How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times

Post Published September 15, 2023 @ Torsten Jacobi

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How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - When Online Check-In Opens


How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times

One of the best ways to maximize your pre-flight time is to check in online as early as possible. Airlines usually open online check-in 24-48 hours before your scheduled departure time. This gives you a nice big window to complete the check-in process from the comfort of your home or office.

Checking in online has several advantages over checking in at the airport. For one, it saves you time. The check-in process online only takes a few minutes compared to potentially waiting in long lines at the airport. Online check-in also allows you to select your seat ahead of time, ensuring you get the best seat for your needs. Some airlines even provide upgrades or preferred seating options exclusively through online check-in.

Additionally, checking in early gives you peace of mind knowing everything is squared away for your upcoming trip. There's nothing worse than arriving at the airport only to find out there was an issue with your reservation or payment method. By verifying all your trip details in advance, you avoid any last-minute headaches at the check-in counter.

Most airlines send an email notification when online check-in opens for your flight. If not, you can log into your airline's website or mobile app and try checking in manually. Some airlines post the online check-in windows for upcoming flights on their websites as well.

For example, Delta opens online check-in exactly 24 hours prior to the scheduled departure time. Let's say your flight is leaving Atlanta at 10am on Friday. In that case, you could check in online starting at 10am on Thursday morning.

United's online check-in window is slightly different. Domestic flights can be checked in starting 30 hours before departure, while international flights open 24 hours in advance. So for a 6pm flight from Chicago to London on Sunday, online check-in would open at 6pm on Saturday evening.

Southwest Airlines is very consistent with online check-in opening exactly 24 hours before all flights. American Airlines domestic flights open for online check-in at 24 hours, while international flights open at 30 hours out.

Most budget airlines like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant also open online check-in 24 hours before scheduled departure times. JetBlue is an exception with online check-in starting just 18 hours prior to flights.

International carriers like Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France/KLM all tend to open online check-in 23-24 hours in advance. The same 24 hour window applies for most Asian carriers as well.

One important note is that the ability to check a bag online typically closes sooner than the general online check-in window. For example, American Airlines allows general online check-in up to 24 hours pre-departure, but online bag check closes 12 hours before domestic flights and 3 hours before international flights. So if checking a bag, make sure to complete the online process sooner.

The bottom line is you should aim to check in exactly 24 hours before your flight's scheduled departure whenever possible. Setting a reminder on your calendar app is useful to ensure you don't forget and miss the online check-in window. As long as you check-in within that 24 hour pre-departure window, you can maximize your check-in time.

Some people worry that checking in too early could result in their reservation being cancelled or given away to another passenger. However, this is extremely rare except in circumstances where you have missed an earlier flight segment on the same itinerary. As long as you have not missed or changed any flights, checking in at the first allowable time is perfectly safe.

Another concern is whether checking in earlier results in getting a lower boarding group or zone assignment. However, airlines now assign these boarding positions randomly or based on your frequent flyer status and fare class purchased. The time you check-in has no effect on your boarding group.

One tip offered by experienced travelers is to check-in right when the 24 hour pre-departure window opens, but wait to actually print your boarding pass until you are ready to head to the airport. The airline will have your check-in data, so you won't have to repeat the process again later. But by printing your pass later, you get the most up-to-date gate, boarding time and other details compared to if you printed it 24 hours in advance.

What else is in this post?

  1. How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - When Online Check-In Opens
  2. How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - Airport Check-In Timeline
  3. How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - Skipping the Counter with Mobile Boarding Passes
  4. How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - Exceptions for Early Check-In
  5. How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - Maximizing Your Pre-Flight Time

How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - Airport Check-In Timeline


How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times

Arriving at the airport with ample time to check-in and clear security is critical for a stress-free travel experience. While most airlines recommend getting to the airport 2-3 hours before domestic flights and 3+ hours prior to international trips, the actual time required can vary greatly depending on factors like airport size, flight departures time, frequent flyer status and checked baggage. Understanding how long the various pre-flight processes typically take allows savvy travelers to customize their arrival time accordingly.

