Hollywood movies show the female lead strolling through the gates of an airport like it was the runway of Paris Fashion Week, with the male romantic lead running after her, wanting to propose eternal love to the one who almost got away. This is where Expectations > Reality. Way less than what we experience at airports, what with queues, x-ray scanners, more queues, bag checks, and more queues. Did I forget to mention queues? Times are a-changing and you can’t hack it with just 15 minutes to spare before boarding. You’ve got to be there on time if you don’t want your boarding pass to become just another expensive bookmark and a reminder of a missed opportunity. So what time should you allot to get to the airport?
Factors to consider
It depends on a lot of factors. International flights tend to be on busy airports, and busy airports mean lots of people. Lots of competition to get into the usual 2 x-ray scanners at the entrances. You have to take into consideration how busy the airport is, how many flights it accommodates, and how efficient the administration is. It can be a pretty busy airport, but if it’s run efficiently, you can be shopping for your duty-free souvenirs within 20 minutes. Contrast that with what I usually experience – 2 hours of queueing repeatedly before I can get to the gates. Another factor to consider is that with international flights, you have to deal with the Immigration and Customs queue.
If you have a powerful passport, chances are that the Customs officer will just take a cursory look at your passport and wave you on after stamping it. For the rest of the world, especially passport holders from countries with high labor migration, you might experience the third-degree from a customs officer. Offloading is a very real concern, and the officer will not care if your boarding time was half an hour ago. Allow for enough time just in case your reason for travel is closely scrutinized.
Bags vs. online check-ins
If you are flying to your overseas job, chances are that you’re bringing practically your home with you. It’s useless to argue about that excess baggage fee. It’s actually more practical to educate yourself how much you’re allowed to have, then pre-pay for extra if you need it. Depending on how much luggage you have, online check-in can save time so that you can join the ‘bag drop’ queue and be on your way in no time. Devote some time for queueing for airline check-ins if you have bags.
Flight departure and boarding time
Just because your departure time says 20:00 does not mean you can proceed to the gates at 19:55. I remember mindlessly browsing at duty-free and even buying a hot cup of coffee at 19:30 when a “last call for passenger (my name)” rang out over the loudspeaker. I ran towards the gates and had to drink my scalding coffee that burned all the way down my stomach before I could board. I drank it because it cost $5.65. We were taxiing down the runway at 19:50 and off flying well before time. Sometimes, flights do arrive early.
Two hours vs three hours
I normally aim to be at the airport 3 hours before an international flight, considering the immigration queues and check in bags. For domestic flights (with carry-on bags and online check-in), I aim for a relaxed 1 hour, but not if it was a busy airport. This is outside of the hours that I allow for potential traffic on the way to the airport. If you live in areas like Mumbai and Manila, be generous with your estimate. You don’t want to be left crying because your flight left without you.
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