Why Do Airlines Tell Passengers To Show Up As Much As 3 Hours In Advance For 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 four 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. @Carol Lewis For your purposes, I’d say not. Gatwick has poor travel links and few long distance flights come in there anyway. Why are you going to London? You might find PDG a better option.

  2. I’ve always wondered about when to arrive at PHX for flight to MAN (UK) via ATL. The first part is domestic then international. So is it 2 hours or 3 hours?

  3. I’ve recently experienced airlines that won’t allow bags to be checked until 2 hours before the flight. (Frontier in SAN). So the recommendation to be more than 2 hours early is counterproductive.

  4. I have Precheck and Clear. My goal is to be going through security when I get the text that the flight is boarding. Clearing security is always less than 10 mins, usually 2-3. with Clear. Also, I fit everything into a backpack, I don’t mind if there’s overhead space or not. If I’m in a very big airport I’ll add 30 mins just as a precaution. If you fly every week or two you figure out how long it takes.

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