How to fly standby

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By Heather

Travel & Tech Writer

How to fly standby on your next trip

If shuffling your itinerary and ending up at your destination early sounds like the ultimate air travel hack, today I’m going to teach you how to fly standby on your next trip (and why it might be a good idea).

I grew up the daughter of an airline captain, and went on to marry an airline station attendant (guy on the runway waving the wands), so I’ve flown standby since I was a baby. In fact, I’ve only ever been a full-fare plane passenger four times in my entire life!

From how it works to how much it actually costs to fly standby, I’m going to run through everything you need to know before flying the friendly skies.

What does it mean to fly standby?

Flying standby means you have an unconfirmed ticket so you can ‘stand by’ at the gate of an airplane, ready to hop on if there’s an open seat. Most airlines require you already have a paid ticket on a later flight that same day, but airline employees and their guests can fly standby without buying other tickets.

Why you might want to consider flying standby

For many travellers, flying standby is a well-kept travel secret. They don’t really know it’s an option, or if they do, they might think it’s reserved for airline employees and their families. But there are some important reasons you might want to fly this way …

Flexibility to reach your destination earlier

There are plenty of reasons why you might be booked on a later flight, but wish you were on an earlier one. Maybe that was all that was available when you made the reservation? Maybe there’s a storm coming, and you want to get out earlier if you can? Maybe your plans have changed, but your ticket doesn’t allow for changes? Flying standby can give you the freedom to hop on an earlier flight, if there’s an open seat.

Travelling after your original flight was cancelled

If your original flight is cancelled, your airline will do their best to rebook you on the next available flight. But you might reach your destination faster if you ask about being placed on the standby list for an earlier flight. This means you won’t have a confirmed seat, but you have the chance to try for one.

Getting to your destination when the airport’s gone haywire

If you’re flying during a busy travel season or bad weather, flights can get mobbed quickly and even people with full-fare paid tickets can end up being turned away at the gate. Sometimes airlines will put paying passengers ‘on standby’ if they’re trying to get them onto a different flight because they were bumped from their own. If you choose to fly standby, you can often squeak onto a different flight and end up at your destination regardless.

Can anybody fly standby?

Contrary to what some think, flying standby is NOT just for airline employees and their guests (friends or family). While airline employees and their guests are primarily the people flying standby, it’s also an option available to many non-employees who are looking for a way to hop onto a different flight than the one they booked.

Is flying standby the same as a ‘Buddy Pass’?

Nope! Some airlines used to issue ‘Buddy Passes’ to their employees so they could hand them out to friends and family and give them a cheap standby ticket. The problem was that people using the Buddy Passes didn’t always understand it wasn’t a confirmed seat, and many Buddy Pass holders kicked up royal fusses at the gate when they were told they weren’t getting on a flight.

These days, airline employees usually have access to a limited number of ‘Friends & Family’ discount codes they can distribute each year, saving people 15-25% off a full-fare ticket. These are real confirmed seats, so there aren’t any disastrous Buddy Pass issues.

How much does it cost to fly standby?

It’s sometimes free to fly standby if the airline is looking for ways to shift passenger loads and fill up quieter flights during a busy season. But if the airline hasn’t explicitly said they’re offering the ability to ‘stand by’ at no extra cost, the cost of flying standby is typically between $25 and $100, with $75 being the average.

What are the chances of getting on a standby flight?

There are no guarantees a standby ticket will put your butt on the plane within a certain timeframe, unfortunately.  If there are plenty of open seats, you might get lucky and snag a seat ahead of boarding.

If it’s a full flight or an oversold flight, you could end up getting a seat at the last minute because a passenger misses their connecting flight or otherwise doesn’t show up. And if the airport’s a mob scene and everyone is trying to get to the same location, you could be stuck hanging around the airport for a day or two, trying to get on.

Want to increase your chances of getting on as a standby? Manners! Your very best ones! Use them (especially with the gate agents at the counter) and you might get whisked onto the plane before that rude person who’s loudly complaining about the airline.

Can you fly standby if you’re checking a bag?

While you usually can fly standby if you have checked luggage, it’s recommended that you have carry-on luggage only. The more nimbly you’re able to travel, the better your odds for snagging a free seat, slipping your backpack below it, and zipping through the clouds to your destination.

Since standby travel can sometimes involve unexpected connections (flying to a different airport and catching another flight there), it’s easiest if you don’t have any (real or metaphorical) baggage. A quick flight change means checked luggage will not have time to catch up to what’s happening. Sometimes the gate agent will even ask ‘Do you have any checked bags?’ and they’re hoping you’re going to say ‘Nope!’ because it’s easier on everyone.

Does it matter what I wear?

If you’re an airline employee or their guest, expect to dress nicely! This used to be an incredibly strict section of many airline employee handbooks, with stipulations that shoes be closed-toe and all shirts must have collars. (I was once almost denied boarding at Chicago O’Hare because I was a 10-year-old kid wearing black tights, black party shoes, black culottes (fancy dress shorts that looked like a skirt) and a white top. My crime? It didn’t have a collar.)

