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Why do I need to be so early at airports?

A contentious question for both seasoned jetsetters and first-time fliers is: How early should I get to the airport?

It's more likely that the destination and timing of your travel can help you find a sweet spot. Are you travelling domestically or internationally? How big or busy is the departure airport, and what are your airline’s check-in requirements? And there may be other obscure delays that depend upon the airport you're travelling through. You can also base your arrival plan on when you've booked your flight. Is it a busy time of year? Is it a busy time of day? Do you have access to faster lines because of mileage status, first-class tickets, or pre-screening? Are you travelling with a family of five? What would it cost if you missed your flight? If you like to play with risk, know how restrictive your ticket and/or airline is. You may need to read the fare rules associated with your ticket to determine this. Below are some general rules of thumb to ensure you always know how early to arrive at the airport.

Domestic flights

If you're flying domestic but through a major airport and you have bags to check, get there two hours early before departure. If you have no bags to check, or you're able to check in online and acquire your boarding pass on your own, however, you can arrive 90 minutes before your flight's departure time.

International flights

When travelling internationally, certain privileges often don't apply. With that in mind, arrive three hours ahead of departure time, to be safe. And while you might not need a coronavirus test to depart a country like the U.S., remember that returning still requires proof of a negative COVID test result prior to boarding, which could further delay the process. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the pandemic is causing hefty delays at airports across the globe. “Pre-COVID-19, passengers, on average, spent about 1.5 hours in travel processes for every journey (check-in, security, border control, customs, and baggage claim),” the group says. When travel began to bounce back this spring, peak-hour airport processing times doubled, to three hours. The greatest increases are at check-in and border control (emigration and immigration), IATA says. On international flights, the plane is less likely to take off without you if your bag is already on board. But if you don’t show up at the gate for last call, the airline is more likely to pull your bag than hold the flight. But, remember if it’s a full flight and you aren’t in the boarding area within the airline’s specified time frame they could give your seat to another passenger and bump you without paying any compensation. It doesn’t actually matter whether the airplane door is open or closed. (This also holds true for domestic flights, but the timeframe is usually 15 to 30 minutes from departure; check your airline's rules.) That being said, planes can taxi away from a gate as early as 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure. Once the plane is full, (you may not the one in your seat, if you're late) it’s going to leave.

Don't make the mistake of thinking airlines or fellow passengers will always let you move to the front of the security line if

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your plane is about to leave. Not only can there be flat denials for such assistance, but we’ve also received letters from readers who ran into this problem, some of whom intended to get to the airport moments before the check-in cut-off, but due to hotel-shuttle snafus, inadequate airline staffing, flat tires, traffic jams, or other issues, were not able to do so. They were refused any opportunity to move forward in the security line, missed their flights, and had to pay hefty change fees or, in some cases, purchase new tickets.

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