints, such as technical difficulties, heightened security alerts, or even labor strikes, can result in long lines and wait times.

This is exemplified by the aviation industry’s first summer after the Covid-19 shutdowns, with Amsterdam Schiphol described as “a hopeless situation” — and that was by the largest airline, KLM!

Passenger behaviour could actually hinder the process: if travellers booked at 10am turn up at 6am, which may be individually rational, it adds to the pressure on the first wave of departure. Most airports are advising against this, as they say it swells queues and prevents people whose flights are imminent from getting through on time.

Why are airport queues so long and what are passengers’ rights if they miss a flight?

In these cases, passengers may need to arrive at the airport even earlier than the recommended guidelines. However, arriving earlier than 3 hours is not recommended, and could even make things worse.

  • Suffering a similar fate to Amsterdams’s Schiphol, the UK’s Manchester airport obtained such a bad reputation for queues some passengers were turning up 8 hours early!
  • While aiming to take the stress out of missing your flight, this is actually likely to make things worse. Bag drops and physical check in typically don’t open until 3–4 hours before the flight.
  • Security queues also typically only open 60 minutes before the first departure. As a result, arriving at the airport too early was only making queues worse.
Travelators for walking between airport gates
Walking time planner at LHR airport

The Outliers: A Quicker Experience

Not all airports are created equal, and some smaller airports are beginning to capitalise on their ability to leave things to the last minute. British Airway’s is even using the quick check in times at London City Airport as a key selling point in its latest adverts.

While they may not have the depth of travel connections, local airports often have fewer passengers and less congestion, leading to check in and security wait times of under 20 minutes.

However, it’s essential to consider factors like transportation time, parking availability, and any specific airline requirements when determining your arrival time. Some airports have hidden extra measures — like a need to have cleared security 30 minutes before the flight departing — which will prevent last-minute travellers from departing even if they arrive at the gate on time.

Conclusion: Be Prepared and Plan Ahead

In summary, while there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule for airport arrival times, following the general guidelines of 1–2 hours for domestic flights and 2–3 hours for international flights can help most passengers avoid unnecessary stress.

However, remember to consider individual circumstances, airport size, and airline policies when planning your arrival time. As airports have become more like labyrinths, I would personally always allow an extra 30 minutes for an unfamiliar airport!

Finally, there will always be extreme outliers. A great example is the industry-wide meltdown following Covid-19 restrictions, generating mile-long queues, and causing travel chaos. However, by following the news, checking your airline’s website, and monitoring airport social media accounts a couple of days before your departure, you can stay informed about potential disruptions and adjust your arrival time accordingly.

The pandemic-caused labour shortages that started in April have continued through the autumn, resulting in hours-long queues, sometimes under tents outside. Staffing issues have also affected other operational areas such as baggage handling and ground crew, causing long waits for luggage and piles of unclaimed suitcases.

Crowds at this airport are so bad, travellers have been paying over £1,000 to jump the lines at security — CNNTraveller

Travel can be unpredictable, but with proper planning and a proactive approach, you can increase your chances of a smooth and enjoyable journey. You might even have time to sit back and enjoy the best sport of them all — watching late travellers run to catch planes!

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Flyingbynumber’s Resident Airline Captain — Josh

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