As a general rule, it's great to get to the airport two hours in advance of domestic flights and three hours before international flights. However, if you're looking to shave off a bit of your hurry-up-and-wait time at the gate, you can hone the equation for your specific situation.
If you've checked in and printed your boarding pass before arriving, you've just saved yourself 20 minutes and can adjust your airport arrival time accordingly. Likewise, you've saved yourself a bit of time if you're only traveling with a carry-on and don't have to check bags.
However, unless you're cleared for expedited screening (through Clear or TSA PreCheck at one of the participating airports), you'll need to budget plenty of time to get through airport security. Assume that security lines will be particularly slow during the peak airport-traffic hours of 6:30 to 9:30 in the morning, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.
How Far in Advance Should I Check in for a Flight?
Most airlines let you do so starting 24 hours in advance until one or two hours prior to departure. Benefits of checking in online include better seat selection (or higher seating-choice priority if you're flying Southwest) and not having to stand in line to check in at the airport.
Airlines have specific guidelines about how far in advance you should check in at the airport, depending on your destination. Many airlines require that you check in at least 30 to 45 minutes before your flight, but that's cutting it dangerously close at most airports where you'll still have to navigate large terminals and long security lines—which brings us to our next question.
How Far in Advance Should YOU Be at the Departure Gate?
Ever heard of a boarding-gate deadline? Most airlines have them, and they're important: If you don't make it to the gate within the allowed window, airlines don't have to let you on the flight. Boarding deadlines vary wildly based not only on the airline but also on the destination.
For instance, on some Delta Shuttle flights, passengers need to be at the gate only five minutes prior to departure, but on Delta's international flights to Dublin and Istanbul, passengers must be at the gate an hour in advance.
On many U.S. and Canadian airlines, passengers are expected to arrive at the gate about 15 minutes before departure for domestic flights and 30 minutes prior for international flights. However, since times do vary, check boarding-gate deadlines in advance so you don't cut it too close. Airlines usually have a list of boarding-gate deadlines by airport and arrival city on their websites.
Our Secret Saving Tips to Booking Ultralow Airfares
Only Fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays
This is a guarantee: The same route, same aircraft, same airline, same everything will cost you more if you depart on a Monday than if you depart on a Tuesday. Why? Because Monday is a peak travel day when most people, including business travelers, need to fly. Tuesday is far less busy. Wednesdays and Saturdays are equally inexpensive; Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays are equally pricey.
The basic rule is that if you fly on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, you will save money. That's why I always advise people to schedule their vacations from, say, Tuesday to Tuesday rather than Sunday to Sunday. It's supply and demand. Fly when other people aren't likely to fly and you're going to pay less.
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Beyond avoiding flights on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays, you should also cast a wary eye toward afternoon departures. This is the travel industry's version of rush hour. The skies are congested, delays are common, and fares are highest because it's when most people want to fly. To avoid high fares and delays, always look for the earliest possible departure.
We’re not advocating the controversial practice of hidden-city ticketing, in which you buy a ticket that connects in your end destination and do not take the continuing flight. This is against virtually every airline's rules of carriage. But you sometimes can save money simply by booking a flight with a connection rather than a direct or nonstop route. Connecting flights take longer (at least two additional hours), but if you're looking for absolute dollar savings, you may find it with this strategy. (Caveat: Connecting flights can occasionally increase
Here's a tip that may save you money on a complicated or long-term trip: Many airlines drastically increase fares for stays longer than 30 days, so if you're planning a long stay you may do better booking a one-way flight rather than a round-trip. It used to be true that one-way fares were not the equivalent of 50 percent of a round-trip fare, but that's no longer the case. Many major U.S. carriers (and some international airlines) today sell one-way fares for half of the cost of the lowest-priced round-trip airfare.
How Far in Advance YOU Should you Book your Flight?
How Far in Advance Should I Book My Flight?
Several sources publish data on the correlation between advance purchase period and airfares. The ideal time to buy a domestic ticket is 54 days in advance, says CheapAir, or seven weeks ahead, says Expedia, which are essentially the same findings.
For international trips, the ideal period is 171 days ahead of departure, according to the same Expedia report. CheapAir refines the estimates: 96 days before trips to Europe and 96 days prior to Latin America trips. Both sources indicate that you can come close to the absolute lowest price over a wide range of dates: CheapAir's "window" for good deals on domestic tickets is 27–114 days in advance; Expedia's window is 50–100 days.
Avoid booking too early and too late. Too late is especially bad; you pay a huge premium for buying within a week or two of departure—even on airlines that nominally assess no advance-purchase limit.
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