preloadArriving at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany

If you’re not a frequent flyer but you’re preparing for a trip, you will almost certainly wonder: “How early should I get to the airport?” Most airlines provide a general recommendation that should cover all the airport time demands for the average passenger.

However, there are plenty of other factors to consider, including airport logistics, baggage cutoff times, time of year, and the needs of your travel companions. In some cases, your airport visit may require more time, and in many cases less. Once you’ve downloaded the KAYAK mobile app and started organizing the fun parts of your getaway with KAYAK Trips, here’s how to determine how early you should get to the airport for a smooth, stress-free travel experience.

1. How early to arrive for domestic flights

A man with a suitcase walking alongside a woman with a backpack on a pavement as they head towards the airport.
A diverse crowd with their hand carries and luggage, in and out of a busy airport checking area.

Within the U.S. and in many other countries, most airlines recommend passengers arrive at the airport two hours before a domestic flight. This accounts for everything from check-in and baggage drop to security lines and boarding cutoff times. However, during peak holiday periods, it’s usually advisable to add some extra time to account for more traffic and longer lines at the airport.

If you are an average traveler with no special security clearances, some familiarity with the airport, and especially if you are checking a bag, being at the airport two hours early is the recommended time. If you can use expedited security lines such as TSA PreCheck or an airport reservation program, have airline status, and are traveling with carry-on luggage only, you can generally shave a few minutes off this recommendation.

The two-hour recommendation for domestic travel refers to the departure time. It already accounts for boarding cutoffs, so you don’t need to calculate this extra step yourself. However, if you’re traveling with small children or a group, or are flying during peak travel times, you may want to add some cushion to that two-hour recommendation.

2. How early to arrive for international flights

The standard airline recommendation for international travel is to arrive at the airport three hours before your scheduled departure. In most cases, this should cover every step of the airport process, from checking a bag to clearing passport control and security, ensuring you board on time.

One important consideration to keep in mind when considering how early to get to the airport for international flights is that the boarding process is longer: usually between 45 minutes up to an hour, to account for larger aircraft. So be sure to account for that extra time when you’re planning what to do during your time at the airport.

Don’t forget about your international flight check-in time, either. For many carriers, it’s about 24 hours in advance, the same as domestic. But some airlines, including Dutch carrier KLM, offer an international flight check-in time of 30 hours beforehand.

3. How early do flights board?

The question of when planes start boarding depends on whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally. Most domestic flights board between 30 and 45 minutes ahead of departure. International flights, meanwhile, take longer to account for larger aircraft and more passengers. A general rule of thumb is 45 minutes to an hour ahead of departure time for international flights.

Boarding times are usually indicated on your boarding pass. In addition, flights that are currently boarding are also shown on airport monitors. However, if you’re not sure, you can always ask a gate agent.

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4. Things to consider to save time at the airport

A woman with a facemask shows her mobile phone with a QR code.

While it may seem that much is out of your control when it comes to air travel – flight delays, long lines – there are a few things savvy travelers can do to save time at the airport. Here, are a few key considerations to make the process as efficient as possible.

How long does it take to get to the airport?

Before you even begin calculating how much time you need at the airport, it’s helpful to know how long it will take to get there. Forgetting to factor in accurate travel time to the airport can offset your entire plan for arriving early. Worst-case scenario, it can also cause you to miss your flight, wreaking havoc on your entire trip. Whether you take a taxi, a ride-share program like Uber or Lyft, or public transit to the airport, be sure to factor in how long the trip will take.

How big is the airport?

If you’re flying out of a major hub – say, New York John F. Kennedy (JFK) or Los Angeles International (LAX) – it’s a wise move to give yourself extra time. The size and scope of such facilities mean you could be queuing up with hundreds of other passengers. And even after you’ve cleared check-in and security lines, it may take some time to reach your gate. Some airline terminals are so long and crowded that it can easily take 20 to 30 minutes to walk from one end to the other.

If your origin airport is especially small or remote, you can usually count on less time spent in lines. This can be especially helpful if you’re traveling with young children or large groups. But no matter what the size of the airport, it’s always a good idea to find your gate first, before shopping or eating. That way, you’ll know how long it will take to return to it.

