Why Do Airlines Tell Passengers To Show Up 3 Hours Before A Flight?

American Airlines recommends arriving at the airport two hours before departure for domestic flights, and three hours for international flights. United Airlines recommends the same thing.

This week the Austin airport publicized recommendations to show up two and a half hours early for domestic flights and three for international. And Austin’s airport, while busy, has check-in desks right next to security, and the gates just past the checkpoints. There are no airport trains, and very few long walks.

So what gives? Why are people being told to show up so early? And why – since unlike most of the rest of the world, there’s no passport control for leaving the United States for most passengers – do they recommend showing up so much earlier for international flights?

For many people, showing up this early is literally insane. So what gives?

  • The assumption here is an economy class passenger, with bags to check and without PreCheck or CLEAR for security. That’s most passengers!

  • And the recommendation is to show up with more than enough time to get to your flight even under the most extreme circumstances. Almost no one has to show up this early. Nearly ever day of the year this is too much time!

    However if you’re going to offer a recommendation, you need to make sure to cover your bum. The one time the recommendation turns out not to be enough time, that’s your fault. So recommended times aren’t about what people normally need, they’re about limiting blame in the long tail case.

  • And airports and often airlines share in concessions revenue, so if you happen to be stuck in the airport with time to kill so much the better from the perspective of those making the recommendation!

I have both PreCheck and CLEAR. I rarely check bags, and when I do I’ll almost always have priority queueing. 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.

Remember that you don’t have to be at the gate when boarding begins. Missing the flight isn’t at stake at that point, just overhead bin space.

And if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports. I’ll only add a larger buffer when (1) I’m traveling with my five year old, or (2) the consequences of missing that specific flight are significant.

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 think AA (and all the others) are simply budgeting that: If every passenger with a bag to check arrived at the airport exactly 1 hour before departure the ticket/baggage counters would be overwhelmed and, at smaller airports, so would TSA. Also, for international flights, isn’t there a 1-hour cutoff by which point the passenger manifest needs to be relayed to the arrival country for sign-off (that’s what I’ve been told when I cut it too close)?

    By telling us to arrive 2-3 hours prior, they are spreading out the work load, and thereby reducing payroll costs. It’s the reverse of surge pricing.

  2. Honestly, unless the recommendation in well-run airports is to benefit The Kettles, slow folks like my geezer parents, and those requiring special attention (small children, wheelchairs), the only reason I can think of is for the benefit of the airport CONCESSIONAIRES.

  3. I see two main drivers: 1. The opportunity to spend more money on food and other impulse purchases (and to a lesser extent be subjected to the advertising and chamber of commerce style information you see at airports for the region) and 2. The fact is that 1 in 10,000 or so times you really actually do need to be there that early. If you miss your flight the 1 time, the average person will be more angry, than they will be sitting 9999 times for an extra hour or so at the gate.

    I like people watching and plane watching so I will always be an early arrival, but yeah it should be customer choice not a guilt trip into it.

  4. I try to get to the airport three hours before flight time whether it is domestic or international. That has saved me when the shuttle driver arrived quite late for an international flight because of traffic. I would rather wait a bit more at the airport if everything goes quickly instead of tempting fate.

  5. One you almost miss a flight, you’ll see that it’s just easier to allow extra time. And things can happen on the way to the airport, for example heavy traffic.

  6. It is simply a generic “worst case” recommendation, that is all. They cannot say “If you are flying out of Austin, are an elite member, not checking baggage, and have TSA pre, please give yourself 15 minutes before boarding time at airport” but if you are flying out of Miami, are elderly and have never flown before, checking a huge amount of luggage, and don’t have any status or TSA Pre, please give yourself 5 hours before boarding time”

    Like you, I am a (former) road warrior with lifetime status, and live near one of the best, most efficient airports in the country. (Tampa) I typically plan to arrive 15 minutes before boarding at the airport, have never waited more than 5 minutes thru security. I never check baggage.

