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. Here’s a suggestion as to why we are told to arrive so early: The airport businesses, the concessions on the concourses will all benefit from a passenger waiting 1-2-3 hours for a flight. “Follow the money.” And the airlines…what do they care? If they believe somehow passengers getting to the airport hours before a flight helps ease the congestion pre-flight…well…

  2. In March I was flying AA domestically and I arrived at the airport 75 minutes before departure with a bag to check. The priority line moved very slowly, in part due to the agent (there were only a total of two) in the priority line doing insane things like making a family reshuffle the contents of their suitcases because one suitcase was one pound overweight. By the time my turn came up it was 44 minutes until my flight and the agent refused to check my bag, saying that’s why they dictate that everyone arrive 3 hours before their flight. I returned my suitcase to my car and made the flight with an overstuffed carryon but the whole incident left a bad taste in my mouth.

  3. “if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports”

    This is an all-time great travel quote. People stress SO much about getting to the airport way earlier than necessary and trade off days/weeks/months(?) cumulatively of their life for time spent sitting and waiting for a plane. For no other reason than “they say you should get there 2+ hours early”

  4. @Christian

    We had a similar incident earlier this year, also with AA. Our issue was thinking we had time for Long-Term Parking and the bus took over half an hour to pick us up. Before that I’d never waited more than 5 minutes. Missed the 45-minute window by 2 minutes and got the same lecture about arriving early. Now one of us waits in the car while the other goes in to check, then the family goes through security while I park the car. If traveling alone I rarely bring a checked bag but I’ll allocate a little more time for checking and will never trust a detached bureaucratic process for parking again (Short-term, or a private parking company who will make adjustments to accommodate someone in a tight spot if their shuttles are behind schedule).

  5. Have you never experienced the joys of having to check in at DCA for an international onward connection at 0600? Even the premium lines are brutal.

  6. I’m speaking for myself. Better safe than sorry. I’d rather be there early than miss the flight. Two and three hours sounds pretty good. If they want me earlier than that I can’t see it. If I have extra time I enjoy getting something to eat and drink, sitting and looking at my phone. Especially View From the Wing!

  7. I miss the old MDW airport in Chicago where I once overslept at a hotel nearby. I made my 7am flight using the hotel shuttle after rolling out of bed at 6:20am. I may have scared a few folks with my disheveled appearance but I made the flight.

  8. I’m like Carol Lewis, I prefer to get to the airport early and relax rather than worry about traffic, TSA Precheck lines that take 20 minutes, etc. Also, my airport/airline of choice is Newark on United and both terminals A and C are now much improved from times past. Maybe if I travelled as much as Gary does I would not care so much for the airport expreience, but a a retiree who now travels only two or three times a year, it’s all part of the fun.

  9. Last week I flew out of JFK with a disabled passenger in a wheelchair. The passenger had backs to check, and we were on an international itinerary. Delta sent three e-mails in the days leading up to the trip reminding us to show up 3 hours prior to our 6am flight. While 3am seemed extreme, I did get us to the airport at 3:45am in anticipation of normal JFK wheelchair delays and slow security (the passenger I was traveling with did not have PreCheck). Rather than having plenty of time, we nearly missed the flight because Delta didn’t open their check-in counter until 4:30am, just 90 minutes prior to the 6am flights. Wheelchair service was predictably slow and TSA was its normal crap show. Absolutely ridiculous that Delta would tell passengers to show up early enough to stare at an empty check-in desk for 90 minutes.

  10. @Doug. That was ridiculous. I travel with my sons. One of them is in a wheelchair. We don’t have PreCheck either but they always wave us to the line bypassing the more crowded line. Unless they changed their procedures I didn’t think wheelchairs needed PreCheck. Or could it be certain airports? (JFK) We fly out of DFW and Love Field in Dallas.

