There are two types of flyers in the world – those that leave for the airport at a reasonable time before a flight and everyone else who thinks those kind of people are risk-taking-maniacs who want nothing more than the thrill of almost missing a flight. For many, the notion of arriving at the airport 3 hours before an international flight is one airline commandment that can’t be broken – except that even most airlines don’t recommend you get to the airport that early.
Where Does The 3 Hour Rule Come From Anyway?
There are two factors the airlines use to determine their recommendations on how early you should show up at the airport before any flight: the time it takes for a checked bag to get to the plane from the counter and how long it takes a passenger to get to the gate from the counter. (The airlines see a lot of passengers giving them a huge data set with which to base these times.) It turns out the total time between the two have varied over time, they have remained equal to one another over time.
- So, the time it takes for you to get from the counter to your gate – passing through security, walking, etc. – is roughly equal to the time it takes your checked bag to get on the airplane.
Despite what it feels like to us, getting through security now is a lot quicker than it was 20 years ago and our bags also get to the planes faster too. (As most experienced ramp agents will tell you.) The 3 hour rule may have been practical for most flights in a time when all bags were routinely opened for searches, passports couldn’t be scanned electronically, ticket records weren’t computerized; but not so much now.
Save Yourself An Hour
The sweet spot for getting to the airport before an international flight is actually two hours before scheduled take off. Two hours isn’t an arbitrary time I’m just making up, it’s based on how the airlines calculate the time you’re recommended to show up. (For some, it’s even as little as 90 minutes.) Again, the airlines base their recommendations according to the amount of time it takes for a checked bag to get from the check-in counter to the gate – which is roughly equal to the amount of time it takes the passenger to get to the gate.
For most airports this time is calculated as 45 minutes – the minimum amount of time it takes for your checked bag to get to the gate. For those of you who traveling with checked bags, this is the absolute latest you can get to the check-in counter. Otherwise, you won’t be allowed to check bags which might be a deal breaker for your flight depending on your backpack or suitcase.
Add in 30 minutes in line to get to the counter (as the airlines do), totaling 120 minutes. Remember, this time varies by airline, airport, and destination so be sure to check on the airline’s site for last check-in times.
More Time If You Don’t Have Checked Luggage
Traveling without checked bags not only saves you a lot of time upon arrival since you can skip baggage claim, it also generally means you can get to the airline 30 minutes later (around 90 minutes) before an international flight. Again, this isn’t an arbitrary time – it’s what the majority of airlines recommend. Not having checked luggage often means you don’t need to see an agent at the check-in counter and pick up your tickets directly from a kiosk.
Also, some destinations with strict visa or security controls (e.g. Israel) often mean you need to get to the airport earlier than 2 hours before your flight.
Cut It Efficiently Close
Some airports are small enough where you can show up even an hour before a scheduled flight but unless you know it well enough it’s best not to get carried away with procrastination. Inside the United States you can check security wait times with the TSA, use What’s Busy for future flights, plus see how long a walk to your gate will take with Gate Guru.
Despite all of your best efforts, in case you do show up too late you can try missing your flight for free without paying for re-booking.
I totally agree that showing up 3 hours is too much time.
Well, that might be true – unless you fly to Israel (or out of Israel) and have a bunch of stamps in your passport from Muslim countries. 3 hours before at the airport and almost missed my flight – they put me in a room, asked me hundreds of questions and checked intensly my luggage. I flew 3 times to Israel. Every time the same hassle. Love the country though 🙂
It’s one destination where most airlines specifically tell you to arrive at least 3 hours early to make the flight. Given all the scrutiny, makes sense!
The best part of it is that most check in desks don’t even open until 2 hours before the flight!!
A very good point and there never seems to be good food until you get past security.
Or seats! I have often had to spend the night at London Stansted or London Luton Airports as my flights were so early in the morning (6 am) that where were no buses at a reasonable time that would actually get me there in time (aka 2 or 1 and a half hour before departure). And each time I was shocked by the lack of services. You force people who can’t afford a taxi to spend the night at the airport, and that airport doesn’t have chairs or showers.
On the other hand, I have actually been grateful to the 3 hours rule a few times too: in the UK (again) public transportation is not very well organised. Once a power shortage meant that the otherwise 50 mins train ride from Liverpool st. train station to Stansted took almost 120 minutes (yup, two hours). I barely made it, and that’s because when I finally got to the last station served, instead of hopping on the suggested bus I rushed for a taxi. Another time, the bus driver in Colchester, Essex, had simply drank too much, passed out and did not show up for work and a bunch of passengers were left waiting for like one hour until eventually someone arrived. HATS OFF!
Departure halls in general are terrible before security. Leaving? We don’t care! Arriving on the other hand… 🙂
I had always been told two hours. Never even heard of three. Sometimes it is worth the 5 minute search to see how an airport operates. I took a flight from Loikaw, Myanmar to Yangon. Loikaw had a single flight every 3 days. The airport isn’t even open 90% of the time. I showed up two hours early and ended up waiting outside the building for 90 minutes along with some stay dogs.
I still haven’t made it to Myanmar yet but plan to do so within the next 18 months. It’s one of the relatively few places not totally modernized