  7. Domestic or International I show up early so I can go to the lounge and relax, eat or drink before my flight. The Polaris and Air France lounges at SFO are nice.

  8. @Gary, I’m glad this — arriving [relatively] shortly before departure — works for you. However, out in the real world, there is something called “traffic.” Trying to get out to JFK from Manhattan? SFO from the East Bay or Marin? SEA from north of Seattle? ORD from the Loop? (etc., etc., etc.) It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours…

    While I agree with your explanation of recommending for the worst case scenario (“The one time the recommendation turns out not to be enough time, that’s your fault”), I would much rather relax in the airport lounge* or even, in certain airports, have a meal than feel my blood pressure rise as I’m stuck in traffic on the 7-mile long San Mateo Bridge (they don’t call it “the S&M Bridge” for nothing!).

    * FWIW, I’ve never been turned away from a lounge due to overcrowding.

  9. Many airports recommend arriving two to three hours early to ensure a stress-free departure. This will help you and other passengers enjoy quality time with the Jehovah’s Witness airport crew and the random panhandlers conveniently located inside many airline terminals.

  10. Yesterday we were at Guatemala City airport by 3am for our 5:30am flight. We spent over 2 hours in the Avianca check in line. Once we got through that, security and passport control to the gate was about 10 minutes.
    Inefficient airlines are the problem.

  11. I have TSA Pre and Clear and used to get to the Atlants airport just in time. But now I go early and enjoy the Concourse F SkyClub and SkyDeck. No stress.

  12. I don’t know when you’re traveling out from AUS, but since the airport consolidated Pre-Check and CLEAR into a single checkpoint, I haven’t gotten through security in less than 20 minutes. And forget about using CLEAR at AUS now.

  13. Like Jeff’s comments above, I fly from Tampa for the first leg of my regular international flight. Getting through TPA is quick and easy. Add in precheck and AA status letting my use the first class counter even if flying economy, and I am generally there only 30 minutes. However, that is Tampa and it would be quite different if I was boarding in Miami. A mid-size or small airport is always going to easier than a hub. So if you are boarding in Miami, Atlanta, Houston, or Charlotte you had better leave those two to three hours and then some.

  14. I ALWAYS add an hour to the TSA recommendations, so I get to the airport 3 hours before a domestic flight and 4 hours before an international flight. I’ve never missed a flight because I didn’t get tonthe airport in time. If someone else wants to gamble with traffic, security lines, check-in counters, etc., that’s fine. I’d much rather get to where I’m going on time.

    Anyway, I actually enjoy walking around airports and browsing in the shops. And if the airport is small and boring (ORF and MOB come to mind), I’ve got books I can read and my phone and tablet to entertain myself with.

  15. For the simple reason that many airport lounges won’t let you in more than 3 hrs. before your flight 😉

  16. I receive similar advice at airport hotels when scheduling a shuttle, probably for the same reason: they don’t want to be responsible for a missed flight.

  17. Be careful if you’ve got a late night flight, especially if you’re checking bags. I’ve had the airline attendants close the line and try to prevent me from getting into it to check them because they felt I wouldn’t be able to get through the line in time to check my bags in time for my flight. In their estimation, nobody who wasn’t already in line was going to be able to make it to that last flight out and so therefore you weren’t allowed to even try to check in. And this was 2 hours and 45 minutes before my flight (Yes, the line was long)

  18. For Gary and the other speculators, I flew from AUS yesterday and got a message the evening before from Southwest. There had been bag belt issues at the airport, hence the recommendation to arrive earlier than normal.

    That doesn’t make general advice about Precheck/Clear, carry-on only luggage, knowing how to use airline apps, and understanding problem points and troubleshooting for one’s home airport(s) less valid. But rather than speculating with all kinds of theories, maybe consider that the people following this blog generally have their act together, whereas the general public does not when flying.