  11. Well, I usually clear security an hour and a half prior to boarding when I’m flying from home. It’s pretty simple why. First, there’s the parking at O’Hare. I have no fear of Hell anymore; it can’t be worse than navigating the parking garage at ORD. Second, the TSA Plus Pre-Check line in Terminal 1 is getting to be nightmare fuel, almost as bad as EWR’s TSA Plus Pre-Check. This has happened in the past couple of months. Third, I make a beeline for the United Club closest to my gate. Its offerings barely meet the definition of food, but it’s free, and depending on the time of day, I can kick back with an adult beverage and handle e-mail and other business before take-off.

    And I’m hydrated and sated and at the gate ten minutes before boarding. I’m there then because I like having that 1K boarding perk. When I lose that, I’ll get there twenty minutes in advance and get in the Zone 1 line.

  12. Tell me you’ve never gone thru Atlanta TSA in the morning without telling me. Even the Pre-Check and Clear lines are scary. ProTip- if you’re flying Delta and they offer you digital ID check in, take it. It’s a walk thru. Common denominator for those of us in line was Global Entry and had already flown international on Delta so the biometrics were already in the system

  13. they want you to arrive early early so you can spend time spending $ at all the consessions!

  14. “And if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports”

    I know this is a popular heuristic among libertarian econs, but for those of us who are travel hobbyists and probably have lounge access of one variety or another (i.e., the readership of a respectable, non-clickbait, travel blog like this one), I’m happier spending extra time in the lounge with access to wifi and food/drinks if desired and maybe some plane spotting vs hanging out longer at my office/apartment/etc. (I agree with the overall point of the article that these timing recommendations are way overkill, I’m just commenting on the specific philosophy about missing flights.)

  15. I have Global Entry and had a European trip that connected through Phoenix and the check in desk agent said I needed to be 3 hours early for the 60 min (plus a 20min Dougie buffer) 6:00am flight to PHX. Local security does not fully open until 5:00am and the first leg is DOMESTIC. The agent either didn’t know PHX was in the US, didn’t understand her training or didn’t know the time of day. Probably all three. Turned out the Dallas connection was delayed and the trip took 2 days. I’m done with flying AA to Europe- back to untied to see if they can deliver the freight in less than 46 hours.

  16. I check to see what hours the ticket counters are open, flew to the EU on Iceland Air once, showed up the 3 hrs before flight recommendation only to find the ticket counter for dropping a bag did not open until 2 hrs before the flight. Lesson learned, which applies to smaller airports also when I check a bag. I have missed a flight due to traffic in the Bay Area (rain plus an accident blocking almost all the lanes). Thankfully, I was able to call while in the car and jump to a later flight easily. I do not mind arriving early, as others have said, I will go to the club and relax and recharge before my flight going down to the gate about 5-10mins before boarding. With PreCheck and Clear, even at the busiest times I can quickly get through security, typically less than 15 minutes. When going to other airports, I check the TSA wait times to see how busy it might be.

  17. Good lord, if I had to be at the airport 3 hours before departure I’d never make it. In general, my goal is to roll up to the gate about 3-5 minutes before boarding commences. I’ve pretty much got it down to a well-choreographed sequence. For me, time is my most values possession so I’m not interested in wasting it in an airport if I don’t have to. My days of enjoying the airport experience are long gone. COVID and the post-COVID travel experience ruined that.

    That said, I am not somewhere like DCA or ATL with Monday AM security lines that resemble the 7th circle of hell.

  18. The time recommendations might be figured for the United States as a whole. I like to consider local circumstances. For example, I’ve heard that AMS Schiphol has long lines so I would go before 3 hours. JFK can be unpredictable. OMA (Omaha Eppley) seems fairly compact to me, at least the last time I went before the pandemic so I would not check in so early.

    Often, if one has a domestic flight connecting to an international, the check in process initially is like a domestic flight except a passport check by the check in agent.

    In India, it can take time to enter the terminal. Also transit to the airport is variable. For example, do NOT depend on Uber. You may use their app and then find that all drivers are refusing anything but cash on the app and, even then, refuse the trip, possibly because they can earn more as a taxi. This can cause significant delays while you troubleshoot what to do.

