What Your Airport Routine Says About Your Personality

What does your airport routine say about your personality?

Whether you show up super early ‘just in case’ or cut it close says something about how they ‘manage anxiety’. But I’m not sure it says what the experts think it says.

Many early arrivers will try to take control of the situation and leave (way) more than enough time for all possible contingencies.

And many late arrivers will deal with the headaches of travel by avoiding thinking about it altogether, and then scrambling at the last minute.

Does arriving close to departure and not wasting moments of your life standing around at the airport signal avoidance, or just that you’ve got a routine down?

  • Sure, airport parking might be a mess but some airports let you pre-reserve spots. And traffic could glitch, or public transit could break down, so maybe you have a bit of a buffer.

  • And how much of a buffer may just depend on how big a cost it is to miss your flight, based on a combination of how important the trip actually is and whether your status gives you confidence you’ll make it onto a later flight?

Instead of claiming that your past experience may manifest itself in your airport routine (“That one time you missed a flight might have flipped you from late arriver to early bird”) perhaps it’s your overall experience – that you know what you’re doing – which leads you to be rational about the decision?

A regular weekly traveler spending an extra half our at the airport in each direction will spend 52 extra hours at the airport each year or more than 2 days each year unnecessarily waiting.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrives at the airport hours early (and, for that matter, flies coach). I think that’s the wrong approach, on both counts.

My default is to leave home 1 hour and 15 minutes prior to departure. That puts me at the curb of the Austin airport 50 minutes out. In Austin PreCheck and CLEAR are right inside the main doors of the airport. Even if security takes me 10 minutes to clear, I’ve still got a few minutes to reach the gate before boarding even begins. And the truth is I don’t need to board first! I just need to not board last, so I’m not stuck gate checking a bag. I follow a similar routine leaving my Arlington, Virginia office for National airport.

And at the end of the day if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports. I’ll only add a larger buffer when it truly matters that I don’t miss that given flight.

(HT: Paul H)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I admit it, I’m a Last Minuter. But I did once miss a flight, with two other family members, international, and that was a bit expensive to repair. Still, I need incentive to arrive “early”. Which is exactly why I got the AA Executive World Mastercard – lounge access. And now the Amex Plat. And AA status. Those all give me incentive to arrive early, clearing security 30 min or so for my home airport, grab a snack or drink, and eliminate some stress while having a bit of leeway for unexpected things like traffic, lines, car problems, etc. Still hate waiting around, but if I can at least get something other than seat time out of it, it makes it easier to go earlier.

    I do like the rule that if you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports.

  2. one’s desired routine means nothing when home base is an airport like ATL, currently with construction and 30-min waits even with precheck + clear

  3. I’m early, way early. I’d rather be reading a book or getting some work done there rather than fretting while sitting around at home. All it takes is one tie up on the way to the airport or one missing agent from an already short staff to really mess things up. (And that isn’t including the TSA playing fun and games or horrible places to get through like the Newark airport.) To me the potential for such things is just not worth the stress.

  4. Years ago, I used to be a last minute person. I would arrive just as they were closing the doors sometimes. Twice, they had to re-open the doors. I’ve never missed a flight except a missed connection due to late arrival of my flight. Now, there are so many unpredictable factors that I arrive at the airport with room to spare. If I know the airport, then I can cut it closer. Knowing the airport means knowing the idiosyncrasies, not the floor plan. For example, mornings in SEA and SFO can have long lines, even at PreCheck checkpoints. Depending on a car rental shuttle also means a larger cushion, particularly in LAS.

    I believe that this shows better information and better decision making, not that last minute people have different personalities. My personality is the same but my behavior is now different.

  5. I am a late arriver and my wife is an early arriver, it makes for some interesting tension when flying together. I have never missed a flight, with or without her, so I am pretty sure I am “right”, but it is just not worth it to be right to have a stressed out wife on your trip with you!

  6. “And at the end of the day if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports.”

    This is untrue except for the class of people who fly frequently for trivial purposes. This class of people has been reduced by the increased prevalence of video calls and by the social pressures of being environmentally conscious. If I’m flying, it’s important for me not to miss it. Airports all have places to sit and read or browse the web, call and text people, etc. so the waiting time is not wasted time.

    If I am very familiar with an airport, I may be comfortable arriving a little later. My childhood hometown airport in middle America? An hour in advance is plenty. Newark Airport when my office is on the Lower East Side? I need to leave at least three hours in advance. International departures out of Europe or other countries that check your passport when you leave, I want to arrive at the airport 3 hours in advance, more if I’m not eligible for a mobile boarding pass.

  7. Know your airports before your trip is the key. Some airports are a breeze, and some are just nightmares are made of. Derek is absolutely right that information are critical. If you are renting a car, can you get to the terminal without over loaded buses or distance from car rental center to the terminal. DFW and DEN, you almost can never have too much time. There is a reason they have so many lounges at these airports. LAX, SEA, IAH, PHX are also the same. SFO and MIA has rail services. LAX and PHX are building theirs. Usually regional airports like my home SNA is quite easy and nice. If I can get a direct flight, then I’m set. I sometimes do still have to deal with LAX constructions in preparation for World Cup and 2028 Olympics. It’s kind of exciting, because as a child grew up in LA. It reminded how bad it was in 1980s LAX in preparation of 1984 Olympics.

