What’s Your Airport Practice: On Time Arrival or Delayed Departure?

Author: Convene Editors       

airport arrival

Do you like to arrive at the airport early so you can relax, shop, or eat? Or do you prefer showing up at the last minute?

As frequent flyers and road warriors, you probably have a preference when it comes to aisle vs. window seat or carry-on vs. checked bag. But The Atlantic struck a chord with its recent “There Are Two Types of Airport People” story, which further splits the field into those who arrive at an airport with time to spare vs. those who “live for the feeling of literally running through the airport barefoot because you didn’t have time to put your shoes on after security.” That got the editors at Convene talking, and here we share how we each typically arrive at the airport, with time to spare or just in the nick of time.

‘Definitely Type A’

I’m definitely Type A, but I try hard not to be pathologically neurotic. I aim for a happy medium — to have a half-hour or less to cool my heels at the gate for my flight. But I also live in the New York metropolitan area and there’s no telling how much traffic there will be on the road to Newark or LaGuardia airports or how long the security line will be, so sometimes — if the travel gods are with me — I will have left my house too early and have more time to kill at the gate than expected. I’m okay with that — not okay with the opposite scenario. I have enough drama in my life, thank you very much. The prospect of racing against the clock and sprinting to the gate while jostling all my bags doesn’t fill my veins with adrenaline — it fills my heart with dread.

— Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief

Having to Surrender Some Control

I’m admittedly a bit of a control freak when it comes to my travel agenda going exactly as planned. But because I have a physical disability, I often need to surrender some of that control when it comes to travel, particularly at the airport. Because I’m not able to drag my bags through security and to my gate on my own like most people, I depend on the help of airport staff to get me from Point A to Point B. And that can often mean a lot of unexpected delays. Some staff members stop to chat with colleagues on the way to our destination for longer than I’d prefer, and frantically checking my bags to make sure they collected all of my belongings — especially that laptop! — while I was getting patted down separately at a security checkpoint is a common occurrence. I couldn’t do it without them, but it’s indeed tough for a control freak to relinquish some control. And so I take it back in the little ways I can, like arriving to the airport two hours early. At least then I know I have time to pick up a coffee along the hectic airport journey.

— Casey Gale, Associate Editor

airport arrival

Some travelers have never arrived at the airport early enough to know that at some airports, you can get a pedicure.

Early Enough for a Pedicure

There was a time when I was comfortable cutting it close when I traveled to the airport — in fact, if I walked up to the gate right when my flight was boarding, I felt like I was winning. But living in Brooklyn and flying out of New York City airports has fundamentally altered — “warped” may be a better word — what I think of as an appropriate cushion of time to allow for the unexpected.

Traffic — and drivers — are unpredictable and harried at all hours. One of my first trips to the airport entailed a yellow cab driver who got around a delivery truck in front of us by driving on a (thankfully, empty) sidewalk in Queens. It’s possible to travel in NYC airports by public transportation, and I do it. But the experience of a train suddenly stopping between subways stations — while never fun — is hair-raising when you are on your way to the airport. So now I leave at least an hour just for the unexpected, which means I sometimes arrive early enough for domestic flights to get a pedicure. One problem with my extreme caution is that it is hard to shut off — I feel a flutter of anxiety when the clock is ticking into my “cushion,” even in a convenient, less-congested city like Columbus. The silver lining is that airports have become a lot more interesting places to be when you end up with extra time on your hands — free Wi-Fi, better food, and some of them, including LaGuardia, have fantastic bookstores.

— Barbara Palmer, Deputy Editor

‘I Had a Flying Problem’

It’s 11:45 a.m. on a Tuesday in 2015. My scheduled flight departure reads 2:30 p.m. Traffic is light; it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to get to the airport. I’ll go ahead and request a car now.

This was my standard approach to air travel for a number of years. However, my insistence on arriving early was not related to a concern of missing my flight. It was due to an overwhelming fear of making my flight while still being sober. I didn’t have a drinking problem, though. I had a flying problem. Like millions of other people, I found the Wright Brothers’ achievement in Kitty Hawk to be terrifying. The only way to calm my nerves was a few hours spent pre-flight at an airport bar.