  19. So a leading theory is that the airlines are in cahoots with airport concessionaires? I suppose it’s possible.
    But given we live in a litigiousness “where’s my compensation” society, I think it’s more likely they recommend an arrival time far in advance that only an extremely rare situation could occur where you miss your flight.
    If an airline recommends you arrive 1 hour before your flight, and you do, but there’s an unusual backup at TSA, and you miss your flight, please raise your hand if you’ll say “that’s totally on me, I won’t blame the airline and ask for compensation for missing my flight”.

    Hmmm… I thought so.

  20. If all 200 passengers arrive simultaneously at the check in line 1.5 hours before the flight, the aircraft isn’t going to push back on time.

  21. Showing up really early just creates more problems, especially in the morning. If you had a 6AM flight and showed up at 3AM, the security lines in many places don’t even open until 4AM. Then you’d be in line with the 6AM and all of the people with flights until 7AM (3 hour early arrivals).

    And depending on the airport most shops don’t open until 5AM or later. I tend to show up early but there are limits.

  22. I just like to be early to avoid stress. Why get stressed out trying to guess traffic and lines at the airport and risk cutting it too close? And what is wrong with a little extra time at the airport? I don’t mind being in a decent lounge – I can be as productive on the laptop there as at the office.

    As others note, it also depends a lot on the airport. AUS is just not that big, and rental car return is across the street. IAD, on the other hand, is far out, check in and security lines can be very long or very short, and it can take a long time just to get from security to the gate.

  23. I agree with Brian L. One flat tire, fender bender or unexpected road repair at the wrong place and your pleasant short commute can become a nail biting nightmare as time drains away. Then too you might hit the dreaded SSSS or just a TSO person having a bad day who wants you to have a worse one. Anyway, for foreign airports I wouldn’t cut things short; just planning a trip out of Lisbon and from what I’m reading the place is a nightmare, with some airlines recommending up to 4 hours!

  24. They’ve destroyed the short-haul commercial air travel market in the United States. The need to arrive 2+ hours before scheduled departure for a short-haul flight makes the process more time consuming and fatiguing than simply jumping in a car. Not even WN can make short-haul flights like BNA-BHM (~3 hours by car) work

  25. When you say “there’s no passport control for leaving the United States for most passengers,” keep in mind that, at least in my experience, you have to show your passport to the airline ticket agent to check in, to prove that you will be allowed into the country that your flight is going to. That doesn’t take long, but it is an added task for international departures.

  26. There are some international airports where it truly is one queue after another. A queue at the door to show a passport and boarding pass to be able to step inside, a queue inside the door to be screened; a queue to get to the counter to get your boarding pass (you didn’t get one online because they have to see your passport first to be sure you can enter the next country legally) and check a bag if needed; a queue to pass through immigration; a queue to get screened again. If it’s a day when not enough people are on duty, you are killing serious time.

    I agree, though, that for most people in most situations the instructions to get to the airport so early are absurd; at my home airport it’s five minutes, door to gate.

  27. Regarding “And airports and often airlines share in concessions revenue, so if you happen to be stuck in the airport with time to kill so much the better from the perspective of those making the recommendation!”

    That backfires when for having the right credit cards gain lounge access and down multiple cocktails, snacks, etc.. costs more for the provider compared to someone who arrives late without time to partake

  28. Can’t show up for a lot of the bargain airlines (Frontier, Allegiant….)

    These airlines won’t even let you check your bag in before 2hrs out. There’s so many people waiting aimlessly around at my airport because they wanted to get in early but couldn’t get through.

  29. Most of the time, I’m going to be sitting around anyway. I’m usually not going to have anything else scheduled on a day I’m flying, at least not before the flight. So, bags packed, ready to go, and … not much to do. So I can sit at home until it’s time to go to the airport, or I can leave and sit at the airport. Might as well leave.

  30. The issue is more around the “boy who cried wolf”. There are times and airports where you need more time – busy departure time, passport control. Some airports are notorious (LIM, PLS). But that isn’t trie for other airports, so passengers don’t know how much time they need to get to the gate. Moreover, many airlines aren’t clear about cutoff times, so sometimes all you have are these made-up 3-hour rules. More information and honest information would go a long way.

