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How to Really Decide How Early to Get to the Airport

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For decades, conventional wisdom has advised you to arrive at the airport three hours before an international flight. But does this piece of travel advice come from? And does it still hold water? Let’s find out.

What does the TSA recommend?

The Transportation Security Administration actually doesn’t offer an official recommendation for when to show up at the airport before an international flight. According to their guidance,”you are encouraged to contact your airline as times may vary depending on the airport and date of travel. In general, please allow time for parking/shuttle transportation, airline check-in, obtaining a boarding pass and going through the security screening process, which includes screening of your carry-on bag.”

While never going so far as to endorse the “three hour rule,” the TSA did recently release a statement about the upcoming travel season, cautioning travelers to expect long wait times this summer. They explain, “the continued recovery from the low travel volumes during the pandemic may require more patience and planning than was necessary before the pandemic.” TSA Administrator David Pekoske is quoted laying out the agency’s recruitment and staffing efforts, leading one to believe they’re anticipating a staffing shortage this summer, which won’t help that security line move any faster.

The airline recommendation

The United States’ four largest international airlines (American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and JetBlue) all recommend arriving at the airport three hours before your scheduled international departure. Curiously, given my investigation above, United Airlines cites the TSA as the source for its recommendation, maintaining the mystery over who generated the advice in the first place.

How to figure out how early to arrive at the airport

Better safe than sorry certainly holds true when it comes to pricey plane tickets, and arriving three hours in advance of your flight is certainly going to get you to the gate on time. Having said that, do you really need that long? Here are different factors to consider when timing your arrival:

Do you have TSA PreCheck? Skating through security will be a bigger time saver for you than anything else. The TSA advertises shorter wait times for those who’ve signed up for TSA PreCheck, and while the exact amount of time you’ll save will vary from trip to trip, you’ll unquestionably be waiting for less time than you would without it. The site TSA Wait Times can give you a rough estimate of the current waits at airports across the country.

Are you checking a bag? I’ve experienced instances where I’ve waited half an hour to check my luggage, and I’ve experienced instances where it got done in five minutes. It’s a real wild card. The only way to avoid this time-suck altogether is to not check a bag at all, so factor in an average wait time (say 15 minutes, more or less, depending on overall TSA wait estimates outlined above) and add or subtract it to your arrival time accordingly.

Are you parking a car? Anyone who’s parked their car at the airport and had to hop on a shuttle bus to get to the terminal knows it can be a struggle. (If you’re lucky enough to have a friend willing to drop you off right at your terminal, godspeed.)

Can you check in ahead of time? To reduce the chances you’ll get bumped from your flight, you should be checking in 24 hours ahead of time anyway. While most airlines allow you to check-in at a kiosk these days, there are occasions when you might need to check in with an attendant, so make sure to budget that time in if you do.

Have you been to this airport before? It’s not unreasonable to assume it will take you a little while to get your bearings in a new place. If it’s not your maiden voyage to this particular airport, that’s worth factoring in.

How big is the airport? Not all airports are created equal. Denver International airport measures in at a sprawling 52.4 square miles, whereas the Rhode Island T. F. Green International Airport is a mere 1,100 acres. You simply do not need to factor in as much time to get to your gate when your gate can’t be that far away.

So is three hours too much time?

Given the factors outlined above, it may be reasonable to shave as much as an hour off of your arrival time. if you are headed to a smaller, familiar airport and you aren’t parking or checking a bag. Be considerate of the factors you can’t control—TSA wait times, primarily—and plan around that. Ultimately, it’s about weighing your schedule against you comfort level with risk and anxiety. Yes, it’s likely you’ll be fine if you get to the airport with less time to spare, but being in a rush comes with its own burdens.

My personal north star has always been this tweet from Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Mike Scollins, who advises: “Start with a score of 100. Subtract 1 point for every minute you’re at the gate before boarding. That’s the grade you get for going to the airport.” May your airport journeys may be a continuous streak of straight As.

 




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