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Why You Have to Be at the Airport 3 Hours Early for International Flights

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Having flown internationally hundreds of times, I’ve had my fair share of moments where I was convinced I was gonna miss my flight – and not even a Terminator on a Harley Davidson could save me.

I mostly blame my chronic condition “Tempus optimist” (meaning “time optimist” in Latin according to Google Translate).

Had I just been aiming to arrive at the airport earlier, all these moments could have been avoided.

Stress

Just to make it clear, the recommended arrival time before your flight depends on the airport and the airline you’re traveling with, so always check up with them to be sure.

Now let’s go through the reasons why you always want to be better safe than sorry when it comes to arriving at the airport on time.

I’m pretty sure at least one of the reasons will surprise you.

Let’s get started.

Why You Need More Time at the Airport With International Flights

  • Check-in and boarding time deadlines are often earlier
    For example, Delta Airlines closes check-in 1 hour before compared to the 30 min. with domestic flights

  • Checking in at the airport is mandatory
    Sometimes the airline has to check whether you have all the required documents needed for your destination. And you’re more likely to have luggage for check-in

  • Extra immigration/passport control
    These checkpoints are usually accompanied by an immigration officer or the more modern self-check-in machines.

Is It OK To Arrive 2 Hours Before International Flight?

It depends – but it’s often a bad idea.

By doing so you’ll lose the time buffer covering unpredictable delays whether it’s on your journey to the airport or after arriving there.

So before deciding to do so you should become familiar with these and decide whether there’s a risk of them or not (I share them all in a second).

But remember that international departures are usually more expensive and less frequent, so decreasing the risks often makes sense. And always gives more peace of mind.


Top 11 Surprises That Can Delay Your Journey

Chances are that one or more of these reasons for a delay might come as a surprise.

1. Traffic Jams

Often caused by rush hours, road work, or accidents.

A good idea is to take advantage of Google Maps.

Here you can choose what date and time you intend to arrive at the airport, and by using all their mighty data they will provide you with a real-life estimate.

Traffic
Not the kind of jam that goes well with peanut butter

2. Unreliable Transport

Often we rely on others to get to the airport, which also means it’s out of our control.

Whether it’s shuttles, taxis, private drivers, or public transport.

Buying tickets, miscommunications, delays, or problems can sometimes occur.


3. Extra Time for Parking

If you’re driving by yourself, you might need extra time to find an available parking spot and pay for it.


4. High Season and Busy Airports

This title almost gives me auditory hallucinations of busy crowds and screaming kids.

If you’ve ever been traveling during high season you know what this means.

Traffic is tighter, lines are longer, everything more complex, and the risk of unwanted surprises rises.


5. Road Work

This will most likely be caught by Google Maps, but if you’re lucky enough that it starts the day you’re leaving, it might not.


6. Weather Conditions

Depending on where you are and in what season, the weather can affect your journey in several ways.

Whether it’s snow, rain, or both – most of the time it will slow down traffic directly, or indirectly by causing accidents.


7. Forgotten Items

Did you forget to pack your passport, required documents, medicine, or maybe even your favorite hoodie?

Well, you know what to do…

Passport
The global pass

8. Mental Hiccups

I think most of us fall victim to this once in a while.

Especially when traveling, where your journey can present a lack of sleep, early morning hours, and long journeys.

The reason why I added this to the list is from my own experience once before flying from Bangkok in Thailand to Copenhagen in Denmark.

Somehow I had locked myself up on a departure time way too later than the actual one.

This I first realized when I was in the taxi, trying to pursue the driver of going as fast as (legally) possible.


9. Not Meeting Requirements for Boarding the Plane

A very popular example is missing the required return ticket to your destination.

And don’t be so sure that the airline crew agrees with whatever you’ve read online.

This also happened to me once boarding a flight from Helsinki in Finland to Bangkok in Thailand.

The lady at the gate insisted that a return flight was needed (despite it being my 7th trip to Thailand).

So I quickly grabbed my phone and booked the cheapest flight from my destination Koh Samui to Singapore, letting me waste $138 USD.

And I wasn’t the only one.


10. Heading to the Wrong Airport

This might seems ridiculous, but hear me out.

This almost happened to me for other reasons when visiting Istanbul in Turkey at the beginning of 2022.

Even though I was an experienced traveler at the time, Istanbul has several airports resulting in me almost heading to the wrong airport.

Istanbul sunset
Sunset in Istanbul, Turkey

The thing is that the new main airport of Istanbul opened in 2018 (IST), replacing the old Atatürk Airport (ISL) which stopped having commercial flights in 2019 but is still operational for intercontinental passengers and cargo.

Not only are the airport codes similar, which seems to still confuse Google a bit, but a lot of the information you’ll find online doesn’t indicate this replacement.

And if you’re a bit groggy from traveling, these details can easily be overlooked (or maybe I just tell myself this as an excuse).

TIP: Also, there's the language barrier you might have with your driver in case there are several different airports close by to be confused with.

In that case, a good idea is to show a map and point to your airport before driving.

11. Third-Party Ticket Providers Failed to Book Your Tickets

If you didn’t book your ticket directly with the airline, the faith of your journey can be in the provider where you booked your ticket.

This also happened to me once back in 2021 when flying from Corfu to Crete in Greece.

When my friend and I showed up at the check-in counter, we were told that we had no tickets, but they could see they received the credit.

As odd as that may sound, I got told there wasn’t much they could do besides giving us a number to call their customer service.

The airport was busy and our flight was soon to depart.

Luckily we got through and got the help we needed to book some of the last seats available.

Airport beer
With 3 hours there’s also time for a beer or two (or three)

Conclusion: Better Safe Than Sorry

The little extra time invested in decreasing the risk of missing your flight and gaining peace of mind is often worth it.

Especially if your journey to the airport is a longer one, the risks of delays most likely increase as well.

And what’s the worst thing that can happen to be early?

Most international airports even offer free wifi, and with any digital device, most of us can find ways to entertain ourselves much longer than what time we have to wait before the check-in or gates open.

NB: Books or just being present with yourself or your fellow passengers are also recommended 😉

TIP: Chances of scoring a better seat increases the earlier you check-in due to the potentially more available seats. 

Just ask about your options of getting- or relocating to a better seat while checking in.
Global Dane

I'm the guy behind Global Dane. Everything I create is purely motivated by a passion for traveling (preferably on a lower-end budget). Join me on my authentic travels on YouTube or here on the website. And if you have something on your mind, don’t hesitate to send me a so-called electronic mail. I’m always up for a chat.

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