Traveling with your children can be an exciting experience for everyone involved. You can create memories that will last a lifetime as you journey to far away places, discovering all that the world has to offer together. However, traveling with kids also requires plenty of planning and preparation to ensure that everything goes as smoothly as possible. This is especially true if you’re traveling by airplane. Giving yourself plenty of time at the airport for pre-flight check-in is an absolute must these days, but how early should you get to the airport with kids in tow?
The answer to that question truly depends on several variables that will determine how much time is needed between the time you arrive at the airport and the time your plane is scheduled to take off. Your child’s age, their travel experience, your patience level, and whether or not you are flying internationally all matter when deciding what time to arrive at the airport ahead of a flight.
“Whether traveling with kids or not, I like to get to the airport at least 2 hours in advance. That gives my family a chance to easily check any bags, get through security, grab a quick bite to eat, and use the restrooms before boarding,” Colleen Lanin, founder and editor of TravelMamas.com and author of The Travel Mamas’ Guide tells Romper.
“Honestly, this is one of the few times in life that I am always on time. Even if my ride share ride is late or if there’s a traffic jam, building in a buffer to arrive two hours in advance enables me to fly without the added stress of running late.”
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends arriving at least 2 hours ahead of your scheduled flight time for domestic flights and 3 hours for international flights to accommodate for security checks and screenings, but they also suggest that you allow additional time when traveling with children. Another TSA tip: You should check in with your airline regarding your specific travel dates to see what they recommend, since they can typically give you more information. Also, allow for extra time for parking and shuttling upon your arrival to the airport.
“I’ve been using the same 2-hour rule of thumb since my kids were babies. Now that I’m mom to a tween and teen, I haven’t adjusted that timeframe at all. Better to be early than running like mad through the airport with all sorts of kiddie paraphernalia,” Lanin says.
“With my older kids, I probably have a little bit more time to relax at the airport than I did when they were wee.” If traveling with a baby or toddler, she adds, remember to add in extra time to check strollers and car seats and to get your little one buckled into their “TSA-approved” child restraint.
The TSA PreCheck program is a great tool to help parents simplify the check-in process and cut down on the amount of time you have to spend waiting in line at the airport. This is a crucial step when traveling with kids because even the most patient children are simply not great at waiting in lines for half an hour or more. You can apply online in less than five minutes and your $85 fee will grant you a Known Traveler Number good for five years that cuts your wait time drastically in most cases. Kids under the age of 12 traveling with an adult who has a Known Traveler Number can take advantage of this expedited process completely free of charge.
While she does recommend registering for TSA PreCheck, Lanin also suggests that parents prepare their children for what they will experience when heading through security.
“Talk to children about what will happen at the airport, especially if it’s their first flight or they if they haven’t flown in a long while,” Lanin advises.
“Kids can find the security process to be quite daunting, especially if they are pulled aside for extra inspection. Prepare them for this possibility and explain that you will stay with them if they need additional screening and that it’s just to make sure the plane is super safe for them and everyone else who’s flying,” she says.
Another pro tip is to arrive at the airport with kids who are fed, well-rested, and don’t have a ton of bags to keep up with. Providing your kids who are old enough with an easy-to-carry backpack full of fun activities to keep them occupied and some light snacks is a great way to foster a bit of responsibility in them and help keep their hands and yours free during the check-in process.
Arriving early to the airport ensures that you have plenty of time to herd your children through the required TSA security checkpoints and allows for delays caused by the inevitable diaper change or emergency snack break. However, arriving too early can lead to ample pre-flight downtime where you might need to break out your secret stash of in-flight distractions early to keep kids occupied. It’s truly a balancing act, but I would rather have to spend extra time in the wide open spaces of an airport terminal where my kids can stretch their legs, window shop, and perhaps chit chat with other waiting families and their kids than try to run through a busy airport juggling small people and their various accessories only to miss our flight.