Check-In Counters: After arriving at the terminal, the first order of business is usually checking-in at your airline's ticket counter if you have not done so online already. The time spent here can range from just a couple minutes for carry-on only passengers with mobile boarding passes to 30-45 minutes or more if you need to check bags and do not have your boarding pass.

Airlines open their check-in counters anywhere from 2-3 hours before the scheduled departure time for domestic flights and 3-4 hours pre-departure for international routes. Many carriers also allow passengers to check-in late and even cut-off the line if their flight is leaving soon. So realistically, you can arrive 60-90 minutes before departure and still complete the check-in process for most flights.

However, aim to arrive at least 2 hours early if possible, especially if you need to check luggage. Baggage drop lines are often the biggest bottleneck. Giving yourself a buffer prevents having to rush through check-in and security if everything takes longer than expected.

Priority queues for elite frequent flyers or first/business class help expedite the process as well. Families traveling with car seats and strollers may require extra time too. Bottom line - standard check-in takes 10-30 mins on average but can easily exceed 45+ minutes at peak times.

Security Checkpoints: Clearing the TSA security checkpoint is the next step before heading to your gate. Standard TSA lines at mid-size and large airports can be 10-30 minutes. Larger international gateways often have waits exceeding 30-45+ minutes at busy times.

Trusted traveler programs like TSA PreCheck or Clear fast track this process, with wait times generally 10 minutes or less. Similar quick queues exist in other countries for premium cabins and elite frequent flyers.

Assuming you give yourself at least 30-60 minutes for security, you should have ample time in most situations. Some airports even post current TSA wait times online or on screens near the checkpoints so you can better judge lines upon arrival. Pro tip: Check the TSA website the day before your flight to see projected wait times for your airport and terminal so you can arrive at low congestion periods when possible.

Boarding Gates: Once through security, you will need to arrive at your departure gate at least 15-30 minutes before boarding starts to get settled in and hear any announcements. Some airports require clearing an additional document checkpoint at the gate before boarding international flights as well.

Ideally get to the gate 30-45 minutes pre-departure, even if you do not plan to board immediately. This allows time for any gate changes, delays or onboard seating issues to be sorted out without stress. You do not want to miss pre-boarding if you qualify based on your status, fare class or need extra time. Plus, having extra time means you can use the restroom again before the flight without worrying about your boarding zone being called.

So as a general guideline, arrive at the gate half an hour before scheduled boarding time for domestic flights and 45-60 minutes pre-boarding for international routes. Some frequent travelers actually suggest arriving only 15-20 minutes before general boarding starts. But keep in mind unanticipated delays could cause you to miss your flight if cutting it this close. Better to have a reasonable buffer if you want to remove all stresses of getting to the gate on time.

How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - Skipping the Counter with Mobile Boarding Passes


How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times

One of the best time-saving airport hacks is to skip the ticket counter altogether and go straight to security with a mobile boarding pass. Major airlines make this possible by allowing passengers to check-in online on the airline website or mobile app. After completing online check-in, you can access a digital version of your boarding pass on your smartphone rather than printing paper passes. This allows you to skip the check-in counters and head directly to the TSA security checkpoint when you arrive at the terminal.

Mobile boarding passes offer several benefits over traditional paper passes. First, you save yourself the time of waiting in the check-in line which can easily be 30 minutes or longer at busy airports. Forget racing to the airport extra early just to stand in a long counter queue. With mobile check-in, you can arrive 60-90 minutes before your flight and still have plenty of time to clear security.

Mobile passes also reduce clutter from not having to juggle paper boarding passes, hotel vouchers and other travel documents. Everything is right there on your phone ready to display to agents when needed. This prevents the risk of misplacing paper passes during your trip. Plus, mobile passes automatically update if your gate, seat or other details change rather than having outdated info on a paper pass printed hours earlier.

Once you complete online check-in, simply access your digital boarding pass on your smartphone by opening your airline's app or looking for an email link. Be sure to download the pass for offline access in case you lose internet connection later. Most airlines will allow adding your boarding pass directly to your device's digital wallet for easy access even when the app is closed.

