I should have known better than to let my friend choose the time we left for the airport. But we were on his home turf and leaving before the sun came up, and who can think properly before dawn?
Our car was weaving through upstate New York toward JFK when I checked my boarding pass on my phone. Then my heart stopped.
We were going to be late to the airport — by my standards, at least. We’d be arriving with less than an hour to spare before boarding. I panicked, turned, and told my friend, travel journalist Brad Japhe.
“Wait, you don’t have TSA PreCheck?” he asked, justifiably confused. Both of us being travel journalists, one would assume that we knew every hack in the book to make air travel more efficient. With great shame, I told him no and ultimately joined a long line of amateurs while Japhe disappeared quickly past security. I made the flight but vowed to do better next time.
Believe it or not, there are people who enjoy getting to the airport as late as possible. The sweaty palms and constant refreshing of airline apps are worth the potential of a missed flight.
On the other hand, there are the jokes about nervous dads insisting on arriving hours early — just to be safe.
How early or late a traveler gets to the airport is a polarizing topic. An article in the Atlantic on the two types of airport people prompted an internet eruption of passionate responses. People who loved to be late stood their ground, while those who swear by arriving early cried out in horror at the other camp’s ways.
"I’ve never been called a monster more vehemently than when I talk about my airport habits," says Michelle Ye Hee Lee, a national reporter for the Washington Post. Lee is such a devotee to the practice of lateness there that she’s made a hashtag out of it: #TeamJustInTime.
For Lee, this behavior isn’t a flaw, but a carefully crafted skill that took years to develop. "I travel a lot for work and for fun and for volunteer work that I do," she says. "Over time, I developed ways to be really efficient with my time to get to the airport."
Like most people, Lee doesn’t like airport food, lines, or waiting. She’d rather get more out of her day at home than get stuck eating a bad meal at her gate. In an ideal world, Lee would get to the gate as her boarding group was being called.
For frequent fliers such as Lee, having the least time to spare makes sense because wasted time spent in the airport adds up.
“Missing or barely making one or two flights a year is worth the 40 or 50 hours a year in productivity that is gained by not sitting in the airport,” says Jeffrey Burg, a financial and tax adviser who flies weekly. “I don’t care what club room or secret alcove you have to do work in the airport — you’re never as productive there as you are in your primary work space or at home.”
For some travelers, playing the late-arrival game is even a thrill. My airport nightmare with Japhe was not an anomaly. We were actually early by his standards. Japhe habitually gets in an Uber ride to the airport just 35 to 30 minutes before his scheduled departure.
“If traffic is backed up going into the terminal ring — and in L.A., this isn’t exactly a far-fetched scenario — I’ll jump out with luggage in tow, running up to half a mile alongside the line of stopped cars,” Japhe says. “Hearing my name on the PA as they make final call, I feel no shame. I feel like a celebrity.”
To be clear, risking it this way is a privilege not accessible to everyone. People who often get stopped for random screenings at airports don’t have the luxury of cutting it close.
But for those who do feel like they can push it, we asked frequent fliers who take a nerve-racking approach for their tips on doing it successfully. Here’s what they told us.
Apply to cut the line. "I get that a lot of people arrive early because security can be unpredictable, but since I have TSA PreCheck and Clear, I usually get through within minutes," says Andie Biederman, who flies at least twice a month for her advertising job.
Not only does the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program ($85 for five years) allow you to pass through security faster, you also don’t have to take off your shoes or remove your laptop from its case. They are small details that feel like big wins when you’re in a hurry.
You still have to be mindful about what’s in your bag, and on your body, even if you have PreCheck. "I don’t wear heavy shoes that would make me buzz through the security line," Lee says. She also packs toiletries in a clear bag designed for flying with a carry-on so that she doesn’t have to take it out of her luggage.
You can apply for PreCheck online, or you can sign up for a credit card that throws in a PreCheck membership free. Having Global Entry ($100 for five years) will also get you PreCheck benefits and help expedite your customs-clearing process when you return to the United States from a trip abroad. Clear, the biometric screening service Biederman uses, gets its own line at TSA.
Download tracking apps. There are apps that can support your tight airport-arrival time. Japhe has a few he swears by, not only for catching flights but also to make flying and catching connections a better experience. He recommends FlightAware to know exactly where the plane is at all times, and Flightview to know which gate it will be coming into.
FlightAware, founded in 2005, offers a way to track commercial and private flights in every country on the planet. The app allows you to check delays, cancellations, weather, and more.
Flightview is clutch when you’re worried about a connecting flight and want to know whether you must catch an airport tram to another gate.
Don’t overlook your airline’s app. It’s helpful to have your boarding pass handy and get notifications about your flight status.
Assess departure logistics. It’s just as important to have the right apps and line-cutting privileges as it is to get familiar with your departure airport. Feats in tardiness pulled off in Washington may not work in San Francisco. “You just have to factor in that specific city’s location and the airport,” Lee says.
Lee considers the size of her departure city, what its traffic is like, how many terminals its airport has, and other curveballs, like whether she needs to catch a tram once she arrives. She then plans her day to shoot for a gate-arrival goal of 10 minutes before boarding.
If possible, don’t check a bag. With boarding passes downloadable to your phone, the only reason to start your airport journey at a service counter is to check a bag. The move takes up precious time that could be spent at home or inside an airport lounge.
The type of bag you take can also help in your mad dash to the gate. "I usually try to take a backpack rather than a roll-on bag, especially if it’s just a weekend trip, because luggage takes longer to mess with at security," Lee says. "Gate agents are more likely to stop you and get upset for being one of the late boarders with a roll-on bag."
If you need to check a bag, try using one of airports’ most underappreciated amenities: curbside baggage check. It’s free, but you should tip the porter handling your luggage (figure a couple of bucks per bag).
Review your documents. Jonathan Weber, founder of the internet services company Marathon Studios, sees his last-minute airport arrival habit as an addiction.
"Some people get their adrenaline rushes from skydiving, and I get mine from sprinting through some airport to Gate 53A," he says.
Most of the time, things go according to plan, and Weber makes his flights. However, on one unfortunate occasion, he got to the airport and realized that American Airlines hadn’t correctly ticketed his return flight to Taipei, Taiwan.
"With no time to fix it before the flight left, I got to watch my flight take off without me," Weber says.
Telling you to make sure your paperwork is in order might sound as obvious as warning not to lock your keys in your car. And yet, here we are. Be relentlessly thorough when you read your documents before leaving for the airport.
I found myself in tears at the Delta check-in desk at Los Angeles International when I realized my visa for India had expired. The ticket agent said I couldn’t board without a new one. I had to pay for a new ticket to Mumbai and leave a day later.