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How to Successfully Play the Standby Game for Cheap Last-Minute Flights

Airports + Flying
by Eben Diskin Aug 16, 2023

Flying standby used to be like balancing your checkbook — it was a bit of a tedious pain, but the process was remarkably simple. You just showed up at the airport without a ticket a few hours in advance, put your name on the standby list with the gate agent, and if seats were available once all the ticketed passengers were checked in, you were issued a seat at a significant discount. Things change, however. Now flying standby is more like online banking. At first it looks like calculus, but once you learn how to navigate it, it’s actually incredibly easy. If you don’t, however, you might feel like a member of an older generation caught up in the undertow of the changing times. Luckily, flying standby is still a great value, and doing it isn’t just for the frequent flier. Here’s how to successfully play the standby game in this new era of airport travel.

Know your airline’s standby policy

First, and perhaps most importantly, not all airlines are created equal when it comes to standby. Each airline has its own policy that dictates how you should navigate the standby system. Alaska Airlines, for example, offers free same-day standby to passengers with pre-purchased tickets, but only for nonstop flights between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Seattle, and Portland, and between Seattle and Spokane. That means if you already have tickets for one flight, you could potentially get on an earlier flight to those destinations by showing up at the departure gate at least 30 minutes in advance.

Southwest Airlines, by contrast, offers free standby seats to select passengers, including Business, Wanna Get Away, and Senior fares. You must also ask to be added to the same-day standby list at least 10 minutes before the departure time of your original flight, or you will be considered a no-show.

Other airlines make it slightly more difficult to fly standby, or don’t offer the service at all. American Airlines, Delta, United, and JetBlue all charge a $75 standby fee — with various stipulations — which might dissuade many passengers from pursuing a standby ticket at all. Allegiant Air doesn’t offer traditional standby flights at all, but instead allows passengers who bought TripFlex fares to change their flight and destination within an hour of departure.

Whether you’re flying on these or other airlines, always be sure you’re familiar with the most up-to-date policy.

Be flexible with your travel plans

To give yourself the best chance of not only flying at your desired time but also getting a cost break on the fare, you’ll need to have some flexibility. That means flying at inopportune times (like 6:00 AM), or even changing which airport you fly into.

For example, instead of traveling at peak hours on the busiest days, try flying on slower days, like Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. These days don’t see as many business commuters, which leads to lower fares and planes that are less crowded. Flights that leave particularly early or late are also a good bet for nabbing a standby ticket. If the flight time makes you go, “ugh,” at first glance, chances are other passengers feel the same, and have opted for more neutral flight times. Whether it’s a 6:00 AM flight or a 11:00 PM red-eye, you’ll have better luck with off-hour fares.

The same rule applies to destination airports. If your desired standby flight is from Boston to London Heathrow, but you’ve been told odds are slim of grabbing a spare seat, try a Boston to Gatwick flight instead. Flights to smaller regional airports can be both cheaper and often less desirable, meaning your odds of getting onboard are higher. This isn’t just true for international flights, either. Instead of flying from Denver to LAX, check out flights to Hollywood Burbank Airport. There may be fewer total flights going there, but chances are more seats will be available.

Preparing for standby is a bit different

Showing up to the airport for a standby flight is a little different from a regular flight. While the basics of the airport experience are pretty much the same, you’ll need to prepare a bit differently. How you pack, for example, is huge. When flying standby, avoid checking any bags. This is because standby passengers aren’t given tickets until all other ticketed passengers have checked-in and given allocated seats, meaning there may not be enough room on the plane for your checked bags. In this case, your bags would be put on a later flight, somewhat defeating the purpose of catching that earlier standby flight in the first place. But if you’re spontaneous enough to fly standby, you’re probably low-maintenance enough to make everything fit in a carry-on.

In addition to packing light, it’s also a good idea to get there early — at least three hours before the flight you want. Right when you arrive, ask the ticket or gate agent to put your name on the same-day standby list. The chance of getting on a standby flight is higher earlier in the day than later, since earlier flights tend to be less packed. And if you don’t make your desired flight, you’ll still have enough time to catch another flight. There will be a screen in the boarding area with the standby list, so you can keep track of your status (and the status of other passengers).

Even if you do get on your desired flight, you could be waiting around awhile. Plan ahead by bringing your laptop, a book, toys (if traveling with kids), and anything else to keep you occupied. Indeed patience is one of the most important tools for winning the standby game.

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