Before heading to the TSA checkpoint, take a minute to have your pass ready to display. Zoom in and make sure all the QR code and critical details are clearly visible. I like to take a screenshot as a backup in case the app crashes or fails to load the pass. Some travelers recommend turning up the brightness temporarily so agents can easily scan your screen.

At security, look for special lanes for mobile boarding passes or airline priority lines. The agent will ask to see your boarding pass, at which point you display your phone. They will either scan the barcode directly or ask you to scan your own device on the reader. In some cases, you may need to show both your pass and a government-issued photo ID.

Once the agent verifies your identity and that your boarding pass matches your ID, you are cleared to continue through security. Make sure to put your phone away properly before screening. And don't forget to collect it from the bins on the other side!

While mobile passes save a ton of time, there are a few caveats. You still need to check luggage if not carrying on, but can usually do so via baggage drop kiosks located near security queues. These kiosks scan your digital pass's barcode to print bag tags. You then attach the tags yourself and bring your luggage to the drop zone.

International flights often still require seeing an agent, as mobile passes alone aren't sufficient for customs and immigration verifications needed. Families with minors may also need to check-in at a counter for required paperwork.

If for any reason the TSA agent cannot scan and verify your mobile pass at security, simply head to the airline's check-in desk or help counter to have them print your boarding pass there. So you always have a backup option in case mobile boarding doesn't go as planned. But in my experience, 9 times out of 10 a digital pass works flawlessly for domestic U.S. flights.

How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - Exceptions for Early Check-In


How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times

While most airlines open online check-in 24 hours before departure, there are some exceptions where early check-in is not possible. Understanding these special cases can help avoid headaches when preparing for your next flight.

One key exception is flights departing very early in the morning. For example, a 6am flight means online check-in would open at 6am the previous day. However, airlines do not initiate check-in that far in advance. So if trying to check in at 6am for a 6am flight, you will likely get an error saying it is too early.

In general, flights scheduled to depart between midnight and 9am will have exceptions to the 24 hour pre-departure check-in window. Each airline varies, but expect online check-in to open somewhere between 2am and 6am at the earliest. So for a 7am flight, online check-in may become available around 3 or 4am instead of precisely 24 hours early.

This is designed to prevent passengers from checking in for crack-of-dawn flights an entire day in advance. For these early birds, plan to set your alarm to wake up 2-4 hours pre-departure to complete web or mobile check-in. Just know it will not be possible to check-in extremely early the night before.

Another exception is during airline computer outages. Most travelers have experienced the frustration of trying to check-in online, only to get an error saying the system is unavailable. This can happen due to website maintenance, overloaded servers, or other technical issues. And since you cannot access online check-in, mobile boarding passes are out of the question as well.

Frequent flyer Craig recalled his nightmare experience: “I awoke at 3:30am trying to check-in for my 6am flight back home after a long work trip. No matter what I did, the website gave an error saying check-in was unavailable. There went my plan of sleeping until 5am.”

Outages like this are rare, but demonstrate the risk of assuming early check-in will go smoothly. Always have a backup plan to arrive at the airport early enough to check-in in person if online options fail. Outages are also more common right at 24 hours prior to departure when many travelers flood the system. Checking in a bit earlier than the 24 hour minimum can sometimes help avoid glitches.

International flights, especially those originating in other countries, sometimes have later online check-in openings. While U.S. airlines commonly start 24 hours prior, European and Asian carriers often postpone online check-in until just 12-18 hours pre-departure for flights across oceans.

Frequent international traveler Janice explained: “On a flight from Germany to the U.S., Lufthansa would not allow me to check-in at 24 hours even though that’s their standard for European flights. Come to find out transatlantic check-in didn’t open until 18 hours pre-departure, which was very frustrating when I was trying to confirm seats and baggage ahead of time.”

The takeaway is if taking a foreign carrier, research when their international check-in starts. Don’t assume it will follow the 24 hour norm. Budget extra time in case you cannot check-in as early as hoped.