While research has shown that a small amount of alcohol might make you a better problem-solver, science has not documented any benefits to knocking them back to help get from Point A to Point B. I told my doctor about my standard airport routine. Shockingly, he did not approve. After giving me his concerned physician’s frown, he wrote me a prescription for Lorazepam. It’s from the benzodiazepine family, a cluster of pharmaceutical concoctions that help manage anxiety.

I was skeptical of what I thought was a softball approach. Being anxious is not how I characterize my attitude toward being six miles above the ground — this was a big-league level of discomfort. However, those 0.5 milligram tablets have been serious difference-makers. They save time — I now arrive at the airport much closer to schedule, following a one-hour-before-departure rule, which is when I take my medicine — and they also save money. A $5 prescription is much better than a two-hour bar tab.

— David McMillin, Associate Editor

Those Animal-Patterned Neck Pillows

I like getting to the airport early — ideally, to have about an hour of buffer time before boarding. I also like having a streamlined system in place — using a clear container for my passport and essentials, and only a carry-on if possible. It’s comforting to know where everything is at all times. It helps minimize stress. I’m definitely a compulsively early traveler whenever I can be. Although, when traveling with relatives or friends, it can be completely out of my hands, which is hard for someone who tries to plan! I almost did end up missing a flight once over Thanksgiving. I was in an unfamiliar town in Michigan, there was a sudden snowstorm, and someone else was in charge of driving. It was harrowing to rush through the line and discover they hadn’t saved my seat. (Budget travel!) But somehow, it managed to come together just in the nick of time. They gave me an upgraded seat that hadn’t been filled and I boarded with minutes to spare. I can see the appeal of running late — no worrying or watch-checking until the exhilarating end — but I think I’ll stick with my normal routine. Plus, I like having time to browse those funny, animal-patterned neck pillows and paperbacks in the airport stores.

— Jasmine Zhu, Associate Editor

airport arrival

If you like to peruse the neck pillows at the airport shops, it is better to arrive well before your departure time.

‘A Late Bloomer’

My good friend likes to get to the airport at least five hours before her flight — okay, I’m exaggerating. Maybe just two. But when she visits me, she gets super irritated if I drop her off “late” — which means giving her less than two hours to “acclimate.” “That’s just my nature,” she has told me whenever I’ve mocked her. “I get nervous when I am running late to anything.”

That explains why she and I have never flown together, despite ending up in the same destination many times. I’m chronically late, or at least I used to be. I used to miss a flight at least once a year, and often would run to my gate schlepping my carry-on, backpack, and the bag I’d planned to check because I didn’t get to the airport in time to do curbside bag check.

Looking back, my friend is probably correct — that was awfully stressful. Some people take longer to learn. With TSA PreCheck, I still see no need to get to the airport too early, unless it is an unfamiliar place. Now I have found my sweet spot — 30 minutes to an hour before boarding begins — usually. Most of the time, however, I am still packing two hours before my flight, so getting there that early is really not possible. Obviously, I’m a late bloomer.

— Curt Wagner, Associate Editor

The O’Hare Marathon

Living in Chicago, and flying in and out of O’Hare, means I cover a lot of ground inside an airport. So I’m not waiting until the last minute and making a break for the gate as the door is closing. No, sir. The cab/Uber/Lyft driver always makes fun of me when they ask my flight time and realize I will in fact be at the airport two hours before takeoff, just like they tell you to be. But laugh away. When I see those red-faced, tie-flapping, bag-dragging people running at O’Hare, I cringe. You won’t be making a break for it for two gates, people! You are in for a 10K! I make sure I have enough time to walk to my gate at O’Hare and wherever else I’m flying out of. And for those thrill-seekers who tell me about their drama-filled airport dashes, I say having to face the rebooking line after a missed flight is a tragedy. I prefer comedy.

— Cristi Kempf, Executive Editor