Many of us have memories of hurriedly rushing out of our homes as children, stress abound, maybe some yelling, all to get our stuff in the car, zoom over to the airport, and… wait there for hours. This is due in part to parents hedging against children being rambunctious and unpredictable, but mostly due to a pervasive myth of just when you have to be at the airport.
Some airports have beautiful views. Others, not so much, but at least you can see planes taking off, worry about whether that lone luggage over there is unattended, waste 20 minutes failing to connect to the WiFi, pay $5 per bottle of water, and try to find an outlet – or of course, use a lounge.
Despite how nice airport lounges can be, we all have better things to do with our time than sit around in airports. An extra hour or two in bed, or exploring, or a having a later night out, or a slightly more leisurely morning (perhaps shopping or eating croissants), or getting in an extra call or other kind of work before your flight, are all excellent ideas that come to mind. Extreme last minute packing on the other hand, not such a great idea – but it happens, and wouldn’t you love those extra 2 hours when it does.
But the airlines and airports (the Aviation Industrial Complex – who are absolutely in bed with the International $5 “And Up” Water Coalition racketeers) wouldn’t have you do any of that. The airlines would rather you get there early so there’s no chance they’ll be inconvenienced (plus maybe make a couple of bucks from those last minute packers who didn’t weigh their luggage, or didn’t have time to decide which pair of jeans they were going to toss), and of course the airports would rather have you there early so you have more time to browse the all the amazing duty-free merchandise.
As an aside, I’ll give credit where it’s due: making you walk through the shops on your way to your flight, like how Disney makes you exit the ride into the shop selling the merchandise for that particular ride, was a stroke of genius.
Back to the point, however, there’s no reason for you to spend any more time than you have to, walking through their crafty layouts, and being extorted for water money – but they don’t want you to know that.
What they want you to know and do, is to get to the airport 3 hours before your flight time, sometimes 2 hours for domestic flights. It’s listed on the information pages of both the airlines and the airports.
But that’s just a recommendation, and it’s not the actual number that’s important.
What’s important in figuring out when you need to be there, is how long before the flight time the check-in counter closes.
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The 2-3 hours is a recommendation misrepresented as a requirement, whereas the actual requirement, is that you be there only 45-60 minutes before the flight time, in most cases (45 for domestic, 60 for international). Sometimes, they’ll stay open past that, and other times, depending on the airline and the countries involved, the times may differ, such as requiring 60 minutes for domestic and 90 for international.
It does vary based on airline and location, so make sure to search for the specific airline’s official website. If you can’t find it there, don’t rely on third party sites (which can have outdated, or purely inferred/invented, and potentially inaccurate information). You don’t want to miss your flight because you didn’t want to spend a few minutes on hold, and decided to bet on the accuracy of “rampager772″‘s 5 year old post on a travel forum. Call the airline directly and ask, specifically:
“How long before the flight time does the check in counter close?”
They’ll usually ask you for your flight number and/or the airport/destination details (since the same airline can have different times based on the locations), and then give you a time limit.
If you’re already savvy with your airport transportation and check-in procedures, this will be the time frame you’re going to aim to be at the airport, in order to maximize your time outside of the airport.
There are, however, some pretty predictable factors outside of just the check-in counter closing time (and potentially outside your control – but not outside your ability to easily take into account), that would determine the best time to arrive at the airport.