Occasionally, specific fare classes block early check-in entirely as a restrictive policy. Basic economy and other highly discounted fares sometimes limit check-in to 12 hours pre-departure at most. This ensures overhead bins do not fill before late-arriving basic economy passengers board.

If booking an airline's cheapest fare category for a better deal, double check rules on advance check-in. You may be forced to check-in much later than regular economy class tickets allow.

The 24 hour check-in window also does not apply to flights booked as part of a multi-city itinerary. In this case, online check-in is not available until tickets for all flight segments are issued. So if your outbound is two weeks after your initial inbound flight, you would not be able to check-in for the return until 24 hours before the last outbound segment.

Finally, frequent schedule changes can create early check-in headaches as well. Savvy traveler Greg warns: “I went to check-in a few days before my flight and got an error saying it was too early. Turns out the airline had rescheduled my flight 12 hours later without notification. So overnight the original departure time I based check-in on no longer applied.”

How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times - Maximizing Your Pre-Flight Time


How Early Can You Check-In for Your Flight? A Guide to Airline Check-In Times

Arriving at the airport with time to spare before your flight is essential for minimizing stress and allowing you to make the most of the airport amenities and facilities. While many factors like airport size, flight time, and frequent flyer status impact time needs, proper prior planning prevents painful problems. Maximizing your pre-flight time starts with understanding the pre-security and post-security experiences.

Once you enter the airport, make time for checking bags if required and clearing security. Build in a buffer since even with online check-in and mobile passes, baggage lines and TSA wait times are unpredictable. Frequent traveler Marie always arrives 2 hours pre-departure for U.S. flights, saying “I’ve seen even TSA PreCheck lines exceed 30 minutes at major hubs during peak times. And once those kiosks or X-ray machines go down, forget it!”

If early enough, swing by the Admirals Club or airline lounge for your terminal. This oasis lets you enjoy free snacks, catch up on work, or just relax before your flight. Lounges often have shorter security lines too. Just be sure to budget 15-20 minutes for the commute to your gate once inside. As road warrior Jeff explains, “I once got so comfortable in the lounge I lost track of time and heard my flight being paged as I was leaving. Had to sprint through the terminal like a madman!”

Once through security, the world is your oyster. Take time to explore shops and restaurants in the concourse. Travel expert Jenny suggests, “Eat at a sit down restaurant before your flight rather than whatever they slap together on the plane.” Airport dining has expanded greatly with local eateries instead of just chains.

Waiting at the gate for group boarding is not the most exciting prospect. So take a walk around the terminal to stretch your legs. Hit the food court for a snack if you have an appetite. Browse magazine and souvenir shops for impulse purchases. You can even get a manicure or massage at airports like LAX. Fifty minutes at an airport yoga room passes surprisingly fast.

If all else fails, find a comfortable seat near your gate and dig into that book you have been trying to finish for months. Seasoned traveler Tony says, “I used to dread hanging around pre-flight, but now I look forward to it as forced time to catch up on reading without distractions.” You can even get some work done on your laptop thanks to abundant charging stations and fast WiFi at most airports now.

For families, kids are naturally antsy. Let them burn off energy at airport playgrounds now common at major hubs. One dad told me, “The kids play until tuckered out and actually nap on the plane. Beats screams and kicks to my seatback for five hours.” Many airports also have game and recreation rooms to keep kids occupied with hands-on fun.

Frequent flyer Ben wisely uses his pre-flight time to handle little tasks that boost the entire trip experience: “I scout the departure gate area and note where the nearest restroom and water fountains are located. And I check out the scene at boarding to see how chaotic it looks.” Wise preparation like this takes little time but pays dividends later.

Just make sure not to get so caught up having fun that you miss your flight! Scope out your gate location and account for commute time between activities and boarding. Mobile apps with airport maps and walking times between gates are invaluable for this.

Set alarms on your phone for key milestones like when boarding starts or when you need to head to the gate. Always retain enough buffer for the unexpected, whether a gate change or slow airport tram ride. As veteran traveler Sam says, “I allow myself to enjoy all the airport has to offer pre-flight, but never lose sight of departure time.”

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