All your friends are leaving on an earlier flight to Hawaii for the wedding-of-the-decade festivities, but you (stupidly) thought you should stay until late Friday to appease your boss. As luck would have it, your boss left around noon and now you want to hightail it out of work, but you already have a flight on Saturday morning. What do you do? Answer: fly standby.
USA Today sums it up like this: “If you are traveling by air, you need to have a confirmed reservation. Passengers with reservations occasionally need to find earlier flights. Flying standby is an option that does not guarantee you an earlier fight but gives you the chance to standby for a seat to the same destination at an earlier time.”
The problem is that many people are afraid to try it. Numerous airline employees and retirees fly standby, but follow different listing and boarding procedures. And most airlines can charge a fee for flying a different flight than you had booked.
But since my grandfather was a retired airline pilot, I have flown hundreds of flights standby, or by “buddy pass” and am here to give you inside tips to make your standby experience the most seamless one possible. Whether you are using an employees perk or just trying to get on a different flight to make it to your destination sooner, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way:
Avoid peak travel times
As expected, long weekends, holidays, and major local events will elevate airport traffic, so avoiding these scenarios will up your chances of getting onto a flight. If holiday travel is a must, though, flying on the actual holiday is the easiest option. Many times, people avoid these days, but you might be able to get on an early morning flight and make it to the family holiday party just in time.
Only take a carry on
To me, this is crucial for peace of mind when flying standby. If you can’t confirm a standby seat at the ticket counter, you’ll have to try to get on at the gate. This is the norm. Unfortunately you can’t fly without your luggage (and sometimes they won’t move it for you), so you never know when your giant bag will arrive to your final destination. Maybe before, maybe after you. My suggestion: take a carry on, and you know it will arrive with you. Easy as that.
Get there early and talk to the airline agent
The typical 2 hours before domestic, and 3 hours for international still applies here, but it is particularly helpful because you can talk to the agent at the desk when you arrive, before going all the way through security. Although you should only pack a carry on (see above) talking to them while getting your boarding pass can help gage how good the flight looks, and the odds (in their opinion) of how the flights and loads look. I even had one very kind agent tell me about flights that were being delayed in another city, which meant those passengers would miss the flight I was trying to get on. Score! I knew those three extra seats were going to be available, and everyone else thought they were booked, possibly detiring them from attempting to get on that flight.
Buy a one-way flight you can cancel
This has been a really handy trick for me. Airlines like Southwest let you cancel your flight up to 10 minutes before your scheduled departure time, so sometimes I will book a very late flight out of my departing airport that I know I can cancel. That way, if I don’t get on any standby flights throughout the day, I know I will make it to my destination eventually. If I am lucky, I get on the standby flight, cancel the flight as I am waiting on the tarmac, and I can use the flight or the points at another time. Most airlines don’t allow this though, so check with them before booking.
You may not be able to get on a flight. You may have to sit at the airport for hours, or even days, which really sucks. This is the beauty and pitfall of getting on an almost “free” flight sometimes. Be kind to the gate agents and airline workers, and know this isn’t their fault if you are stuck at the airport for hours on end. Sometimes the cards fall in your favor; sometimes they don’t. Be adaptable, and know things will work out… eventually.
Whether you are trying to get on an earlier flight, or have the flight benefits from a friend who flies for an airline, flying standby can be an insanely awesome perk. Knowing what you’re doing, and keeping the above tips in mind before you travel, can make all the difference in your experience.
Visit me on my blog, ALittleBitAdrift.com, for more travel tips and inspiration. I’d love to hear about more of your travel hacks in the comments below!