Want to start an argument? Tell your travel companion that you won’t be arriving two hours before your flight.
Come on, try it. I will be right here.
No, it’s not a frivolous first-world problem. The vacation was ruined because of this. The weddings are over. And with a record summer for air travel aheadit is time to settle this issue once and for all.
As with so many things in travel, there’s a simple answer – and a complicated answer.
The simple answer is: two hours for domestic flights, three hours for international flights. (More or less.)
“The two-hour recommendation is pretty standard in the industry,” said Heather Lissner, spokeswoman for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. “We recommend the two hours so that travelers have plenty of time to get dropped off or park their car, check their luggage and get through security to their gates.”
The complicated answer: It depends.
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Lissner explains that while experienced travelers may find they need less time, the two hours gives those who don’t travel as often a chance for a less rushed and stressful travel experience. And during busy holiday periods or special events, the airport may recommend adding even more time.
A few years ago, the folks at Sky Harbor adopted a “3-2-1” recommendation: Arrive at the airport counter to check in Threehours before your flight; queue at the airport security checkpoint two hours before your flight; be at the gate one hour before your flight.
How “standard” is this advice? The Transportation Security Administration agrees with this, and some airlines do too. For example, American Airlines advises passengers to be at the airport three hours before flight time for international departures and two hours for domestic flights. There is an exception for flights to certain overseas destinations, which require you to check in earlier.
United Airlines’ minimum check-in times vary from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on the type of flight. If you have baggage to check in, you may need to check in earlier, and there is a list of airports that are exceptions to this rule.
It may be helpful to note the probable motives behind the advice. The TSA and the airports want you to get there sooner, each for their own reasons. The agency doesn’t like to be rushed with screenings, even if there’s a long security line. Airports want you to take advantage of their amazing shopping and dining facilities, which you can’t do if you rush out the door. In addition, they take into account the time it takes to find parking. Airlines, on the other hand, don’t want you to stay in the boarding area too long.
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But these guidelines don’t take into account that you’re dealing with people – some with mobility issues, others who are nervous and would arrive a day before their flight if they could. This is where things get interesting, and this is where the “depends” becomes really apparent.
Joe Reimers, a sales engineer from South Bend, Indiana, describes himself as a “conservative” traveler, especially when checking a bag. But if he takes off from his home airport, which he knows well, he sometimes arrives barely 45 minutes before his departure.
“Departing from less familiar airports on return trips is a different story,” he says. It sticks to the airline’s advice of two hours for international flights and 90 minutes for domestic flights. “In very large airports, I can go even longer,” he adds.
Yet other experienced travelers say their delivery time is still the same. Douglas Jensen, an information technology consultant from Natick, Massachusetts, is a high-profile, elite frequent flyer with 45 years of airline experience.
“I always allow two hours for domestic flights and three hours for international flights,” he says. That means leaving home at 1 a.m. for a 5 a.m. flight gives him the security of knowing he won’t miss his flight.
And that is the goal of this whole exercise: not to miss the flight. So the real question is whether to go with the airport and the more generous arrival times recommended by the TSA or the airline schedules that cut it down a bit more.
In this case, the airports and the TSA are absolutely right. It doesn’t matter the overpriced airport food, the tacky duty-free shops your local airport wants you to frequent, or the frisking TSA agents hope you endure. And forget about the seasonal lull, which will probably be over when you finish this article.
If you miss your flight, you have a whole new set of problems. You don’t want to go there.
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What to do at the airport for free while you wait
- See art. Phoenix Sky Harbor, for example, has a impressive art collection. Terminal 3 features artwork dedicated to Arizona’s flora and fauna throughout this fall.
- Look at the planes. Honolulu International Airport (HNL) is one of the best places to spot planes. The terminals are connected to it by long, open-air walkways, where you can see the plane up close, smell the plane’s fuel, and hear the deafening roar of revving plane engines. Other spotting opportunities can be found on the Spotters Wiki: spotterswiki.com.
- To take a walk. Sitting in a pressurized aluminum tube for hours is not a fun idea. But you can stretch your legs before taking off by walking around the airport terminal. The longest hall within walking distance? This would be Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It is 2.16 miles from check-in to your door at DFW.
This story was originally published on February 19, 2017.