  19. It is bonkers that there isn’t a tech solution for this. Airports should know how many passengers are flying out and how many TSA lines will be open. With those two variables, they should be able to tell people when they need to arrive for a given departure time.

    Austin used to publish the current wait times for each security line, but somehow this is no longer available. We are regressing as a society.

  20. I check my bags (unfortunately my travel needs rarely fit within a carryon) under 5 minutes of the cutoff and always board last.

    Those of you who get to the front of the line at 44 minutes and the airline refused to check your bag with a “it might not make it” waiver need to change airlines.

    @Tony: This is absolutely a click-bait blog.

  21. So your one of the cool ones that don’t complain if you miss your flight or have to check your bag then? I wish there was more like you!!

  22. If you fly AA out of DFW the reason for the 3 hour recommendation is obvious. During that 3 hours you will have at least 4 gate changes in as many as 3 different terminal buildings.

  23. “And if you’ve never missed a flight you’re spending too much time in airports”

    And if you have because you cut it close, then you must be taking flights to somewhere you didn’t need to go to. A lot of my flying, I need to get someplace on time.. I think those time recommendations are overkill, but I still build in time for delays. And don’t mind spending some time in the lounge. I’m as productive there as in the office.

    I do wonder if getting people to arrive earlier, especially when they added all the COVID stuff, has become a habit and contributed to the lounge crowding.

  24. What the author leaves out is probably the most likely reason. Americans live to sue at the drop of a hat. Does anyone believe that not a single person in this country would sue if they missed their flight based on an airline recommendation?

  25. Duh, it’s so you spend more money at the shops. People divide into those who love to trot through airports and those who show up with enough time to deal with any problems that might arise. There’s little middle ground, and each group thinks the other is nuts. Bottom line, airports don’t want to be responsible for a bunch of pax who missed their flights because the airport was so incompetent that people stood in lines forever. Pax don’t know enough to tell someone in charge that their flight was leaving in the next fifteen minutes so they could get processed and board the plane. But basically it’s to give pax more time to buy stuff.

  26. I have subscribed to my mother’s advice which applies to all aspects of life: “I rather be three hours early than one second late.” There is nothing more anxiety induced than being in bad traffic on the way to the airport, getting to the parking area and going around and around looking for a parking spot, waiting for a late shuttle bus to take you to the terminal, getting to the check-in area and seeing nothing but a sea of people in front of you check-in in a machine that is not working, the same sea of people at the security line; then, finding that your gate is the farthest from where you are standing. All this anxiety-induced will be avoided by arriving three hours early. Now you can relax waiting to board.

  27. It also depends on the airport. If you get there an hour ahead of time and are told that once you check your bags, you need to catch a shuttle to get to the gate, you might also be told that it’s too late. Make sure that you are familiar with the airport before deciding.

  28. They’re providing a generic extra time for international–but international **does** take longer. I have yet to take an international flight outbound from the US without a passport and visa check (admittedly not the usual case but the recommendations are based on likely worst cases, not average cases.) That takes an agent and there are often not enough of them.

    I’ve also spent an hour in the security line. Despite arriving the apparently insane amount of time early I’ve had a couple of close calls when things didn’t go smoothly at the airport.

  29. Was just in a 30-45 min wait at TSA Precheck at SFO T2 this morning (holiday travel I guess). I usually arrive at T-60 min bc PreCheck gets me through in <10 minutes 99% of the time.

    But this 1% I would've completely missed my flight had I finally signed up for CLEAR and the CLEAR agent ushered me to the front of the line.

    TBH it's playing with fire these days with the crapshoot that is TSA staffing

  30. I’m so spoiled by living by John Wayne. I leave 45 mins to 1 hour before boarding. It’s a 10 minute drive, and pre check is almost always really quick. I’m usually walking up to the gate as they’re calling for people who need extra assistance or 1st class. I’ve missed a few flights in the past 15 years, but I can probably count them on one hand. If, however, I have to go to LAX… *Headdesk*

  31. Frontier and Allegiant WON’T EVEN LET YOU CHECK YOUR BAGS until 90 minutes before boarding on some flights.

    That would be a great next article – which airlines allow you to check your bags early? For those who have cruises and need to get rid of their bags, even if they are going to be airport-bound until their flight.

