It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when airline travel was an elegant, almost relaxing experience – truly a magic carpet ride. Today, flying is more like traveling on the subway at rush hour – crowded, annoying and stressful.
The torment of commercial flight often begins well before take-off with this dreaded question: How early do I need to get to the airport? Cut it too close, and you risk missing your flight. Allow too much time, and you’re left cooling your heels and draining your phone battery watching Netflix.
So, what’s the optimal airport arrival time? The answer: It depends.
The most familiar guideline comes from the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which urges passengers to arrive two hours before a domestic flight and three hours early for an international trip. But those baseline recommendations aren’t one-size-fits-all.
For example, you should allow more than two or three hours during peak travel periods, including major holidays and summer, when flights are packed, and security lines are jammed with inexperienced fliers.
Checking a bag? Allow more time. Parking a car off-site? Factor in time for the shuttle ride to your terminal. Unfamiliar with the airport? More time. Traveling with young kids and all the associated gear? Give yourself a lot more time. A lot.
Be mindful, too, of your tolerance for stress, and that of your travel companion. If either of you gets torqued up by the idea of missing a flight, arrive at the airport with time to spare. The anxiety of cutting it close isn’t worth the time you might save.
If you travel regularly, consider enrolling in the TSA’s Precheck program, which allows you to go through an expedited security line without shedding your shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or jackets. This perk sometimes – but not always – shortens your time at the security checkpoint.
When planning your trip be sure to determine your airline’s check-in times, especially if you are headed overseas. United and American Airlines, for example, require travelers to check in at least 60 minutes before most international flights. Some routes (including Dublin to the U.S.) have earlier check-in or arrival at the gate times.
Select domestic flights carry similar early arrival requirements. If you’re taking a United flight from Anchorage, Los Angeles or Miami to another US destination, you’ll need to check in 60 minutes before your flight if you’re checking a bag and 30 minutes ahead if you’re carrying your luggage.
And what happens if you get there with time to spare? These days, airports aren’t the sterile places they used to be.
Many have clued into the fact that travelers would like better amenities, and have delivered just that. Sure, it’s easy to find free Wi-Fi and an abundance of power outlets at most airports these days, but travelers are increasingly looking for more.
For instance, the Changi Airport in Singapore offers a butterfly garden, movie theater, gym and pool for weary travelers to enjoy while they wait for their flight. Other airports offer things like walking paths, spas, history and art exhibits, and even live concerts.
Many airports have also upped the ante when it comes to shopping and dining. Atlanta’s own Hartsfield-Jackson has over 100 restaurant options, including notable places like Ecco, The Original El Taco, Shake Shack, and the renowned One Flew South, which recently ranked as one of the best airport restaurants in the world. Traveling with colleagues? Head over to Atlanta Chophouse, a full-on steakhouse that also offers meeting rooms for rent.
If you’re dealing with a significant delay, know that you have the option of buying a day pass to an airline or airport lounge. These comfortable places of respite offer perks like snacks, drinks, showers and more.
Before you fly, check out the airports you’ll be visiting to see what they have to offer. The Hartsfield-Jackson website, for instance, has an entire tab devoted to the amenities visitors will find in each concourse and the atrium.
But, no matter which airport you find yourself in with a few hours to kill, you’ll be able to find something that piques your interest. Airports have moved towards giving customers more of what they want, and what we want are options. Now we have them.