You've booked your plane tickets for the holidays (congrats, by the way) and now comes the second hurdle: Making your flight. When should you get to the airport before your flight? It's a question that never fails to come up around the holidays, and we've got some answers to make sure you're home for Christmas dinner.
Arrive two hours early — at least.
You've probably heard the old rule of thumb to arrive two hours before your flight, and it's no different during the holidays. In general, Alaska Air says to arrive at least two full hours before your flight's scheduled departure time, and three hours for international flights. Other airlines and airports might have differing guidelines. Whether you're relying on the advice of your airline or the airport, be aware of their reasoning behind it. USA Today points out that airlines often don't want passengers milling around their boarding areas hours ahead of time, while airports and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) generally want passengers there early to ensure their employees have enough time for getting passengers through the screening process without a hitch. (The TSA also follows the conventional wisdom, saying that the two- and three-hour guidelines allow for all the various potential slow points.)
If your airport is a behemoth like LAX or SFO, it might be wise to budget a bit more time. Save yourself some stress by figuring out where to go once you're there (especially the terminal). Having to schlep your luggage around to make it to the right place can be exhausting and a big waste of time.
SmarterTravel.com says this season's peak travel days are slated for Friday, Dec. 22, Saturday Dec. 23, and Sunday, Dec. 24. According to Fox, if you're traveling on Christmas Day itself, you might avoid the worst of the peak holiday travel, but I wouldn't risk missing a flight by banking on the hope that everyone's home by the fire instead of at the airport.
CheapFlights.com has a few tips for the traveler who wants to avoid being stuck sobbing in the security line. First and foremost: Arrive early. "Really early — early enough to feel silly for doing so." they write. Check in online ahead of time (most airlines allow you to check in, including with baggage, up to 24 hours before your flight and print or download your boarding pass), check the flight the day of to ensure it's on time, and don't drive yourself to the airport (unless you want to be stuck sobbing in the parking garage). Avoid a checked bag at all costs, but if you absolutely must, just plan extra time to wait in the drop-off line.
Leave your house early, too.
All the savvy calculations in the world won't save you if you never make it to the airport at your carefully planned time. For holidays, SmarterTravel.com recommends planning for all the obstacles that can happen before you even set foot in the security line — things like shuttles that don't show up, traffic jams on the way to the airport, and lack of parking, all of which are probably more likely during peak travel times. So in addition to calculating when you need to be at the airport, make sure to account for how soon to leave in order to get there on time.
Also be sure to anticipate travel delays if you have a connecting flight, as seasonal weather combined with a peak travel time can spell disaster.
Plus, the earlier you get to your gate, stress-free and feeling like a pro, the more time you have to window shop, apply that much-needed second coat of deodorant, buy yourself a coffee, and stake claim to one of the coveted outlet-range seats in the waiting area. Charge up with a book or some Netflix in peace before the rush, and your holiday will be that much better.