How early should I arrive at the airport for my flight?

By David Flynn, June 2 2014
How early should I arrive at the airport for my flight?

TALKING POINT | How early should you arrive at the airport ahead of your flight? Most airlines suggest somewhere between two hours and 60 minutes depending on the airline, the airport and where you're flying to.

But a US professor reckons the best time to arrive at the airport is "as late as possible." And he's serious.

The Daily Mail reports that Professor Jordan Ellenberg, from the University of Wisconsin, holds that every hour a traveller spends at the airport is a "negative unit", as they could have been relaxing in the comfort of their own home instead.

In his new book How Not To Be Wrong – The Hidden Maths Of Everyday Life, Ellenberg says the risk of possibly missing your flight compared with the wasted hours you would spend at the airport over your lifetime is worth it.

Of course, it “depends on how you personally feel about the relative merits of missing planes and wasting time,” he told The Sunday Times.

“But if in the course of a lifetime you never miss a flight then you may not have the best strategy."

"If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re not doing it right.”

Well, we've got news for the good professor. If you've never missed a flight, you actually are doing it right. You're doing it like a pro.

Because people are supposed to catch their flights.

That's the whole idea: you pay for a ticket, you go to the airport in time to board your plane and you fly away. That's how it works.

Arriving to the airport "as late as possible" – late enough to miss the flight if there's any unexpected delays on the road, at checkin, at security? Wrong strategy.

Getting there late that instead of having time to relax in the lounge you're hustling straight to the boarding gate? No thanks.

In fact, like many travellers I'd rather clock up an extra hour in the lounge – or even enjoying a cuppa at the airport cafe with a book to ready – comfortable in the knowledge that I'm on the spot and ready to go.

That hour isn't a "negative unit". In fact, depending on the lounge and your attitude it's one of the most positive ways to begin your journey.

You're welcome to squeeze out that last hour at home, Professor Ellenberg, and set of for the airport "as late as possible."

I'll take my chances heading to the airport a little earlier and spending a 'negative hour' in the lounge.

And because I've never missed a flight, Professor Ellenberg, I reckon my strategy trumps yours.

How early do you get to the airport before your flight?

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David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

20 Sep 2011

Total posts 27

I'll take those couple of hours of "too early early": relaxing in the Qantas lounge, catching up on a bit or work or reading, any day of the week over being stressed to the eyeballs, rushing like a headless chook to catch your flight with minutes to spare.  And I'm a Professor too.  Trust me.

Virgin Australia - Platinum

21 Dec 2012

Total posts 87

Great article! Even with lounge access I rarely get to the airport with less than 20 minutes or so till it leaves when leaving from my house. I have never missed a flight doing that and it allows me to be doing better things beforehand! In saying that, if I am travelling home I give myself a bit more time as traffic in other cities can be more difficult to predict and its nice to have a few drinks in the lounge for the 'homeward bound' journey.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

19 Feb 2014

Total posts 445

I always find the more I become familiar with the airport, the later I leave it.  My flight closes at 6am, and I usually arrive at around 5:45am.  As for using the international airport, I like to arrive a bit earlier just to 'people watch' haha.


12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1463

If you do not have access to lounge, than it is not that big enjoyment to be extra hour at airport – this is for sure. Saying that I agree with David on main point – it is better to be an hour early then a minute later. I aim at about an hour to spare and one day it really pays off – my dear forget her bag at home when we flying to Europe. I have passports, so technically we could fly, but you know how many “essential” things could be found in lady’s bag. So instead of relaxing in lounge we were waiting for our son to bring her bag in front of airport. Thus we killed all my hour allowance, rushed through security and jump on the plane some 10 min before door was closed

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 May 2013

Total posts 73

Tell all those people typing away on emails and work using the lounge wifi that their time is a "negative unit".


23 Jan 2013

Total posts 175

I always arrive 3 hours before my flight as recommended by international airports. Doing so takes away all stress associated with what if scenarios:

- what if there is a major traffic delay?

- what if there is a long line at check in or security?

- what if I forget something important? (at least early arrival gives some chance of sorting out that issue) 

That said, I like to relax in the lounge as long as possible for my flight. Despite this. I often find myself waiting at the gate as 'last call' doesn't always translate to 'we have boarded the plane'. 

Better safe than sorry. I'm applying this to my upcoming flight as I attempt to reach Sydney Airport on a Friday evening (luckily I'm not the one driving!) 


23 Jan 2013

Total posts 175

Just to add to the article:

Is the extra stress of worrying about missing the flight by leaving late actually worth that extra time at home? What kind of emotional toll does that have on a flyer and how does this affect the flying experience? 

