Airline tickets are SO. RIDICULOUSLY. EXPENSIVE. Going anywhere, especially during peak travel season, is really pricey. I recently looked into taking a trip to visit relatives on the east coast, and the cheapest flights I could find were about $700 roundtrip from Detroit, MI to Providence, RI. I also thought about driving, but 14 hours in the car alone with a toddler did not sound like fun. So needless to say, we didn’t end up going. But we did take a pretty fun trip to Ohio instead.
The internet is awash with travel deals and websites that claim to find the lowest rates anywhere for airline tickets. Some airlines, such as Spirit, offer flight clubs, which offer reduced flight prices with the purchase of a membership. There are also all-inclusive packages you can buy which factor in flight costs, and can be cheaper than making flight and hotel reservations separately.
Let’s take a look at another option that could potentially save you some dough: My boyfriend is currently on a “man-cation” (A.K.A. a boys-only trip) to Washington, D.C., The boys got really cheap airline tickets; they each paid $130 round trip for first-class tickets. I had no idea how in the heck they got such awesome rates, until Sunday night.
Our conversation went something like this:
Drew: Sooooooooo…. I might not be back until Wednesday.
Chrissy: You were supposed to come back on Monday morning, what gives?
Drew: We got standby tickets.
Chrissy: [sarcasm] Thanks for telling me in advance.
Needless to say, I am not a very happy camper.
What does it mean to “fly standby”? Years ago, airlines allowed the general public to purchase low-cost standby tickets to fill in empty seats. In some cases, passengers could even fly free for waiting at the gate and jumping on the standby list. That just doesn’t happen anymore. Today, flying standby often means that you pay a fee for the chance to get on an earlier flight. If you’re an airline employee, or you have a friend or relative who is, you can book cheap standby tickets which allow you to fly without a confirmed reservation. In other words, if the flight fills up, you’ll just get bumped to the next one. Standby tickets are somewhat hard to come by, as airlines focus on slashing costs and filling planes to the max.
Even if I’m annoyed that he gets to extend his vacation for two days, I think it’s awesome that my boyfriend flew with such cheap tickets. My boyfriend’s friend is an airline employee, so he was able to book the flights for a very cheap price. In many cases, cheap standby tickets can only be obtained by knowing someone who works for an airline. If you have a friend or relative who works for an airline, invite them on as many vacations as possible.
In my boyfriend’s case, he simply has to wait until there are seats available on a direct flight to Detroit. His ticket was originally for Monday morning, but since planes keep filling up, he keeps getting bumped. Luckily, he’s been able to track his flight plans online, so he’s been kept aware of the changes without having to go to the airport. So far, it looks like he won’t be flying out of D.C. until early Wednesday morning. If your flexibility is limited, this is not the option for you. Also, if you would have to pay for extra days at a hotel, standing by might not be your cheapest option.
If you’re a member of the general public, you can fly standby by getting to the airport early and inquiring about the standby list at the gate. As an example, say you’re flying for business and you finish your work early. You get to the airport 5 hours early, and inquire about getting on an earlier flight. If you get on the standby list, you may be able to change your flight for a small fee (typically about $25-$75) and get home sooner. If you relish the chance to spend an extra 5 hours at your destination, standby can be a very appealing option.
So if you’re paying a fee above the original cost of your ticket, how can it save you money? Think about the cost of switching pre-booked flights, for instance. Perhaps you’ve booked a flight to Florida, but have discovered that you can’t take that flight after all. Booking a different flight would cost an extra $200, and you just don’t want to swallow the cost. If you took a gamble and tried to standby on an earlier flight, you might end up paying an extra $25, instead of $200.
Not every airline has the same standby program, so it can be a little confusing to figure out which ones allow standby, and how to purchase tickets. You can figure out your standby options by calling the airline, or even just inquiring at the gate once you’re at the airport.
I did find one “cheap rate” standby program that is available to the general public. If you’re a college-age single passenger looking to save money, look no further than AirTran. AirTran offers a great program called AirTran U, and it’s exclusively for people between the ages of 18 and 22. You can only get these tickets if you’re in this age range, but the rates are unbeatable if you don’t mind the possibility of having to wait a few extra hours. You can fly standby on AirTran planes for as little as $60 one-way. The only catch is that they’ll charge you the going rate for each leg of the journey. If you have a connecting flight, and you’re paying $60 a ticket, it’s actually going to cost $120 to get to your destination, but that’s still not bad.
If you’re flying with standby tickets, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of getting on the earliest possible flight. Here are some travel tips for flying standby:
- Don’t check luggage. You’ll have a better chance of jumping on a flight last-minute if they don’t have to transfer your luggage. Travel with carry-ons only.
- Be patient. You will probably have to wait until right before take-off to find out if you’ll make the flight. Wait until the jetway door closes to go hang out at the airport bar.
- Travel solo. If you’re with a group, ask the airline to separate your group reservation into single-person itineraries.
- Plan for the worst-case scenario. Make sure you have accommodations if you have to stay an extra couple of days. Pack extra clothing.
Standby tickets are not as common as they used to be. If you have a flexible schedule, or if you want to get on an earlier flight, standing by can be a great option. To find out more, call your airline to learn about the options that are available to you.