How busy is the airport?

Certain times of year are busier at nearly all airports. If you’re traveling during holidays, expect longer lines at every step of the process. The same is true for summer travel in general, with many families taking vacations. This is one of the factors that may require more time than airlines typically recommend, so be sure to add the extra time you’re traveling during these times.

Year-round, Monday mornings and Friday afternoons also see more business travel than the rest of the week, but standard airline recommendations should cover this.

Are you flying internationally?

International flights often require extra documentation verification at check-in, additional screening and security checks at the gate, and, in some cases, pre-clearing customs and border control for the destination before departing. All of these are reasons airlines generally add an extra hour to the arrival recommendation for international itineraries.

What are the baggage cutoff times?

If you have no baggage to check in, you can check in online to save time at the airport. But, if you do have checked baggage to drop off, this is a crucial consideration in figuring out how early to get to the airport. That’s because you’ll need to wait in line and make sure to reach the front of it before the airline’s bag cutoff time. Having priority status can save some time, but don’t push it too much.

How long are the security lines?

Security lines are where most airport backups occur, and why most people stress about how early to get to the airport. This should also be a consideration if your origin airport is large or famously busy, or if you’re traveling during a holiday.

Still, airline arrival estimates account for most of this, so you shouldn’t need to add more time to your estimation just because of security unless your airport is experiencing extraordinary delays. Many airports now offer apps with features that estimate security lines in real time, factoring in how much passenger traffic they expect to see that day. Some even have options for booking a timeslot in the security line, which can be a significant time-saver.

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Do you have expedited security?

Programs like TSA PreCheck and CLEAR grant access to expedited screening lanes that typically (though not always) reduce waiting times dramatically. Some airlines offer these perks for passengers with elite airline status or premium cabin bookings such as business or first. However, they’re also open to most passengers for a fee. There’s an application process, though, so you’ll need to plan in advance to score this time saver. Occasionally, CLEAR will offer sign-up bonuses right there at the security line.

Do you plan to do any airport shopping?

Departure gates and a Duty Free board with Arabic and English translations.

This one is pure recreation, not a requirement, so you can always skip it if you’re running behind. But if you want to buy some snacks or a book for the flight, or pop into a duty-free shop, it doesn’t hurt to add an extra 15 minutes to your time budget in case of long lines at airport vendors.

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Don’t forget about the extras

Airplane lavatories are great: Said no one, ever. So make sure to account for time to pop into the restroom at the airport before a flight. In most cases, you won’t have to travel far from the gate. But you do need to be sure you’re back before the boarding cutoff time, which is typically at least 15 minutes before departure but can be earlier. If you’re taking the littles, it’s a good idea to add a few minutes extra.

How was this guide created?

I fly every week, averaging 120 flights per year. As such, I spend more time in airports than most and I’ve become intimately familiar with just about anything that can hold up an airport process. Whether you like to show up at the last possible second or prefer to arrive with plenty of time to sit at the gate, I know how long it takes. I’ve combined this personal knowledge with KAYAK’s tools and expert advice to prepare this guide for you.

Whether you’re just beginning the planning process or are heading to the airport tomorrow, KAYAK has several other helpful guides to get you on your way with less stress and more comfort. The cheap flight guide will tell you the cheapest times to book and fly and tips for things to do on a plane can get you to your destination in better physical and emotional condition!

Airport pages to consult before your trip

This post was originally written by Brandon Schultz and updated by Blane Bachelor.

About the author

Brandon SchultzBrandon travels every week and makes friends with stray cats wherever he goes. Dogs, too... he once brought one home to the US from the Amalfi Coast. He’s written 6 books, visited 6 continents (still waiting on Antarctica), and would eat ice cream 6 times a day if he could. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his partner and three cats.
Blane BachelorBlane Bachelor is a journalist and editor specializing in travel and aviation who writes regularly for top global outlets. Born and raised in Florida, Blane has worked and lived in four countries, including the Netherlands, where she’s currently based with her family. Her favorite way to get to know a new destination is by running or riding a bike around town – or hearing a spooky ghost story about local history. She will always choose the window seat.

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