Young man sitting in an airport

Flying standby requires an adventurous soul. Air travel is stressful enough with long lines, delays and increasingly crowded planes. Why add more uncertainty to that mess?  However, if your travel plans aren’t going your way, flying standby can be a useful tool to get you where you are going.

Old-school standby, where you show up ticketless at the airport and hope to get a discounted seat on a flight to your ideal destination, largely doesn’t exist anymore. Due to rapidly increasing demand and the now-common practice of overbooking flights, more airlines are consistently sending full planes into the sky and are disinclined to offer special deals to last-minute passengers.

Let’s discover what standby looks like today and how you can use it to your advantage.

Standby Today

Flying standby is no longer a big money saver; in fact, you may end up spending more money. This is because you’ll need to purchase a ticket to even be eligible, and then you’ll likely be charged a fee if you’re able to grab a seat.

Today, standby is mainly available to airline employees, travelers who want an earlier flight than the one they’re booked for or people who missed their original flight (though it depends on the airline).

How to Fly Standby

Unless you’re an airline employee, the most likely reason you’ll be on standby is when you’ve already begun your trip, ticket in hand, and something doesn’t go according to plan. Maybe your plane arrives sooner than expected for a long layover and you’d like to get on an earlier flight to your final destination. Or perhaps you slept through your alarm and now find yourself at the mercy of an airline agent to try to get on the next flight out.

Remember, with standby you’re not vying for an empty seat on an under-booked flight, you’re hoping that the flight has more no-shows than the airline anticipated. Make sure to let an agent know about your plans as soon as possible, because any seats that open up will likely be first come, first served. Some airlines will also prioritize you by how much you paid for your ticket, or whether you’re a loyalty member.

If you anticipate a possibility for needing to fly standby, do a little research on your airline’s policies regarding ticket changes. Make sure to also familiarize yourself with the rules of your specific ticket, as policies can vary depending on your fare type.

Here are the standby policies for the four largest airlines in North America:

Delta

Delta has two options for same-day travel changes: Same-day standby and same-day confirmed. Your agent will first try to confirm you on an earlier flight, meaning you’ll be guaranteed a seat. If there’s nothing available, they’ll put you on standby. You’ll be limited to flights departing the same day as your original flight; in addition, if you’re on standby and not a Diamond, Platinum and Gold Medallion member you’ll only be able to take an earlier flight. For either option, you’ll pay a $75 fee unless you’re a member of one of their top-tier loyalty programs, plus any applicable change fees (check your ticket; the fee for domestic flights is $200). Standby is only available for domestic flights.

The big catch: Ticket holders with Basic Economy fare types – the cheapest tickets – aren’t eligible for same-day travel changes.

Southwest

It depends on the type of ticket you hold, but Southwest generally allows standby travel, granted you’re traveling to the same destination and on your ticketed date. If you make it onto the flight, you may be charged applicable taxes and fees (their website says this is on a “per passenger basis”). Travelers with Senior fares or the low cost, “Wanna Get Away” fares will have to upgrade to an “Anytime” ticket to be eligible for standby.

American

American Airlines allows travelers to fly standby as long as the new flight departs on the same day, has the same destination and departing location, and the same number of stops in the same airports as your original flight. Only loyalty members can standby for flights later than their original one. Standby is only available on domestic flights and comes with a $75 fee, although that may be waived if you’re a member of a loyalty program.

United

Passengers with Basic Economy tickets aren’t eligible for flight changes with United. Depending on loyalty membership, you may be charged a $75 fee for making same-day changes. You can make a request for a flight change within 24 hours before your ticketed departure, and the requested flight must be scheduled to depart 24 hours from the time of the request. If no confirmed seats are available in the fare class you purchased, you’ll be put on standby. You must be travelling to the same destination on your original ticket.

Once you’re put on the standby list, go to your gate and check in. Wait for your name to be called and don’t walk away until the plane pushes back from the gate. You never know when a last-minute recount will work in your favor.

Not having checked bags will make your life a lot easier if you end up on a different flight than you intended. In some cases, you won’t even be allowed to try for an earlier flight on standby if you’ve already checked a bag for a later flight, depending on the airline and agent discretion. It makes sense: If they can’t get your bag onto the earlier flight, you’ll end up waiting for your bags to arrive or having to return to the airport to retrieve your luggage, which defeats the time-saving purposes of flying standby.

Often, a lot of these decisions will be left to agent discretion, so make sure to be kind and polite to the person helping you. They can help you get around sometimes murky airline policy and get you where you need to go.

When Is It Worth It?

If cutting costs is your goal, flying standby just isn’t the godsend it used to be. However, it can make air travel a little easier depending on your circumstances. For example, if you have plans for the day you want to fly out and you’re not sure when you’ll be done, booking the latest flight and requesting standby when you get to the airport can allow you some flexibility – but be warned, you run the risk of being stuck in the airport until your scheduled flight.

Standby can also be useful to passengers who didn’t make it to the airport on time. Though it may not be readily available on their websites, it appears that many of the major airlines have unofficial rules regarding what to do when a customer shows up late for a flight. Again, these decisions will likely be left up to the agent you’re dealing with, so make sure to be extra nice. A little begging could get you on the standby list for the next flight out at little to no extra cost.

As long as you can afford the fees, putting your name on the standby list can’t hurt, but be cognizant of the fact that you might not get on your desired flight, especially if you’re flying on a weekend, holiday or before any big events (such as the Super Bowl).

If you’re flying internationally, you may be out of luck. Airlines tend to be much stricter with standby on international flights – if they even allow it at all. Plus, international ticket holders are much less likely to be no-shows.

Better Ways to Save Money

So how does one save money on air travel? The best way is to book your tickets as far in advance as possible, usually at least 21 days ahead of your planned departure date.

Being flexible also helps. If you can, widen your search to include the days around when you’re looking to leave. Use airfare comparison sites such as Expedia or Kayak to see which days and times have the best deals. If you don’t mind it, taking an overnight flight (a “red eye”) can be significantly cheaper.

If you know someone who works for an airline, ask them if they have any buddy passes. Buddy passes actually work very similar to old-school standby. Airlines that allow buddy passes allocate a certain number of them to their employees, who can share them with friends and family. The holder can use the pass to fly at a free or reduced rate, but they fly standby and aren’t guaranteed a seat on the plane. Make sure to do your research on the rules of the pass ahead of time.

Like many aspects of air travel, the standby of the past has been streamlined, mainly to allow airlines to make more money. While it’s no longer the nomadic spirit’s answer to cheap airfare on the fly, it can prove useful when things don’t go your way.

Have any advice on flying standby? Let us know in the comments!

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I’m looking for a standby ticket from Sacramento to Honduras Roatan how do I go about doing it or can you help me couple weeks ago was like $700 now it’s $1100 I want to get standby I’ll sit there in Sacramento and wait

    1. Hi Ross:

      The best advice I can give you is to talk to the airlines. Most of these standby programs aren’t publicly available, but if you talk to them, maybe they would have a tip or when to look out.

      Thanks,
      Kevin Graham

  2. It’s going to be ending of mine day, except before
    ending I am reading this impressive article to increase
    my knowledge.

  3. Definitely just signed up for the AirTran U website because of this post! I love a good deal, especially while traveling.

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