How Early Do I Actually Need to Arrive at the Airport?
With all the suggested preparation times involved with flying these days, it can be difficult to get the straight story on when you need to show up for your flight.
The only thing worse than missing your plane after getting a cheap flight is sitting at the gate longer than necessary. Unfortunately, following the TSA's or even your airline's suggested times more often than not result in unnecessary downtime.
The key is to use these times as a guideline, but not as gospel. Depending on how you checked in, where your final destination is and whether you have a connection (to name a few), you might need to show up earlier or later than the suggested time.
International vs. Domestic Flights
Generally speaking, you must arrive at the airport one hour in advance of domestic flights and two hours in advance of international flights. What you should keep in mind, however, is that unless the international portion of your travel is nonstop from your origin city, you need only follow domestic flight guidelines. The first leg of your travel is, after all, only domestic.
What Suggested Times Assume
Whether your follow the domestic or international suggested check-in times, you should keep in mind that these times make several assumptions. First, they assume that you will check-in at the airport, something that usually necessitates a long wait time. Secondly, they assume that you will check a bag.
Online Check-in/No Bag
Not surprisingly, flyers who check in online and/or don't check bags can afford to arrive at the airport a bit later than the rest of passengers. Keep in mind that online check-in isn't available for all flights. If you had to obtain a visa in advance of travel to a foreign country, for example, you might not be able to print boarding passes until an airline employee inspects your passport and visa.
Another way you decrease the amount of time you need to show up in advance is by being an elite frequent flyer with your airline. Having Elite Access (or something like it) printed on your boarding pass enables you to go through the Premium Passenger security lane, i.e. the faster-moving one. Alternatively, you could register for the TSA's new expedited security program.
When To Be At The Gate
Once you have checked in for your flight and, if necessary, checked bags, the only time that really matters is the "Boarding Time" printed on your boarding pass, usually between 30-60 minutes before scheduled departure. Generally speaking, the boarding gate closes 15-30 minutes before departure. As long as you are in the boarding area before this time, you'll make your flight.
About the author
Robert Schrader is a travel writer/photographer and editor of the blog Leave Your Daily Hell, your source for destination information, travel photos, practical travel advice and inspirational travel essays. Robert's writing and photography has been published on websites such as CNNGo, Tripping and Shanghaiist and in print publications like That's Shanghai and East & West magazines. Robert's travels have thus far taken him to more than 40 countries and to all six inhabited continents. Follow the Twitter feed, "Like" the Facebook page or add Robert to one of your Google+ circles.