  32. I plan extra time as needed and my next flight will be one of those. I’m flying Frontier for the first time. I like to check my luggage with skycaps but Frontier doesn’t use them.

    I need wheelchair assistance to the gate. It’s not my usual airport, John Wayne SNA in Orange Co, CA is. It’s been 18 years since flying out if Ontario ONT in CA and I have no idea how the wheelchair service is there. The only things I’m sure of are my preassigned seat and the excess wait while their agents try to score $10 each off as many bags that actually fit but they’ll try to deny they do.

    So for my first time on a new airline with a bad reputation and in a different airport, I might even get there 3 hours early. Hey, I have Ancestry research and word games to make the time fly…

  33. We just flew back from Birmingham UK to Denver and first leg was on Lufthansa. We were told to arrive 3 hours early for our flight so we arrived at 6:30am for a 9:30 flight. We figured we’d check our bags and head through security and relax in the United lounge and grab coffee and breakfast. Lufthansa refused to check our bags until 7:45. We stood around like idiots waiting for over an hour until they took our bags. By then the security line was huge and we were grateful for our elite status to get through quicker. We were lucky to be able to grab a piece of toast and some coffee before heading to our gate. What’s the point of having lounge access if they won’t check your bags so you can go and relax after security? It’s a perk we’re using less and less with this kind of nonsense.

  34. I get to BUF early because I like to eat local food at the airport. Often flights are late leaving. I always try to get to LAX three hours before my international flights and a bit less for domestic flights. PNH flights don’t have open check in until 2 1/2 hours before flight time but everything after the check in line is fast. BKK flights are similar to PNH flights.

  35. I missed my flight once.

    Since then, I’m there 2 hours ahead.

    I’ve had things like the people mover from the rental car in MIA to be not running and a 30 person long cab line. TSA pre check can be very long too (I have clear but they aren’t always in the terminal I’m leaving from).

  36. I try to arrive at the airport around 90 minutes or so early (with time to hit the lounge), though sometimes it’s closer to an hour. And, I’ve never had an issue with that at my home airport of ORD. Now, I nearly got burned at ATL (twice) in spite of arriving more than 90 mins early and having PreCheck. In fact, that dump is what prompted me to sign on with CLEAR (though that was STILL 30 mins at ATL). But that’s an aberration and pretty much every other airport can be treated as I do ORD. For smaller airports, an hour is more than enough. Aside from that overrated and awful airport, rarely do I have any issues at domestic airports – even on international flights (and the extra time suggestion probably allows for the document check, which takes 5 mins at most). .

    Now, airports overseas have different rules and I’ve had some of them where I got to the check in dest 58 mins before flight time and was informed that the flight was closed and I missed it. So, the 2-3 hour thing would be safer when abroad.

  37. It depends on the airport. Many airports are easy to get into and out from. Others like LAX, can be a nightmare for that aspect. For those difficult airports to access, it makes sense to add padding time. For other easy access airports, arriving early for lounge time or to be overly safe about making a flight can be overrated. I never want to miss a flight, so yeah, maybe I do spend too much time at airports.

  38. After forty minutes in security line and then 10 in Passport Control in FRA I missed my connection by 2 minutes. Was told it was my fault and lost $2000 for that flight. I don’t mind being early if I can get a good cup of coffee and scroll through my iPad in relative comfort. On another flight I had a similar experience of having to arrive at 7 am and the check in crew didn’t arrive until 8. But by 8 the line was a mile long (not quite) and I was glad I was near the front.

  39. In 2022, I missed a flight in Mexico City on my way to Nicaragua. Was told that because I wasn’t there 4 hours before my flight, it was entirely my fault.

    Because of COVID testing rules that were still in place at that time, there was no way I could make it to Nicaragua in time for my event.

    I would rather sit in an airport than miss a trip.

