What time should you arrive at the airport to catch a flight?

Growing up, it was ingrained in my consciousness that arriving at the airport with anything less than two hours until the scheduled departure time was tantamount to ripping up your plane tickets and cancelling the holiday.

The two-hour rule was sacred for reasons I never questioned but has become the bedrock of my flying routine ever since. But what if I arrived at the airport later?

Progressing from door to door in most airports should in theory take around 30 minutes, with a swift security queue and a healthy gait. Add in the non-negotiable "doors close 30 minutes before departure" time and we have a pre-flight arrival margin of one hour.

But it's never that simple, is it?

What do airports advise? 

Australian airports and airlines tend to advise arriving one hour before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. Brisbane Airport explicitly says three hours for international, while Sydney Airport keeps it a bit vague simply by advising you arrive "early" and with "ample time" to get through security and customs. 

Basically, airports play by the three-hour rule. And well they might. It's in their interest for you to spend as much cash in the airport as you did on your flight.

What is the optimal arrival time at the airport?

Four hours

This is real holiday mode. Mosey on down to the airport using a transport system of your pleasing (I'm reminded of the story of a friend of a friend who wanted to roller skate to the airport and missed their flight by two hours), shuffle through security without a care in the world, then spend 25 minutes choosing your duty-free fragrance. But ah, you've now three hours to kill, you've already bought all your shampoo miniatures, and the airport bar is full of stag and hen dos. Should have stayed at home.

Three hours


This, I would say, is the optimal time for airport arrival IF you have lounge access - any longer and you're likely to end up too sozzled for 10.30 am. But three hours is ideal for a little breakfast/lunch/dinner and a glass of wine or two, while leafing through magazines you would never normally furnish with a second glance. If the lounge is not an option and you are still planning to arrive three hours beforehand, it is worth scoping out a comfortable dining establishment or relaxation area so that your dreams of a leisurely start to a holiday are not scuppered by a lonely sandwich shop and standing room only.

Two hours

These days there seems to be a view that anything less than two hours will almost certainly see you miss your flight. In 99 per cent of occasions, two hours is more than enough time to move through all elements of an airport, have a quick bite to eat, a small sit down, a fleeting glance at duty-free, and arrive well in time to wait at the gate for 30 minutes before the plane actually boards. Become the master of your own fate, ignore the two-hour rule. Of course, keep your eye on the news because a strike by customs or security staff, or a glitch in the check-in system could result in a much longer process.

90 minutes

Here we go. The business end of travel logistics. Planning to arrive an hour and a half ahead of scheduled departure time is the no-frills option of an airport experience. There'll be little time for a meal or shopping, but your journey will have the whiff of efficiency and you'll almost certainly still make your flight with time to spare.

One hour

Has anyone else noticed that the time between a gate number being displayed and the commencement of boarding grows shorter every year? Under increasing financial pressure to stick to tight schedules, airlines no longer take the risk of passengers eyeing up their gate number before ordering a two-course meal, and instead warn them that people are right now boarding the plane and you're not - even though we know it's lies. It is in part because of this ruse that even if you do make your flight - and you should - the stress means it won't be worth it.

It is worth bearing in mind at this point that the gates of some airports can be a good 20 minutes away and as far as a kilometre. It is also worth bearing in mind that it is not a guarantee that security or border control staff will let you jump the queue just because you're running for a flight.

30 minutes

You'll be in the papers the next day after being arrested for running onto the apron and trying to flag down the pilot. Remember, even if the plane is still still on the tarmac, if the gate is closed, you've missed your flight.

What happens if you miss your flight?

Broadly speaking, you will need to be escorted out of the airport, through border control, by security. If you checked luggage, it will be identified and chucked off the plane.

Many airlines then have rescue fees that you can pay to be put on the next available flight. But it's unlikely travel insurance will cover any costs if your only excuse is you thought arriving 30 minutes before departure would be fine.