How to Fly Standby: Your Complete Guide to Getting a Seat

by Shelli


Want to take a quick trip to the Big Apple? How about an impromptu jaunt to Nashville, or Portland? Then flying standby might be for you.

What It Means To Fly Standby

“Flying standby” used to be a spontaneous means of travel where you could arrive at the airport without a ticket, and buy one on the fly (pun intended). But in our post 9/11 world, it’s no longer possible to travel without holding a pre-purchased ticket. You can’t just show up and wait to fly standby, which is sometimes referred to as ‘same day flight changes’. Hoping to squeeze into the last available seat on a flight and fly standby? In fact, you can’t even cross security without holding a ticket.

Farewell, spontaneity. Buying a ticket at the last minute can be very expensive! Yet “standby” is not exactly dead; it has morphed into a very specific travel situation regarding same day flight changes. For example, a traveler might buy a ticket ahead of time, but prefer to take an earlier or later flight. And of course standby travel also saves the day if you’ve missed a flight.

Read on to learn what standby travel looks like today, and learn if it might be right for you.

Prepared and waiting to fly standby

Prepared and waiting to fly standby.

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You Usually Need A Ticket To Fly Standby

There are several occasions when you could fly standby. First, there are two pre-purchased ticket options: flying with an unconfirmed, or a confirmed ticket. You can fly standby with an unconfirmed ticket (you haven’t reserved your seat yet), which works well if you have a sense of adventure, patience, and time. There are no guarantees that you’ll get a seat on your desired flight (earlier or later than the ticket you bought), but you might. Most likely you will have to pay a change fee (this varies by airline).

You can also fly standby with your pre-purchased ticket if you confirm your seat. This is more reliable in that the airline guarantees a flight for you later in the day. Depending on your airline’s rules and regulations, this option could require a cheaper change fee, so be sure to read the fine print ahead of time.

…or Else Have a “Buddy”

The second way to fly standby is the “buddy pass” system, which means you are lucky enough to have a friend or relative who works (or worked) for an airline. A perk of being an airline employee is that each year you receive several free passes to be shared with friends and family (these tickets are not totally free, since you still have to pay taxes and fees). Though buddy pass policy is different for each airline, the bottom line is the same: the standby passenger needs to wait until a seat becomes available.

The process varies regarding how to book a flight using a buddy pass. Usually a buddy pass comes with a confirmation code, and you can list yourself on a flight by calling a reservation agent. By checking on the flight’s passenger load, the reservation agent can give you an idea of your chances of boarding a particular flight.

There are no guarantees, though, so using a buddy pass means being flexible about hanging out at the airport. You’ll have better odds of boarding a flight if you select those less-travelled days and times (avoid weekends and holidays; go for early or late flights, such as 6am or 10pm). Buddy pass traveling is first come, first served, so be sure to arrive early for your preferred flight.

Flying standby requires patience and time

Flying standby requires patience and time

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How Much Does it Cost to Fly Standby?

Many people wonder if it is free to fly standby. Travelers often think you save money flying standby. Flying standby is not a cheap last minute strategy.

The cost of flying standby depends on two things: the flight itself and your relationship with the airline. More often than not you will incur a fee between $25 and $100 to fly standby. Standby availability on a flight means that there are seats on a plane that haven’t been filled by the travel demands of that flight.

Every airline has its own policies and fees. Most have a $75 same-day change fee. In some cases, economy passengers are not eligible for standby (Frontier; Delta). In other cases, same-day standby ticket fees are waived for first class or business class passengers. Be sure to check ahead of time to avoid unpleasant surprises.

For travellers using a buddy pass, be prepared to pay some fees and taxes. Check your airline and read the fine print.

Flying Standby Rules and Costs on Different Airlines

Alaska Airlines: Offers free, same-day standby for ticketed passengers in certain cities. Must be at gate 30 minutes prior to takeoff.

American Airlines: Charges $75 for same-day standby tickets. This fee is waived for military personnel, first-class, business class and AAdvantage Elite members.

Delta Airlines: Standby fee is $75 for most passengers. Basic Economy fares are not eligible for standby or same-day changes.

Frontier Airlines: Only elite members qualify for standby flights. All other ticketed passengers will have to pay to change to a same-day ticket at a new time.

JetBlue: There is a $75 fee for first-come, first-serve standby as well as same-day flight changes for select fare types. Note that cities with only 1 flight per day have neither standby nor same-day flight changes available.

Southwest Airlines: Depends on the type of fare paid by passenger. Only ‘Anytime’ and ‘Business Select’ fares are eligible for standby; if you purchase ‘Wanna Get Away’ or ‘Senior’ fares you will need to pay the fare difference. There may be additional fees.

United: Most passengers will be charged $75 for flying standby.

Checking to see standby flight options

Checking to see standby flight options

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How To Fly Standby

If you go to the trouble of flying standby, here are the steps to follow to improve your chances of success.

1. Do your homework: each airline has a different policy and fees.

2. Get the app: some airlines provide a flying standby app. These apps allow you to program a same-day flight change and receive periodic updates on the process.

3. Earn or sign up for elite status: Do you have elite status with an airline? This increases your chances of getting a last-minute seat on the flight of your choice. You could bump a passenger with lower status (and by the same token, if you don’t have status, you could be bumped from the standby list).

4. Choose off-peak times: when selecting your desired flight, choose off-peak times and avoid holidays, weekends, and special events. Go when others don’t want to. Call ahead even before you leave home; if you’ve got your eye on a desired flight, you can check on its availability and figure your odds of getting a seat.

5. Pack lightly: obviously, you’ll need to be light and agile while flying standby. If you have to check baggage, there might not be time or the baggage hold could be full and your baggage might go on a later flight.

6. Travel alone: it’s much more difficult for airlines to accommodate multiple travelers in the same party.

7. Get to the airport early: arrive at least 2 hours before the flight you want to fly standby on (chances are higher on earlier flights, so the earlier the better). Once at the boarding gate, bring the airline representative a box of chocolates. Just kidding. But do make a positive, polite impression as you introduce yourself and explain that you already have a ticket on another (earlier or later) flight. If you’re already on a standby list, the gate agents will have you in their records, and if not, they might be able to add you.

8. Look good: standby passengers, especially buddy pass travelers, are expected to be on their best behavior. In fact, especially for buddy pass travelers, you represent an airline and are expected to dress in business or business casual attire, and to be particularly courteous and polite to the gate agent and airline employees.

9. Be open to change: flexibility is the name of the game. Avoid travel that requires connecting flights.

10. Be patient: your desired flight is boarding, and you’re still in the gate area. The final passengers are being called. Be patient up until the gate closes. The flight crew sometimes makes last minute decisions about seat availability.

Are You Ready To Fly Standby?

With these rules and tips in mind, you’re ready to launch into the brave new world of standby air travel. Spontaneity is NOT dead; it just requires some planning.

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