Id love some research into that. It would be great to test the brainwaves and heart rate (etc) of passengers leaving plenty of time as opposed to those leaving it to the last minute. 

Perhaps ABT could conduct a little experiment?!

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2549

Hi Ben: we're not about to wire up a bunch of readers and chart their brainwaves under simulated stress (as much fun as that might be), but I definitely can feel stressed when I am leaving home late for the airport, even when 'late' means just a half hour after my usually very early arrival time.

For instance, for Qantas/Oneworld flights I typically aim to get to the airport bang on the '3 hours before departure' mark, when checkin opens, which means having my driver pick me up around 30 minutes prior to that. If I'm running behind schedule by, say, 30-45 minutes or (gasp!) one hour, I still get to the airport with plenty of time but I can really 'feel' the stress mounting.

By comparison, when I take advantage of very early checking for Qantas international flights (to beat the morning peak hour traffic and enjoy plenty of productive lounge time) – leaving home at perhaps 6am with departure maybe six hours away – I feel on top of the world, zero stress and total 'looking forward to my trip'.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

30 Apr 2014

Total posts 8

I love airports. I love the people watching, the shopping and doing things like drinking 4 Bellinis from Milestones at Vancouver airport before heading home where we don't have Bellinis like they do. Give me that extra hour at the airport any day.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Oct 2013

Total posts 93

Personally I feel like I'm much more productive in the lounge, knowing that I'm on time to make my flight, rather than staying a bit later at home or at the office, worrying during that "gained" extra hour or so that I may be cutting it too close (especially for those last flights of the day). Great rebuttal David!

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 529

I hate hanging around airports and even the allure of the First Class lounge bores me now. I tend to arrive as late as possible before departure. If I can time it right I will arrive with enough time to check in and get through customs and head straight to the gate. Sometimes it is unpredictable how busy the airport is going to be but most of the time it works out and I haven't missed a flight yet. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

08 Sep 2012

Total posts 241

I love airports. So there is never a 'too early' for me, unless I can't check in my luggage in which case it can be annoying if I'm hauling around a large suitcase.

Airports these days have become quite pleasant places to spend time with great window shopping opportunities and a variety of food options.

Even with the lounge, I often spend a few hours relaxing and working there and time it so that I take about 30 mins to get to the gate slowing browsing the shops. In major hugs like Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Frankfurt and Heathrow I also love the people watching. I enjoy seeing travellers from all walks of life and nationalities which are often broader cross section of the population to the usual lounge dwellers.

In the end, it comes down to personal preference. I like to get to the airport early, without rush and absorb the whole experience. No matter how often I do it.

First time to comment so be gentle.

I feel the exact opposite: 
Efficiently is to arrive as late as possible and board with the last bunch of passengers. 
I flew in 2013 and half of 2014 eighty four international flights, 95% with no checked in luggage.
Missed 4 and in all cases the reaction was swift, thus result reasonable. 
Let me elaborate:   

1. I'm based in HK. and i find that the key issue since most inter' flights out of here have much more frequencies than out of Aust citiies so missing a flight isn't as  "heavy" as doing so form Aust.

2. Many travelers are not aware of "no show" fee. 100-200USD in most cases.
2.1 that means that if you don't show up (or are late), your segment isn't wasted, you just pay that penalty and are re-booked.
2.2 Saying that, i have never actually paid or had any issues since ALL airlines in my experience (Korean, SingAir, Cathay, China Airlines) have just put me on the next flight (might be due to my FF status or my i don't know what).

3. I found the SQ are  extremely useful in checking in AFTER desk is already closed (i.e les than 30 mins before departure if you have no checked in luggage and talk to the right person in charge). The rest are almost as useful when you need them.

4. In chinese airports: SHA, PVG, CAN, SZX,PEK domestic flights have express check-in counters and they close 40mins before departure. Though, and this is the point, even if you miss your scheduled, you will be put on the next available flight in many cases of the competitor, just because that's their agreement on these specific routes on morning flights. 
Real time Example: If you have a chinese Eastern 07:25 PVG-SXZ, and check in closed, you will be checked in by China Eastern and fly with shenzhen air at 07:40.
Don't catch me on this one: i don't live in China for 4 years now and am less familiar with current situ.

Summery: being the average early 2.5 hours before departure 84 times means waiting for 8.75 days compared to just making it, 70~ mins before departure(4.1 days) turns out to be much more traveling time on a span of a FF's career even when taking into account time wasted when waiting for the next flight (2-5 hours).

*Disclaimer: I'm a young Israeli/Australian with no boss on my head and my philisophy of "Missing flights isn't the end of the world, but more like a bus and there is always the next one" might not be suitable for everyone but probably works best for me and for other very Frequent travelers. 
Try it at your own risk :) 

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