  8. West coast airports have very long lines in the morning because all domestic flights must leave in the morning to arrive at their destination during daytime hours, given that the west coast is the farthest behind by time zone.

  9. “at the end of the day if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports.”

    That’s a false statement. If a “last minuter” has always made it in time, and never missed a flight, then they’ve spent too much time at airports? Even if they’ve walked up to the gate 10 minutes before the doors close each time? Should they be cutting it closer? 5 minutes? 1 minute? 3.2 seconds?

    Even seasoned travelers recognize events beyond their control could impact a person’s arrival to the gate, and many of them would much rather show up a little early rather than deal with the potential domino effect of missing a flight: The car you rented is now gone, Marriott decided to charge you an exorbitant price for not checking into the hotel that evening, plans to meet people or attend events are impacted irreparably making the trip moot, losing a day of vacation time at an amazing location… the list goes on.

    Maybe some folks like responding to the complications or drama in order to tell a good story about how they overcame it by tweeting the airline, hotel, rental agency, etc. to get their plans modified, justifying the loyalty status they painstakingly worked to obtain. Personally, I’d rather have smooth sailing and not add unnecessary complication/stress for something that is within my power to control: show up a little early.

  10. The “if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports” trope was invented by someone who has never worked in professional services. If the client is paying to fly you out there and put you up, try telling them that you missed time on the ground with them because you like to live on the edge. See how that goes.

  11. I always leave early as there are two airports near me and they both have issues that will likely occur. The first the security line at DCA is completely unpredictable. Sometimes it is a breeze other times it is a slog. The other is as you mentioned traffic and that is when going to Dulles from Arlington, no matter the time of day there will be congestion. How bad? You never know so I always leave early.

  12. I too, am a “1 hr., 15 min” man. If things go smoothly (Uber/Lyft show up quickly; traffic is normal, pre-check is typical), I get past security with plenty of time for a snack/drink in lounge. If things are not so smooth, I sometimes cut it close, but never enough to break a sweat. Haven’t missed a flight in years…

  13. Thumbs up CW. Never the last flight to meet the client or do a job. Last flight is only for returning trip if it fits in your itinerary. Even that I always pack an extra underwear and extra day of medication for cancellation or delay.

  14. I think to each his own. I have my travel gear bag and luggage packed days ahead of time. All I have to do is slip my laptop in. I can afford duplicates of all my toiletries 🙂 … I have everything in ziploc bags. I do not scramble around at the last minute looking for my extra cables … so, yes, depending on the airport and what time I’m flying out, I might show up hours early. I’m in the CA so I will show up early for SFO but not OAK but elsewhere, I don’t mind sitting in an airport eating and surfing the net hopefully at a lounge but if crammed, there’s always a gate for “Eastern Airlines” where no one is seated … I’m right there for any changes like … oh BTW, your fight is now Gate 12 and not Gate 44 … or if I’m flying back home, maybe switch flights from SFO to OAK … I would just be wandering around thinking of what I’m facing at the airport so I might as well be there … I’m being paid anyway (I never fly on the weekend except for leisure) so whether I’m home, at the airport or at a hotel, it’s all the same (being at home, I might think, I’ll go in the garage and look for that tree trimmer … 20 minutes later …) BUT to each his own, I have a friend who drives at 55 leisurely and arrives about 25 minutes before his flight takes off. It would drive me insane but to each his own. It’s like arguing your investment strategy fits everyone.

  15. My sister is a late striver and has almost missed flights a number of times. Personally I try to get to the airport around 2 hours or a little more. I don’t consider it wasted time since I typically go to the lounge (CLT has Centurion Lounge and also a pretty decent priority pass lounge). Also almost every airport has free WiFi so I can be just as productive as sitting at home. Retired now so don’t have to worry about fitting airport travel around meetings, calls or deadlines any more so that makes it easier.

    However I strongly disagree with your comment that if you haven’t missed a flight you are wasting too much time at the airport. To each his own but I don’t consider it wasted when I can relax, have a drink or some food and stay connected.

    BTW I disagree w the study. My arriving early has nothing to do with their stereotype and I could likely get there 45 minutes before (rarely check a bag, reserved parking, precheck and know the airport very well) but elect not to. Just a personal choice

  16. I swear that these articles are written just to generate controversy.

    Someone who claims that extra time at the airport is wasted either has no job or no imagination. Workers are productive there. Others like the atmosphere, want to stay nimble if there are delays, don’t want stress, or like to watch out the windows…
    Just do what you want.

  17. I get to the airport an hour before boarding starts and it works for me, so I don’t care what it says about me.

  18. It is also cultural. I’m a half Swede/Brazilian. And the two couldn’t be so opposites. Arriving close or late in Brasil…nah no problem, things will sort themselves. Swedes is not only very well timed but disrespectful to be late, so you arrive early. I have taken the Swedish side and always early but always have things with me at the airport for value add.

