Applications of transport time scales are pervasive in biological, hydrologic, and geochemical studies yet these times scales are not consistently defined and applied with rigor in the literature. We compare three transport time scales (flushing time, age, and residence time) commonly used to measure the retention of water or scalar quantities transported with water. We identify the underlying assumptions associated with each time scale, describe procedures for computing these time scales in idealized cases, and identify pitfalls when real-world systems deviate from these idealizations. We then apply the time scale definitions to a shallow 378 ha tidal lake to illustrate how deviations between real water bodies and the idealized examples can result from: (1) non-steady flow; (2) spatial variability in bathymetry, circulation, and transport time scales; and (3) tides that introduce complexities not accounted for in the idealized cases. These examples illustrate that no single transport time scale is valid for all time periods, locations, and constituents, and no one time scale describes all transport processes. We encourage aquatic scientists to rigorously define the transport time scale when it is applied, identify the underlying assumptions in the application of that concept, and ask if those assumptions are valid in the application of that approach for computing transport time scales in real systems.