7 Steps to Navigate Early Morning Departures

So you were crazy enough to book a 6am flight. Even in your hometown, these can be pretty hairy. Here are some considerations to make sure you actually make your flight and don’t throw yourself at the mercy of the airlines.

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1. Set many alarms

First, if you have a flight in the wee hours, your body is going to heavily resist you going anywhere but your bed and one alarm might now cut it. Set 2, 3 or 4. Low risk investment which allows you a more gradual rude awakening

2. Pack and check-in the night before

Don’t leave things to chance. Always be sure to pack and check in the night before the flight. You’ll need every minute and ounce of strength just to get through the usual airport song and dance

3. Check transit options - Are the trains and buses even running?


Remember that your usual transport to the airport (friends or public transit) might not actually be running in time for you to make your flight. Be sure you know where to stand, any reduced service (like the fact that the E train out to JFK only runs local til 6:30am, adding an extra 30 mins to the trip - AND the Airtrain only runs every 15-20 minutes in off peak hours)

If you don’t know the system well, also be sure you know where to stand as bus stops might shift or certain train station entrances may be closed. I usually give myself an extra 30-40 minute buffer for early morning flights where I’m not 100% positive I’m going to be in the right place.

The E train only runs local until 6:30am, potentially adding up to 30 minutes to get in from midtown Manhattan

Likewise, the JFK Airtrain reduces its frequency to every 15-20 minutes from 11:45pm-5:am


4. Failing public transit - prebook a taxi or sedan

While more expensive, it might be worth pre-booking a taxi or sedan service. Don’t count on taxi’s being readily available at 4am. Especially if there is a language barrier, there is a high likelihood that the taxi just won’t show up. Aside from that, there’s also a safety concern about being alone on the street in the wee hours of the morning with luggage.

As a result, it might make sense to use a town car service, since they will often have better English skills and many will text or call you as they are arriving, reducing risky waiting. Both types of transport are readily bookable by phone and increasingly available online.

5. Leave time for security

Think the airport will be a ghost town? Think again. Many business travelers have to take the first flight out, resulting in security lines longer than the queue for tickets for a Justin Bieber concert. And they’ll all have status.

6. Understand airline scheduling and logistics

Because these are the first flights out from the airport, they are very unlikely to be delayed since there is no incoming aircraft. Consequentially, the airline will be highly motivated to get these flights out on time (or even early) to ensure they don’t cause delays down the line. Plus, given your business-heavy crowds, boarding will likely go quickly, so make sure you actually heed the boarding time for this one.

7. Opt in for text alerts from the airline

Finally, because these first flights are so critical, they can sometimes be prone to schedule changes. Once, while on a regular commute for work, I had a 6:00am flight actually get pushed back to 5:20am. If I didn’t opt in to text notifications, there is no way I would have made it in time.

Bonus - How to beg for mercy

If you miss your flight but show up at the airport, the airline may rebook you on standby for free using the “flat tire” rule


Lastly, in the case that you do oversleep, take too long in transit or get bogged down in security, you can usually plead with the airline to rebook you (standby only) on the next flight, invoking something called the “flat tire” rule. Keep in mind you need to be present at the airport within 2-3 hours of your flight to make a plausible case to the ticket agent and that you’re not just looking to dodge a change fee. Some airlines, particularly non-US ones, will likely charge a change and/or no-show fee, so don’t be surprised if you have to take out your credit card.

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