The rules have relaxed significantly over the years, but many airlines still require employees and their guests to wear ‘neat and tidy’ outfits and shoes in exchange for a significantly discounted fare.

If you’re a regular passenger with a full-fare ticket who’s trying to get on a different flight as a standby passenger, your outfit matters a lot less. But while many agents probably don’t care if you’re wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt or a three-piece suit, the reality is that some DO care — and dressing nicely can increase your chances of getting on. (Plus, you never know when you might get slipped into Business Class … and you won’t get there looking slobby.)

Can families fly standby?

Families with young children can certainly fly standby, but flexibility is key.

Will your kids be able to stand a long wait in the airport, if there aren’t any open seats on flight after flight? Will they have a meltdown if they have to sleep in the airport, or leave the airport and try again the next day?

Age will be a factor in your family’s ability to fly standby. If there are only two seats on the next flight and you’ve got a family of four, are you willing to split up and send two people ahead while two stay behind? (Children can’t fly standby alone, unless they’re part of the Unaccompanied Minor (UM) program for the airline, which ensures a flight attendant or gate agent are always responsible for them.)

If you all make it onto the same flight, getting seats together usually isn’t likely. Are your kids okay with sitting alone, possibly squeezed into a middle seat between two complete strangers? Will they be able to entertain themselves? Buckle and unbuckle themselves? Take themselves to the washroom? Order a complimentary juice from the flight attendant without getting shy?

If your children are old enough, prepare them for the possibility that they may have to sit on their own. Tell them that sometimes’s that what it takes, and that they’ll be so busy (watching a movie, playing with an iPad, doing an activity book) they’ll barely notice. Pack them snacks they can open on their own, make sure they can easily get to everything in their carry-on bag, and remind them you will come and get them as soon as the plane lands.

Our daughter first sat alone when she was three years old. She was too small to reach the touchscreen buttons on the seat in front of her, but a seat-mate kindly got a movie started for her. She happily chatted with an older lady named Chris who was sitting on her other side, ate the snacks we’d packed, and declared at the end of the flight that she wanted to sit alone on every flight.

Quick tips: How to fly standby

1. Talk to your airline.

Ask if you have the ability to purchase a standby ticket, or if you need to already have a confirmed ticket (and if so, ask if it needs to be within the same day). Tell them you understand what it means to fly standby, and you’d like the opportunity if it’s available.

2. Pack light.

It’s easiest if you’re carrying your luggage on with you, rather than checking it. (You don’t know where your standby journey will take you, and hopping on a last-minute flight probably means your checked bag will be separated from you.

3. Dress neatly but comfortably.

You don’t want to be hanging around in the airport for hours dressed in anything too fancy or stiff, but you also want to look like a tidy, well-mannered person who could easily slip into an empty seat without causing a commotion.

4. Use your best manners.

Don’t underestimate the importance of ‘Please,’ ‘ Thank you,’ and ‘I really appreciate it,’ especially when you’re in a stressful situation. Airline employees can work miracles (especially ticket agents and gate agents), so make sure to get on their good side.

5. Stay organized.

Keep your passport or photo ID handy so you aren’t rifling around your bag for it, know the flight numbers of the flights you’re trying for, and keep any print-outs organized in one spot in case you need to quickly grab a confirmation number.

6. Be flexible!

If you’re starting at «A» airport your end goal is to end up at «Z» airport, don’t necessarily expect to zoom straight from «A» to «Z.» There are lots of letters (airports) in between, and the best route might be to catch a connecting flight. Would you rather wait 12 hours at «A» to go straight to «Z,» or go from «A» to «B» to «Z» in far less time?

7. Get up early.

The quietest flights leave at 6 a.m. because most people don’t choose to get up at the crack of dawn to get to the airport, clear security, and get on the plane before the sun’s fully up. So if you’re flying standby, the first flight in the morning is almost always your best bet. Plus, if you don’t get on, you’ll have the rest of the day to try for other flights.

8. Happily accept any seat that’s offered.

Flying standby means, by definition, that you’re standing by to get on a flight that’s not technically yours yet. So when you have the opportunity to get on the plane, take it gladly! Who cares if it’s a middle seat, or a seat right by the bathrooms, or a seat next to someone who’s hogging the armrest.

My Grandma, as a seasoned standby flyer, used to always say ‘I don’t care if I have to ride down below with the bags or if they strap me to the wing. I’m just glad to get on!’

Flying standby internationally soon? Don’t forget to plan ahead for how you’ll use your phone once you arrive at your destination. If your phone supports eSIMs (digital SIM cards), you can download a local SIM card and use prepaid data packages to have a steady internet connection on your trip.

Heather is the daughter of an airline captain and the wife of an airline station attendant, so flying standby is in her blood. On the four instances she’s had a non-standby airplane ticket, she hasn’t been able to resist the urge to dress up, be exceedingly polite, and worry about getting a seat.