Your time is valuable and while there are more fun places to be than sitting at your gate, running from the clutches of airport security to board on time isn’t a lot of fun either. Here’s the guide for showing up at your gate with James Bond timing.
The Easy Stuff
Google for “<Airline Name> Checkin cutoff”
This’ll find the minimum amount of time the airline will allow between checking in and the plane departing (e.g., Continental.com’s guidelines).
Rather not search? Go to SeatGuru.com, select the airline you want, and then click the “Check-in” tab at the top.
If you’re going global, go early
This often-repeated advice has some truth to it: arrive earlier for international travel. It’s not just because you have to deal with more shenanigans (e.g., passport checks), but also because the airlines require it. You’ll notice in the Continental.com page above, for example, that flying out of Micronesia has a cutoff of 90 minutes before departure (if you’re checking bags), as compared to much lower in the US.
Avoid checking bags if you can
You won’t have to check in as far in advance, as evidenced by the cutoff times above.
Online instead of in line
If at all possible, check-in online and print your boarding pass at home (or have it on your smartphone). That’ll give you the freedom to arrive even after the check-in cutoff.
Delayed flights don’t mean you can delay
Airlines may not look kindly on you arriving after the check-in time for the flight *had it not been delayed.* There’s a reason for this: delayed flights sometimes get un-delayed. So suck it up and arrive on time even for delayed flights.
Public transit isn’t perfect
Subways, buses, and the like can break down, or have construction, or strike, etc. This is particularly a problem in cities that have good public transit links to their airports, like Boston and SF, because you can come to rely on them and then they fail.
Sometimes public transit isn’t running early enough or late enough to get you to your flight. Example: You can’t realistically catch a 6 AM flight from Logan Airport and take the T to get there.
Be wary of the roads, too
Granted, driving/cabbing can suck too due to construction, accidents, traffic, or just bad timing. Try getting a cab in downtown NY around 4pm (when shifts change) for a flight out of JFK.
Check-in agents can save your butt
Even if you miss the checkin cutoff, some agents may be receptive to checking you in anyway if a) the flight still has room, b) you can plausibly make it through security in time and c) you’re not checking bags. It especially helps if you have “status” with the airline for having flown them or their partners a lot in the past year.
It’s tempting to be in a foul mood, but if you can put on a smile, you’ll often be surprised with how receptive people can be — especially given what they’re typically subjected to.
Know your options
In advance of your flight, see what other flights are available so you know how badly you’re screwed if things don’t work out. Be extra-conservative if you’re on the last (or only) flight of the day to where you’re going. Here are some mobile apps to help.
Worst case: there might be a policy for that
If you miss the flight despite your best efforts, some airlines have a formal or informal policy that may help you: http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/blog/3801610/the-flat-tire-rule-remnant-or-rescue/
Got tips of your own? Share them in comments!