It's the endless debate of air travel: Do you bite the bullet and trek into airport hell a solid three hours early? Or do you take your chances and go for broke, arriving at the last minute possible? Personally, yours truly falls into the latter category.
Luckily, today there are a variety of ways to minimize the time you need to arrive at the airport in advance to make your scheduled departure. Arriving two hours before a flight isn't always necessary (provided you don't require extra time or aren't a part of a group). There are some excellent strategies you can implement to skim that two hour-protocol down to one. Nonetheless, for anxious travelers who would rather be safe than sorry, many airports now offer a bevy of pleasureful amenities that can quickly pass hours of waiting.
Foremost, one must take into consideration the airport itself. How far is it from your present location? How congested is traffic getting to the airport? In Amsterdam, Schiphol's railway station offers speedy service from Centraal Station and is interconnected to most of the nation's rail system. It can shave the transport time to the airport by more than half. Likewise, the MagLev Train in Shanghai zips passengers at roughly 260 mph from a station in central Pudong to the airport, where they can skip over peripheral Shanghai's crowded transit network. Traffic can be horrendous and, in both situations, travelers save money.
In some instances, taking public transport isn't always the fastest option for saving yourself time. In the case of New York City's LaGuardia Airport, there is no direct-connecting subway. More often than not, it's faster to grab a taxi than deal with an exhausting train-to-bus route that makes numerous stops -- even without bad traffic. You can easily buy yourself an extra 20 minutes.
Secondly, knowing how busy an airport is or how many international departures it handles, can be beneficial. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, London's Heathrow, Chicago's O'Hare, Tokyo's Narita, New York's JFK, Paris's Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Beijing are all massively large airports, with the highest passenger traffic in the world. Moreover, they all serve as hubs for major airlines and are the top, first-entry points for many foreign flyers, adding to the chaos. Having a firm understanding on what you're getting yourself into before you arrive at an airport will help you to better gauge how close you should cut it. If you're flying United (Continental) from Newark, take into consideration that it's a hub, with loads of international flights from Buenos Aires to Tel Aviv. Lines can be longer and delays should be anticipated.
Check-in requirements can vary drastically depending on your airport or destination. For instance, Delta requires that voyagers heading to Moscow and Istanbul check in at least three hours before departure, more than three times earlier than if you were going to Las Vegas. It's best to follow rules strictly. Arriving two hours early at Spokane's relatively sleepy airport for a flight to Denver is just silly. Most domestic flights don't require over an hour check-in. Portland, Maine's tiny jetport has non-existent city traffic and virtually no lines, which translates into the perfect last-minute arrival -- certainly not more than an hour prior to departure.
It's no longer a secret that on-line check-in is a highly effective tactic that travelers can use to shave their airport hang time. The vast majority of airlines offer this option, which means you may not even have to deal with an agent and can have your boarding documents already in hand or on a smart-phone. Naturally, packing only a carry-on makes check-in a breeze, but if you can't travel light, many airliners offer cheaper, on-line payment for checked luggage. This can speed up dropping off your bags, enabling you to zoom over to security lines and arrive later at the airport.
This brings us to perhaps the most loathed travel obligation: airport security. A select list of airports and countries permit "trusted traveler programs," which enable swift security movement. Preferred-status members and first-class travelers also have significant advantages, which mean they pass through lines and check-points quickly. They won't generally need to show up at standard times and can be more liberal with their airport arrivals. Should this not be a possibility for you, an excellent method for allowing yourself a bit more pre-airport time, is to dress smart. Wearing loafers or moccasins and cutting down on jewelry and bulky, layered clothing can skim your security time, perhaps cutting back on your need to show up quite so early.
Of course life is always a learning experience. I myself have underestimated Thursday night traffic to JFK or the lengthy shuttle bus route from Milan to Malpensa -- all to disastrous ends. Whether you're flying to Accra and required to drop bags off at least three hours in advance or just can't handle the stress of potentially missing a flight; airports aren't always the migraine-inducing nightmares of yore. From VIP lounges to improved dining options, airports offer a range of relaxing and enjoyable distractions for those that will be spending some extra time meandering the terminals.
Look no further than JetBlue's $800m JFK Terminal 5, which boasts more than two dozen restaurants, an assortment of shops, free wireless, lounges, a kid's play area and even live entertainment: Swedish pop star Robyn made an appearance there in the summer of 2011. From Ermenegildo Zegna and Harrod's to Dior, Heathrow has some of the grandest pre-flight shopping anywhere. At Amsterdam's Schipol the Rijksmuseum operates a small annex for travelers with extra time and also opened an airport library in 2010.
Singapore Changi Airport, which won a Skytrax award for best airport leisure amenities, has a butterfly garden and nature trails, a Balinese-themed swimming pool, luxury shopping and a world-class Crowne Plaza. Not far behind is Hong Kong International, where travelers can enjoy a show at its 4D Extreme Screen theater, sneak in some golf at SkyCity Nine Eagles Golf Course or shop and eat endlessly at the airport's fabulous establishments.
So even if you have to show up early, live your indulgence... in an airport!