  31. Everyone here acting like they think it’s budgeting. No it’s not and stop acting like you know what’s going on lmfao.

    It’s not spreading out passengers either, airlines have different bank times. For example the Portland International Airport has Alaska Airlines and they’re the largest carrier out of the airport taking up an entire concourse essentially. Their largest bank time is morning departures 7AM. With flights sometimes going out as early as 5AM. 10 flights between 6AM-7AM with construction and a single TSA checkpoint that’s accessible, and we’re going just on mainline and not their horizon flights or including the OAL that operate at or around the same time. That’s around 1600-1700 people that need to be screened if ONLY the mainline Alaska is included in that. INCLUDING everyone checking bags and international passengers connecting, this means it’s going to put stress on the Bag Belt, TSA, and staffing. If you show up an hour before the flight and you’re in economy or even first class and you’re checking bags. You’ll probably be able to get yourself checked in and your bag checked within a reasonable amount of time, but let’s say you get into the airport not yet in line at 06:00, for a 07:00 flight. Something’s wrong with your ticket, you’re not allowed to check in, or check your bag independently and have to see an agent. You’re gonna be pretty SOL, and you’re gonna miss that flight. If you had showed up at 05:00 for that 07:00 flight, you’re going to be completely in the clear.

  32. Gary, why do you end so many sentences with an exclamation point!? Is this some sort of call to action!? You are wearing the readers out! No one actually cares!!!!!1!

  33. The airline and airport recommendations are generally calibrated so >99% of travelers are extremely unlikely to miss their flight in >99% of circumstances. I think that’s really all there is to it- any benefits on top of that are an incidental bonus, I’m sure.

    Experienced travelers will come up with their own personal rules based on their own circumstances, their prior experience, their tolerance for missing flights/hanging out at the airport, etc. Personally, my general rule is to aim for 1.5-2 hours, which I’ve found to be ample. I’m really not bothered at all by spending some extra time in an airport, so exchanging the stress of missed/nearly missed flights for that is an easy decision.

  34. My issue is that for the first flight out, airlines sometimes do not open the check in line early enough. It then sometimes feels like a lose-lose where if you get there early, you wait in line a long for a while before check-in opens, but if you get there after check-in opens, there is already a long line.

    I feel that I have encountered this at LIS and LHR before the first flights of the day to the US.

  35. It has been a few years since flying out of DEN, so it may have changed, but hour or more PreCheck lines were common.

    I would not do this out of SEA either unless you have CLEAR. I signed up for CLEAR at SEA pre-pandemic because otherwise I was going to miss my flight because the PreCheck line was so long.

  36. This is all a factor of how much control you have over your trip to the airport.
    Traveling alone, no bags to check, no physical or mental disabilities, easy access to rail direct to the airport; yeah you can cut it close(r).
    My worst case was a 3 hour trip without traffic, going through a downtown with dirt roads at rush hour, two security checks outside the airport with another inside. So yeah, I left a noon for an 11 pm flight and sat around for like 45 minutes before boarding.

  37. “How can we improve our profits?”
    “Fire some phone agents?”
    “People will have to wait longer”
    “Too bad! It doesn’t cost us anything””How can we improve our profits?”
    “Fire some check-in staff?”
    “People might miss their flight”
    “Tell them to get here earlier! It doesn’t cost us anything”
    “How can we improve our profits?”
    “Fire some Security staff?”
    “People might miss their flight”
    “Tell them to get here earlier! It doesn’t cost us anything”
    “How can we improve our profits?”
    “Fire some baggage loaders?”
    “Bags might miss their flights”
    “Tell them to get here earlier! It doesn’t cost us anything”

  38. I work for an airline and have always thought the push to get travelers to the airport early is to make an on-time departure more likely. The less people arriving 20 minutes before departure the easier it is to get them all on-board by ETD. On a side note, what’s the big deal about having to gate check a bag? Especially if I have a layover, I’m always happy to offload my bag without having to stand in a bag check line. And in 15 years of travel for the airline I’ve never had them lose a bag. Knock wood.