  19. As long as you have something ‘to do’ at the airport, it’s never a problem to arrive early. But you can’t be happy doing this if you don’t have something meaningful to accomplish. Sittiing there diddling with your phone for an hour is definitely going to make you resentful of arriving early. A little planning goes a long way towards finding the middle ground.

  20. I almost always get to the airport 3 hours before a domestic flight, 4 hours before an international flight. I’ve got books to read and devices to play around on, so I’m not really going to be sitting around twiddling my thumbs. Much better to do that than to risk missing my flight. Like @Fauci, if I’m flying, it’s important to me that I make my flight.

    Flying out of ORF in 2019, the AA check-in agent remarked how early I was. I told him I didn’t want to be the guy literally running through the airport at the last minute. He said with a sigh that he saw it every morning.

  21. Hour and a half before. Not wasting time as it gives me peace of mind to be there and be ready for any changes if needed.

  22. Austin is a relatively small airport and can not be compared to a major hub for this scenario. Try your routine at LAX, Gary, and let me know how that works for you.

  23. I’m with the early arrivers on this. But I wasn’t always. When I was young, I was always cutting it close, being that person running through the airport. And one time I missed a very important end of the day flight, which still makes me cringe when I think about it. But the main thing is that after one of those heart-attack inducing runs to make it right before the gate closed, I just decided to stop doing that. Around the same time, I had some miserable experiences in international economy, and together It made me decide that I either needed to figure out how to make flying easier and less stressful or stop doing it. That change made a world of difference, and I do not plan to go back.

    Plan ahead, arrive early, no stress, go to the lounge, get some work done, board first. It makes air travel a pleasant experience. In the case of IRROPS, it puts you in a much better position to deal with them.

    And whoever invented the phrase “if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports” is (1) flying for unimportant reasons, and/or (2) unfamiliar with technology and confuses time in airports with being unproductive. I can get just as much work done on my laptop in a typical lounge as I can at the office (or home office). And if it is an Air France or LH lounge, enjoy it more.

  24. I live in Singapore. It takes me 12 minutes to get to the airport even if the traffic is heavy. Security in Singapore is done at the gate so I could leave home with less than an hour to take off and make the flight every single time. It’s the last minute arriver’s ultimate fantasy. However I still like to arrive 90 mins early, hit the lounge, check email etc. old habits die hard.

  25. Umm, everyone is missing the obvious variable here. The time you arrive really depends on if your checking bag(s) or not. If you’re checking, you should arrive early so your bags make it to your plane. If you only have carry on, sure, live “on the edge.”

  26. At my home airport I have a set time I leave from home for each trip. I know it puts me at the gate about 20-25 minutes prior to boarding. I always book bulkhead row seats so it is important I am among the first to board to make sure I have overhead bin space for both of my bags since nothing can be on the floor. I have to connect through DFW so I only book connections with a minimum of 1.5 hours between flights and strive to always have 2 or more hours between landing and takeoff. The 40 minutes to 1-hour connections nearly always result in running to catch a flight and often a missed connection. I see people on nearly every flight who are biting their nails worrying about making their connection. I always carry work or something to read so an hour in the Admiral’s Club is not a big deal in exchange for knowing I will likely not have to reschedule a connection and spend even more time in the airport.

  27. I’ve always followed a quote: “you’re on time if you’re early and late if you’re on time”

    I absolutely LOVE flying, business trip or leisure, I will happily arrive 3 or 4 hours early find a place to sit, pull my laptop out or whatever entertainment I desire to use, and relax and keep very thorough on making sure everything is going as planned. It prevents me from getting time anxiety as it is a severe trigger for me for some unknown reason.

  28. We have been blessed to fly all over the world and even though we almost always fly business class we always arrive 2 hours in advance just in-case if there are any disruptions to our plans.

    A few weeks ago we had an early flight from Johannesburg to Lusaka, Zambia.
    Exiting South Africa is a cumbersome process and we would have missed our flight if we had arrived 90 minutes before our scheduled departure. Arriving 2 hours later allowed us to pass through customs in about 30 minutes.

    Anyone who travels knows that it is easy to fill ones time at any airport.

  29. @Richard makes departing SIN seem so easy. It is not!
    In fact the departure experience seems to take longer than arrival!
    There is much more time-wasting bureaucracy to overcome there than any other country I know.
    Has been like that forever.

  30. @glenn t can you share what you mean by this bureaucracy? An automated immigration process that takes 30 seconds to pass through? Security at the gate that takes less than 5 mins if you have airline status? What are we missing here?

  31. I show up late when traveling alone for business, but traveling with my wife or kids adds too many “points of failure” (i.e. added time) that I can’t account for and I skew towards arriving early. Especially since missing leisure travel means at least a day of fun lost.

    I also live 45 minutes from the airport plus a ~12 minute experience of finding a parking spot and walking into the terminal. So we can’t all do 75 minutes prior to departure…

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