The Best Time To Arrive At The Airport Is Not When You Think

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Do you have trouble determining when is the best time to get to the airport for your flight? You might think that this is a standard travel advice piece, cautioning you to show up three hours ahead of time. On the contrary, I'm here to encourage you to show up later to the airport — and a math professor agrees with me. According to Dr. Jordan Ellenburg in his new book, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking , people are spending much too much time languishing in airports when they could be sleeping or wrapping up their vacations instead.

Time, being limited, is valuable to us. That's part of why missing a flight is so bad — depending on the popularity of the route, you may be stuck waiting for another flight for anywhere from a couple hours to overnight. However, the extra time you spend waiting in airports is valuable too, so you should try to spend at least some of it elsewhere. Over the course of years, and over your lifetime, if you never miss a flight, that means you're erring way too far on the side of caution and should have been cutting your schedule closer. So what is the exact perfect time to arrive? Ellenburg is a little hard to pin down on this point, saying that it “depends on how you personally feel about the relative merits of missing planes and wasting time." Oh. OK.

It's true that missing your flight is bad but usually not the end of the world. Spending a few hours waiting for the next flight, over time, adds up to far fewer total wasted hours of your life than cumulatively spending many hours sitting in airports in preparation for your flights. This point may hold even more significance for Americans who, since 9/11, have been repeatedly urged to show up to the airport very early — 90 minutes or more — to allow ample time for getting through the security line.

In my own experience, airport officials often try to accommodate travelers in security lines with rapidly approaching flight times, so you'll probably be OK (though do you really want to be that guy?). If arriving later makes you nervous, try cutting back from arriving two hours early to 90 minutes early — it'll probably be fine. Depending on how much your time on any given day is worth to you, try shaving it down in additional 15 minute increments when it makes sense. You'll eventually come to the sweet spot where you're not literally running for the flight, but you're not accidentally getting plastered in airport bars out of boredom, either.

The same logic holds true for other, lower-stakes events too, like meetings. If you try very hard never to be late for a meeting, you'll end up cumulatively wasting tons of time waiting for meetings to begin. Try medium-hard to be on time: sometimes you'll be early, and sometimes you'll be late, and that's the rational thing to do. Because timing is everything, try these additional tips, and these too. It's not too tricky to overhaul much of your scheduling for the better.