Air Travel Guide: When to Arrive, Check-In, and More

Air Travel Guide: When to Arrive, Check-In, and More

Air travel is all about timing. Knowing when to arrive at the airport, when check-in kiosks open, and when your departure gate closes helps ensure you have plenty of time to check in your luggage, move through security, and find your boarding gate. Here we’ll explain how to schedule your time on your next airport trip.

How Early to Get to the Airport

How early you need to get to the airport depends on whether you’re catching a domestic or international flight.

Domestic Flights:

For domestic flights, you should be at the airport for a minimum of 45 minutes before your flight, although it’s much safer to be there 90 minutes to two hours before departure. Many airlines have a strict cut-off time for checking baggage that ends 45 minutes before departure to make sure all checked luggage gets on the plane. Show up even a few minutes after the 45-minute cutoff, and you may not be able to check your bag.

One of the advantages of traveling with a carry-on is avoiding the need to check luggage, but you'll still need time to navigate TSA security and arrive at your gate at least fifteen minutes before departure.

International Flights:

For international travel, plan to be at the airport three or four hours before departure. In addition to checking bags, going through security, and getting to your departure gate, you also need to factor in delays caused by passport checks, visa applications, and customs inspections. Some airlines require you to check in at least an hour before an international flight, so contact your airline to see if this time limit applies to your flight.

How Early Can You Check in for a Flight?

Checking in early helps ensure you make your flight with time to spare, which begs the question of how early can you check in for a flight? If you check in online or use your airline’s app, you can electronically check in 24 hours before your scheduled departure, so you just have to check your luggage at the airport, get through security, and reach your departure gate when you get to the airport.

If you’re checking in at the airline kiosk, contact your airline and ask when they open for check-ins. Generally, US airlines open check-ins three hours before departure.

How Early Can You Check Bags?

Generally speaking, you can check your bags two to six hours before your flight in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. Ask your airline for their specific times. It’s sometimes possible to check your bags 12 hours before a same-day flight in major airports, but this is at the discretion of the check-in staff and is by not guaranteed. Here’s how early you can check your bags on some of the most popular US domestic airlines:

  • How early can I check my bags on Southwest?Four hours before departure.
  • How early can I check my bags on Delta?Six hours before departure.
  • How early can I check my bags in America?Four hours before departure.
  • How early can I check my bags on United?Four hours before departure.

International Checked Bags

If you’re flying within or out of Asia, Europe, or the Middle East, expect to be able to check your bags two to four hours before departure, depending on your airline. Premium airlines may allow you to drop off luggage as early as 24 hours before your flight, either for free or as a paid service. Again, check with your airline.

When Does Boarding Start?

Boarding for domestic and international flights usually begins thirty minutes to one hour before scheduled departure, beginning with first-class and business passengers. Be sure to check the scheduled departure for your flight on the airport screens. If a plane is running late, the flight may leave before the time scheduled on your ticket.

When Does Boarding End?

Typically, departure gates close fifteen minutes before departure. Passengers are not allowed on board once the doors close, and seats may be assigned to standby travelers if you miss this deadline.

Knowing how early to get to the airport, when to check in, and when boarding starts helps you navigate airports with plenty of time. Combine this with our advice on how to prevent flight delays, and you’ll have a much more enjoyable trip.


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