My first plane ride was a non-stop flight from Houston to London when I was 18. I had never been in an airport or even driven around one before. I was fortunately accompanied by some folks that knew what they were doing, so I got to follow behind like a lost sheep. One of the first things I noticed was that as soon as they stepped a toe inside the terminal, they went into go-mode. They started moving faster than I had ever seen them move and the race was officially on.
That’s airports though. The majority of people are hustling, and the ones who aren’t are either pro jet-setters or you wonder how early they arrived that they can afford to walk at a normal pace.
Why? Because there are so many steps to the airport process that it’s in your best interest to get through them as quickly as possible. You never know what’s going to happen to cause delay and potential for you to miss your flight.
Since I’m mostly speaking to my leisure travelers out there – (you business travelers are most likely the pro jet-setters) — a missed flight to your destination is not a good start to a vacation. A missed flight causes you to waste precious vacation time, money, and potentially screws up plans you have set for when you arrive. That’s why the airport can be a stressful experience! There is so much at stake for you to make that flight.
The good news is that surviving the airport is not rocket science. As with most things, the best way to handle the stress is to know what you’re up against. Come prepared, and you’ll succeed.
Come with me on this journey as I break down every single step to get you through the airport alive and stress-free. Before you know it, you will be the pro that everyone is watching.
There are three main parts to surviving the airport successfully: pre-airport, departures, and arrivals. This is the first in my 3-part series, How to Survive the Airport Process Stress-Free! If you feel confident that you have a plan to get to the airport on time, feel free to jump ahead to Part 2: How to Check in and Make That Flight.
I’ve had many a chat with someone who has a 6:00 a.m. international flight out of DFW airport and lives 2 hours or more away from the airport. My first question to them is:
“Are you going to stay the night in the DFW area?”
When their response is “no”, I gently ask them with a stressed-out smile,
“So you are going to wake up at 1:00 a.m. to get ready and gather all of your last-minute things, then hope that there isn’t a wreck or traffic to get you to the airport no later than 4:00 a.m.?”
While there is nothing wrong with this option and it can get you to the airport on time, the point I’m trying to make is that your plan to get to the airport should not be an afterthought or something you decide the morning you leave. Your plan should also be realistic for your personality, meaning, if you are known to oversleep, maybe don’t put the risk of waking up during your REM cycle into your plan. It should be carefully planned out just like the rest of your trip if you want to avoid extra stress or a bad start to your vacation!
The fact is if you don’t step foot in the terminal early enough, you simply won’t have enough time to get everything done. Factors like last minute to-do items before you leave for the airport, risk of delays out of your control like traffic, and your mode of transportation all play into your plan to get to the airport. And what do all of those things have in common? Time! Your plan revolves around this precious commodity and it’s the single thing that can make you miss your flight.
Keep reading as I walk you through the factors you must consider in your plan and then let me help you figure out the big number: the time you should leave for the airport.
Mode of Transportation
The most common way to get to the airport is by car. Whether you are driving yourself, getting dropped off by a friend, or taking a ride share or taxi service, there are additional considerations that you need to take into account.
If you are driving yourself, you will have to find a place to park your car. The best place to do this is either in an on-airport parking lot, or in a nearby park-n-ride facility. You need to consider the pros and cons of each and figure out which option is best for you in regards to cost and time.
In both instances, there will be a fee associated with parking your car, which will vary depending on the provider and distance to the airport. Yep, you might find some airport parking that is $5/day, but it’s going to be further away from the airport than many of the options. On the other hand, you can get a prime location in the airport parking garage, but you will be paying a higher daily fee. Likewise in both instances, you will need to allow for extra time to park your vehicle and take a shuttle to the terminal. Sorry, you aren’t getting a curbside parking spot, my friend.
If you are getting dropped off at the airport – awesome! Your loyal friend who is willing to do this for you will be able to drop you and your luggage right at the curbside. However, you will need to take into consideration how reliable said friend is, because they will be solely responsible for leaving at the desired time for the airport. Be very clear of the time you need to depart for the airport. If it’s a chronically late friend, just add 15 minutes, or maybe pick a different loyal friend. Don’t forget to buy them a souvenir or some beer when you get back!
