How Early Do You Really Need to Arrive at the Airport?


According to the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a record 1.1 billion travelers flew to and from United States destinations in 2019. However, as of March 2021, U.S. air travel remains at historic lows, nearly 61 percent less than 2019 figures. With air travel down by such a large amount, do travelers still need to arrive at the airport three hours early to reach their boarding gates on time, or can they take a more leisurely approach?

TSA Recommendations

Before breaking down the various airlines’ recommendations, it makes sense to go to the source: the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA. Currently, the TSA offers its Pre-Check program, which provides you with a Known Traveler Number. Adding this number to your airline reservation allows you to pass through TSA screening without removing shoes, belts, or light jackets and enables you to keep laptops and 3-1-1 liquids with you instead of running them through the scanner. The program costs $85 for five years.

Most of the cautions to arrive at the airport early pertain to getting through TSA screening. The TSA states that 96 percent of TSA Pre-Check passengers waited less than five minutes for screening in September 2021. In addition, over 80 airlines flying out of more than 200 airports accommodate the Pre-Check program. The ten-minute in-person enrollment appointment includes fingerprinting at one of more than 380 enrollment centers for a background check.

Not a Frequent Flyer?

If you only fly occasionally and choose not to enroll in Pre-Check, your arrival time will depend on the time of year, the size of the airport, how many people you travel with, and which airline you select. The more people in your party, the longer your airport screening time will take. Families with small children and babies, people using mobility devices or traveling with medical equipment, and people with a lot of luggage to check will find it necessary to arrive as early as possible, no less than two to three hours ahead of their flight time.

How to Speed Check-in Time

If you opted not to join Pre-Check, pack lightly: wear slip-on shoes and no belts or accessories, and carry as few items in your pockets as possible. Remove shoes and jackets and place them in the screening bin with laptops, messenger bags, purses, diaper bags, and toys. Pass through the screener and follow all directions given by TSA agents. Follow these tips for a smooth experience and enjoy your trip!

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