How Early Should I Arrive at Airport With Kids?

Family with children at the airport


Smart Preparation Keeps Time, and Stress, to a Minimum

Even a quick run to the nearest store becomes a time sink when you're toting the kids along, so serious travel with youngsters is a serious challenge. That's especially true when you're flying and need to pass through TSA screening, so getting to the airport early is mandatory. The down side, of course, is that the earlier you arrive the longer you need to keep the kids entertained, changed and fed.

Exactly how early you get to the terminal comes down largely to personal choice, but some forethought and preparation can always make it easier.

There's No Hard and Fast Rule, so Use Your Judgement

The Transportation Security Administration recommends getting to the airport two hours ahead of time for domestic flights and three hours ahead for international flights, but suggests you allow extra time if you're traveling with kids. That's a reasonable starting point, but there's a lot it doesn't take into account. If you're traveling during the holidays or at another peak period, you'll need to allow extra time, partly because it's so busy and partly because there'll be plenty of other travelers hauling kids through the screening gate. Regional airports can be quicker to navigate than major hubs, so you may not need to show up as early if you're flying between smaller cities. On the other hand, the more bags and kid paraphernalia you're toting, the more awkward it gets and the more things you'll have to open during screening. Finding the right balance takes some judgement, but when in doubt, it's always best to err on the side arriving earlier.

The Complicated Calculus of Kids, Seats and Bags

If you're traveling domestically with a child under 2, save on fare by bringing your youngster on the flight as a "lap child." It saves you the cost of a seat, but—logically enough—also means you don't get a seat for that child. This option is best reserved for infants, who'll be relatively content to spend the flight in your lap: With a squirmy toddler, it's often a bad idea. You can only bring one lap child per adult, so if you have two kids you'll have to pay for at least one.

As for their trappings, most airlines allow one diaper bag per child as a carry-on. Car seats are usually free as well, and if you've paid for a seat, you can strap down your wee one's car seat during the flight for added safety. Strollers are checked, but are usually not counted against your baggage allowance. Depending on your airline and the fare you've paid, you may be able to bring additional checked or carry-on baggage for each child, but you'll need to clarify that with the airline. Kids traveling free as lap children typically get no baggage allowance, so anything other than the diaper bag counts against yours.

PreCheck is a Really, Really Good Idea

If you'll be flying regularly with kids for the next several years, think seriously about enrolling in the TSA's PreCheck program. If you're a member with a Known Traveler Number, kids under the age of 12 can just waltz through the expedited screening line along with you. That beats standing in the regular line for 20 or 30 minutes while frantically trying to keep your children corralled and entertained. At $85 for five years, the cost is moderate for the stress it saves you. The Global Entry program costs $100 per person and gives you the same privileges on international flights. If your international travel is solely to Canada, the NEXUS program provides the same benefits as PreCheck plus expedited screening at land border crossings, all for the bargain price of $50 for five years.

Happy Bellies Make Happy Travelers

Packing along a lavish supply of snacks, nibbles and light meals is a reliable way to keep your stress low and kids happy while getting from A to B, both in flight and in the terminal itself. Most kid-friendly foods, from teething biscuits and fruit to "gorp" and carrot sticks, are perfectly fine with the TSA. Liquids, pastes and gels, on the other hand—including peanut butter, yogurt, and dips—must adhere to the 3-1-1 rule. All items must be in containers of 3.4 ounces or less and fit into a single 1-quart zipper-seal bag. The TSA does make an exception for formula, breast milk and pureed baby foods. You're allowed to bring "a reasonable quantity" of those, aside from your 3-1-1 bag.