If you’re taking a taxi or ride share service, you also are lucky enough to avoid the extra time associated with parking a vehicle. Because these services are paid, they are reliable on getting you to the airport in a prompt manner, but of course this is never guaranteed. You should always account for the possibility that the service is experiencing a high volume of ride requests and may not be immediately available to pick you up.
You may be fortunate enough to live in a place where there is a reliable bus or train service to the airport. This cuts down on cost and extra time needed to deal with your vehicle, but you do need to consider the time it takes to get to the station and consider whether you will be able to handle your luggage.
You’ve got your mode of transportation planned out, but don’t stop there! There are external factors outside of your control that could sabotage your plan to get to the airport on time.
Are you traveling by car to get to the airport at peak travel times? Peak travel times are generally considered to be weekdays from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. in the morning, and 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the evening. If you aren’t familiar with what a typical traffic delay during these times would be, you can use Google Maps! Their trip planning tool uses historic traffic data to predict future typical traffic congestion. You can enter in your future planned departure time and see how long it typically takes to get to the airport with traffic congestion, and voila!
Likewise, are you flying at a peak travel period for your airport? Peak periods will vary by day, time, airport, and airline, so it’s best to check directly with your airport to get an idea of if you will be traveling at peak times. As a rule of thumb, you can expect the same time periods as peak travel times on the roads, but there are other peak times as well. You can also download the TSA Mobile App to get updated wait times for the day of your travel.
If you are driving yourself, is your vehicle in a reliable state to get you to the airport without breaking down? How about the car of that loyal friend that agreed to take you? There is nothing quite like car troubles to throw a wrench in your plans to get to the airport.
Are you relying on a rideshare service during a city-wide festival, where most will be occupied or charge surge pricing? Check your local sources or ask around if there are any events going on. If there are, you may want to reconsider your plan.
Is there a public transportation strike going on? A common occurrence in Europe, you should do research to make sure this is not the case if you are planning to take public transportation to catch your return flight home.
Last Minute To-DosIn the few hours leading up to your departure to head to the airport, what is left to do?
- Wake up, shower, get dressed, pack last-minute toiletries?
- Drop off pets, prep your house for being away?
- Do you still need to pack – like, everything?
- Are you getting glammed up?
Every single thing that you have to do prior to leaving matters because that adds on minutes, and minutes can be very precious if you are close to missing your flight. You want to have a list of those last minute to-do items and really consider how long they are going to take. After you’ve listed them out, put a time value to them and calculate the total time it will take to do these things before you can leave.
Just below I am going to guide you on coming up with a target time to leave for the airport. After you have that sorted out, you will need to also figure out when you need to start tackling these last-minute items, or when you need to wake up if it’s a morning departure.
TIP: Another thing you want to make sure you know before leaving for the airport is your airline carrier, at minimum. If you are departing from a large airport with multiple terminals, you will need to know this information so that you can get yourself to the right terminal in the first place.
Bottom line, everything I just covered should help you set a target time to leave for the airport. This is a non-negotiable, no turning back, no stopping along the way time!
So how do you factor in all of those unknowns to come up with this target time? Check out our chart below to guide you!
On Your Travel Day
You are awesome! You successfully have a rock-solid plan in place to get to the airport. This means you have taken ownership of your vacation and have every intention of getting to your destination stress-free and ready to have fun.
Now it’s important that on your day of travel that you stick to your plan; however, it’s not uncommon for travel conditions – for planes, trains, and automobiles – to change and if there are added delays in your mode of transportation, you’ll need to leave even earlier. On the other hand, if your flight has already announced that it’s departure will be delayed, then you don’t want to leave as early just to unnecessarily sit in the airport (though early is always better than late).
It’s always a good idea to monitor your flight status using a flight tracker app, or checking the airport’s website. Also, be sure to check out traffic conditions from your favorite traffic monitoring source. If you’re taking the train, check their current status too. You can also download the Tripit App and use their Pro Go Now feature. This app is especially useful with helping folks find the right time to leave for the airport on their way home, since there is an unfamiliarity with the local traffic conditions and the distance it will take to travel back to the airport.
Getting to the airport on time is the first step, but do you know what to do when you arrive at the airport? Keep reading Part 2: How to Check In and Make That Flight.