  40. It’s another reason to drive if you are going on a relatively short trip. If you figure the time and/or cost driving and parking at the airport or taking an uber, to arrive 2 1/2 hours early, then on the other side the time and expense after arriving at the gate, waiting for luggage, taking a rental car shuttle or uber to hotel or destination-well, I’d just as soon pack a bag and pull my car out of the garage and spend 5 hours behind the wheel. Obviously, not feasible for international or long trips with a quick turnaround.

  41. It’s a recommendation that allows for things to go wrong. They make the recommendation on the assumption that you’re checking a bag, check in is going to be a zoo, and security is going to be a zoo.

    My last flight out of DCA was in the early morning and I needed all of that time to get through security, get to my gate, and get some slightly-better-than-airline food for my flight so I wouldn’t arrive at my destination hangry.

    Ironically, I allowed extra time for LAX on the return because I had heard rumors about how poorly designed it is and I didn’t know it and ended up way early. (I always allow extra time in unfamiliar airports).

    Dear LAX designers, why is there a Peet’s and a California Pizza Kitchen between gate 64A and 64B. Why are they A and B if they *aren’t actually next to each other*?

    And it’s still not as bad as LHR.

  42. All good unless you are in Bangkok!
    Knowing the traffic situation in Bangkok, I left the largest buffer I have ever left for a flight (1 hr 40 minutes for a 20 minute drive) and it was the closest we have ever come to missing a flight, just 2 minutes before bag check cutoff (ultra low cost airline so even roll a boards had to be checked).

  43. It took us over an hour to go through TSA at Orlando MCO last week. We arrived at the airport almost 3 hours before our flight and only had half an hour or so to relax in the lounge after returning our hire car, checking in the bag, TSA, taking a packed train to the gate, etc.
    The problem is that we never really know how bad security will be, we can go through in 20 minutes or 2 hours.

  44. Here’s an ironic experience related to the advice to show up early to the airport. We checked out of our hotel and arrived at Atlanta Airport about three hours before our flight and Alaska Airlines wouldn’t check us (or our bags) in. You can’t check in more than two hours ahead of your flight. The Alaska Airlines website says two hours, but if you actually take their advice, you might still have to wait to check in.

  45. Thanks for the heads up about Orlando. I’ll be flying out of it for the first time next month. It’ll be my return trip so at least it won’t be my first time on Frontier.

  46. @Loren. We are planning on going to London and taking the Eurostar to Paris. I understand you don’t need a visa for either place but you do for Australia. Is it very difficult to apply for a visa?

  47. If I am at the airport 2 hours early, i made a mistake on timing. 😉

  48. @Carol Lewis:
    > We are planning on going to London and taking the Eurostar to Paris. I understand you don’t need a visa for either place but you do for Australia. Is it very difficult to apply for a visa?

    It is very dependent on the country you are trying to enter. First-world countries will check your name against those they don’t want in the country and will consider whether you’re likely to overstay. Repressive countries will consider if you’re likely to say things they don’t like (good luck getting a visa to China if you work for the news!)

    Go to the website in your country of residence for the embassy of the country you wish to visit and they usually make it clear what is required. (Note that the rules may vary based on where you live!) There can be some surprises–China requires all applications from Americans to be in person, but permits designated agents. In practice that ends up being you deal with a visa service who goes and delivers the applications and then picks them up later–this is a tit-for-tat because initial US visas normally require an embassy visit.

    Most of my experience is from 40+ years ago. My information on China is more current because my wife is from China, all her relatives are there.

  49. @Carol Lewis – Side tip

    If you are flying into LHR, allow a couple of hours to get through customs. They appear to have sped it up drastically, but that can’t be counted on. Never do any kind of tight connection through LHR whether it’s to an ongoing flight or a train.

    And when coming back…it’s a balance. You don’t want to miss your flight, but you really really don’t want to be spending longer than necessary in LHR. They don’t give you your gate number until 10 minutes before boarding and you’re expected to crowd in with all the other passengers in a terminal lounge that never has enough seating. LHR is not a fun airport in any direction.

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