  39. I am risk-averse when traveling. So, we usually arrive somewhere between 2 and 3 hours before flight time (depending on international or domestic flights). I use the extra time (when I have it and I do not always have it due to unforeseen circumstances) for a snack or getting my walking steps in. Missing a flight for me is far worse than having extra waiting time at the airport.

  40. I follow the recommendations and usually have 1 1/2 to 2 hours before the flight leaves. That allows for emergencies and delays. The consequences of missing a flight would far outweigh the extra wait time. You do not have to wait at your gate. I see people packed like sardines and usually wait at a deserted gate with no upcoming flights as the apps will update the status of the flight if any change.

  41. The average traveller is very stressed when catching a plane. Arriving to the airport with a huge time cushion would probably lessen that stress and improve their interactions with airport staff.

  42. If everyone turned up just 1 hour before the flight, there wouldn’t be enough time to process all the passengers. With a 3-hour recommendation, the anxious and inexperienced turn up early and the frequent flyers turn up late, spreading the workload nicely.

  43. Everyone that talks about lounges is obviously a frequent flier or always flying 1st class. You probably have TSA Clear and Global Entry. The 2 and 3 hours are usually meant for the rest of the population who have to stand behind people who don’t fly often and have a hard time navigating some of the requirements or make mistakes when they pack. This could create serious delays in JFK, IAD, BOS, IAH, LAX, ORD or DTW Austin is not a difficult airport to navigate and shouldn’t be treated as the norm

  44. Sadly, my disposition is what it is. I live a 20 minute Lyft from my home airport and haven’t needed more than 6 minutes to get through TSA with pre-check there. If I have a 2pm flight, I could schedule a 12:30pm pickup and arrive at the gate well before boarding begins 99% of the time, with far less than a 0.5% chance of missing the flight. If I do that, I’d be sitting at home twiddling my thumbs prior to the pickup. So, I just schedule an 11am pickup, arrive at the gate about 2.5 hours before the flight and watch 2 hours of that streaming show I’ve yet to get around to. I avoid 1.5 hours of heightened nervousness at home during which I would accomplish nothing. As part of the voluntarily unemployed (OK, I’m retired), there’s no work scheduling issues. Plus, there may be an earlier flight they might want to put me on for capacity issues or if my flight looks like it might get delayed. Since I fly DL to Europe, if there is an issue, they are more likely to have a solution at 11:30 than 1pm, given I can fly to my destination through AMS or CDG and get to those two through 5 gateways with a DL nonstop.

    I’ve always wondered if they expect me to arrive 2 (domestic) or 3 (international) hours before my first, domestic, flight when connecting to a second, international, flight.

  45. I only scanned through the comments. All seem to be be from travelers and not an airline person that experiences it everyday. Most of the comments here are not helpful. I see people missing flights everyday because they do not leave enough time to get checked in before the cut-off time. I work at Tampa. And have worked DCA and Baltimore. I watch people arrive 1hr 30mins before their flight and miss their check in time or flight because of the long lines. If they are traveling with pets, guns, or children traveling alone, should be here at least 2hrs before. And if you have items that need to go to the over-size location like golf clubs, hockey sticks, tool boxes, coolers, boxes and bins, strollers, and car seats you need that 2hrs. The over size area only has 1 machine for screening and is slow. Many items missed yesterday morning for an example in the morning. Way to many pieces to process in an hour and a half. And folks think because they checked in online they can just come in and drop their bag no matter the time. Many miss cut-off time. And just so you know I am in my 45th year doing this.

  46. Author is a seasoned travelled with pre-clearance and no check-in luggage at a smaller airport. He should be the last person giving advice to those who don’t travel often, who do have to go through security and screening, who do have bags to check, and who do travel with others, all through a large hub. Further, many airports around the world do sometimes have multiple layers of security check points.

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