How early do you get to the airport? The great timing debate

How early do you get to the airport? The great timing debate
Copyright 2019 CNN
How early should you really check in at the airport?

How early should you get to the airport before your flight? Sure, the official line is two hours for domestic travel and three hours for international, but we all have our own airport timing strategy.

Do you prefer a stress-free trip, arriving early but losing half a day to terminal time, or do you prefer the adrenaline-filled last-minute dash — and possibly missing your flight? CNN Travel staffers come down on both sides of the issue.

Go to the airport early. You’ll thank me

David G. Allan, CNN’s Editorial Director for Features (including Travel), lives in Atlanta — home to the country’s busiest airport, or so it weirdly brags. If you spot a 40-something-year-old man sitting at a gate there happily writing in his journal, reading a good book or writing a piece for his column The Wisdom Project, it’s probably him.

Don’t we have enough stress in our lives than to manufacture extra, for no reason?

When I’m cutting it close to making a flight — as we’ve all done at one point, either by design or unforeseen circumstances — every segment between home and the boarding gate is maddening.

Uber drivers, security lines, intra-airport transportation and every uncivilized lout who doesn’t know the universal rule of standing to the right on an escalator or moving sidewalk so that I can pass by — they all induce murderous tendencies because they unwittingly threaten to keep me from making my flight.

Air rage starts with the time you leave for the airport.

By contrast, whenever I can manage to give myself plenty of time, I actually enjoy going to the airport. I bring reading material for any waiting. I am the patron saint of security checkpoints, benevolently allowing latecomers to go ahead of me and speaking kindly to the overworked, underpaid security staff who keep us all safe. During the five minutes without reading material, phone or shoes, I transform the 20 steps through the scanner into a walking meditation. As I make my way to the gate, I listen to music or a favorite podcast if I’m traveling alone.

Once at my gate (where I always get a seat while I wait), I read, or write, or watch CNN — the undisputed champion of airport networks. I queue up in my boarding line early so that I’m guaranteed to have room in the overhead bins for my luggage once I board. Situated in my seat, I have more time to read, send texts or email, or sometimes I can start watching a movie.

Doesn’t that all sound nice? Don’t you want that to be your general airport experience? Well, none of those things happen when I only give myself 30 minutes to go from curbside drop-off to boarding last call.

As for those unenlightened Russian-airport-roulette-playing adrenaline junkies who like to save time doing more of whatever they were doing before they left for the airport, I don’t know whether to pity or scold them.

“WTF, man! You’re holding up the flight because you waited until the last minute!” That’s what I would yell to the last stragglers boarding my flight, if only I wasn’t so blissed out because I made better life decisions than they did about how I spend my time traveling.

Save time and money with my cutting-it-close strategy

NYC-based Senior Editor Stacey Lastoe appreciates having three major airport options near her home in Brooklyn but likes to get in and out of them as quickly as possible. Her cutting-it-close strategy is both a time and money game-changer. If she has five minutes to spare before boarding, she enjoys refilling her reusable water bottle and texting her husband to let him know she made it on time.

When I first started dating my now-husband, I was annoyed to learn he was one of those people who liked to get to the airport extremely early. Like time-to-make-silly-airport-purchases early, time-to-dawdle-to-the-gate early. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a dawdler.

I operate always with a pretty strong sense of urgency. As such, large group outings or tours rattle me. As does killing time, a most precious commodity these days.

And showing up early at the airport generally means time to kill, which means money to spend. I understand the guidelines of arriving three hours before an international flight and two hours before a domestic one, and I think it’s nonsense.

If you want to save time (and money; see above) and not go stir-crazy in a confined area full of irritable, jet-lagged individuals, you’ll need to perfect your cutting-it-close game.

Type A folks might relate to my desire to spend any extra time before a trip preparing my apartment for my departure: watering plants, double-checking the toaster oven’s unplugged, folding the last few items of clean laundry and playing a game of fetch with my dog.

Uninterested in wandering aimlessly around JFK or LGA (my home airports) hours before takeoff, I’d much rather give my cab driver firm instructions on how much hustle he or she needs to put into the drive from Brooklyn to Queens, based on what time my flight is leaving.

This has never failed me. In fact, I’ve never met a NYC taxi driver who didn’t seem to appreciate the sense of urgency travelers like me demonstrate as soon as we buckle up and relay relevant terminal information.

It’s not exactly that I relish the adrenaline rush of literally running full-speed to the gate on those busy mornings when security has demonstrated a lack of speediness or I learn my gate is at the butt end of the terminal or an accident on the BQE has hindered my driver’s otherwise effective airport driving — but I don’t hate it.

An eight-time marathoner who has literally run thousands of miles in my lifetime, I can, if necessary, deftly weave through the crowds and random moving vehicle to make it to the gate before the door closes. As my favorite running instructor says during particularly grueling parts of the workout: “It feels good to run fast!”

I’ve arrived breathless too many times to count, perspiration dripping down my shirt, eyes wide and hopeful as I realize I’ve made it. Again. I’m getting on this flight!

It helps to wear flats and travel relatively lightly of course — I am a carry-on proponent. And it helps to recognize when it’ll be faster to book it on foot and skip the moving walkway, where dawdling is practically an art. Coffee — made and consumed at home — is useful, too.

I reckon my strategy has saved me hundreds of dollars — unless you factor in all the trips I take with my spouse. Our consistent early arrivals have led to many an overpriced Bloody Mary. It’s called choosing your battles.