How to fly standby

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It’s Murphy’s Law of Travel: the one time you arrive early for a flight, you end up checked in and through security in less than ten minutes, leaving you hours to sit around the airport. You check your flight’s status on the departure board, and notice that there’s an earlier flight to your destination leaving in 45 minutes. Excitedly, you open up Expert Flyer to see if there are any seats available, and there are! You make a run for the earlier flight’s gate, walk up and ask the agent if she can get you on the earlier departure.

Her answer: it varies, but usually is “no.”

Here’s how to turn that “no” into a “yes” – complete with a confirmed seat on the earlier flight.

Five and more years ago – before airlines invented a fee for just about everything – you really could just walk up to that gate agent, ask politely, and usually come away with a seat on the earlier flight (at a minimum you were added to the standby list). There were also more flights back then, meaning planes were less full, giving you good odds to snag a seat on the earlier flight. This was truly a win-win, both for you and the airline. You saved time and arrived at your destination earlier, and the airline completed its service to you, meaning one less passenger to deal with later that day if any flight disruptions affected their schedule.

Times have changed. Airlines have monetized just about everything, and flying standby is no exception. Barring extraordinary circumstances (what we travel insiders call irregular operations) you have two ways to try standby travel now:

  • Have elite status with the airline you’re flying
  • Pay the airline a fee

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Essentially the airlines have taken standby away from the regular folks, reserving it for their elite members, premium cabin passengers and a few other travelers. As an example, look over who qualifies for standby on American Airlines. For the average, non-elite traveler, what the airline is selling you is a same-day confirmed flight change.  Here’s a list of current fees by airline for domestic trips:

Alaska Airlines: $25

American Airlines: $75

Delta Air Lines: $50

JetBlue: No charge ($50 for confirmed same-day change)

Southwest Airlines: Fare difference, if any

United Airlines: $75

US Airways: $75

Of course, the advantage of paying the same-day change fee is that you will be confirmed on the earlier flight, not sweating it out at the gate during boarding, waiting for what is sure to be a middle seat near the lavatory. Higher level elites receive complimentary same-day changes on most airlines, and only standby if a confirmed seat isn’t available.

This is just one more reason why you should focus on earning elite status with the airline you fly most often. Status can pay big dividends, and this is one of them. Don’t forget that the higher your status, the better your odds of avoiding fees and clearing the standby list.

In summary, earn elite status to fly standby for free or pay the airline a nominal fee for a confirmed same-day change.

About the Author

Ryan Lile's Profile Image

Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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