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Flying Standby - What is it, and How Does it Work?

Checking in at the airline ticket counter


For people willing to travel with a flexible schedule, standby flights were once a great way to save money on plane tickets. You could just show up at the airport and buy heavily discounted last-minute flight tickets to your destination. You might have to wait several hours for airline standby seats, but they let you travel cheaply and spontaneously.

The definition of flying standby has changed in recent decades. Increased security in the aftermath of 9/11 made it impossible to fly without a pre-purchased ticket. Airline seating algorithms now ensure each flight is filled as much as possible, further reducing the availability of airline standby seats to the disappointment of adventurous travellers who used to show up at the airport with a backpack and a wish list of possible destinations

What Does Flying Standby Mean?

Flying standby in today’s travel industry allows passengers who pre-purchased tickets the option of making same-day changes to travel plans if seats are available on their desired flights. You may enter your name into the standby list if:

  • Your original flight was cancelled.
  • You were bumped from your original flight due to overbooking. 
  • You want to take an earlier or later flight to your destination.
  • You missed your flight due to a missed connection or circumstances beyond your control.

Note that standby flights are not guaranteed, and people who missed flights can only go onto the standby list when specific conditions are met (check with your airline for a full list of their standby rules).

How to Get Standby Flights: Airline Fees and Rules

While flying standby used to be a cheap travel option, today you can expect to pay a standby fee in addition to your ticket cost. Most airlines charge such fees, although first-class travellers, business-class passengers, and elite program members often enjoy free standby options.

How much a standby ticket costs varies from flight to flight and airline to airline. Standby fees typically cost $25 to $100, with most airlines charging a $75 same-day change fee. Because flying standby is more expensive and not guaranteed, new travellers may want to avoid standby travel until they have more experience interacting with airlines andnavigating airports.

Airline Standby Rules and Fees

  • Alaska Airlines offers free same-day standby to passengers with pre-purchased tickets. Standby seating is offered only for nonstop flights between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Seattle and Portland, and Seattle and Spokane. Passengers flying standby must be at departure gates thirty minutes prior to departure. 
  • Allegiant Airdoes not offer typical standby flights. Instead, passengers who purchase TripFlex at the time of booking can change their flight and destination within one hour before departure. Passengers are responsible for any changes in airfares.
  • American Airlinescharges a $75 fee for same-day standby tickets but waives the fee for military personnel, first-class, business class, and AAdvantage Elite members.
  • Delta Airlinescharges a $75 standby fee. Basic Economy passengers are not eligible for standby fees. Same-day confirmed changes are complimentary for Diamond, Platinum, and Gold Medallion members.  
  • Frontier Airlines only offers standby seats to elite-level members of Frontier Miles. 
  • Hawaiian Airlinesoffers free standby flights to earlier Neighbor Island flights to Pualani Platinum and Pualani Gold members. 
  • JetBluehas a $75 standby fee for sold-out flights between the same cities on the same calendar day. 
  • Spirit Airlinesallows passengers to travel on standby on earlier flights for $99.
  • Southwest Airlines offers free standby seats to their Business, Wanna Get Away, and Senior fares. You must ask to be added to the same-day standby list at least ten minutes before the scheduled departure of your original flight. If you fail to do so, the airline’s no-show policy will apply. 
  • Unitedpassengers must pay $75 for flying standby. Premier Members can stand by for free

How to Fly Standby

Knowing how to fly standby can make your travel more flexible but requires some preparation. First, check your airline to make sure you understand their up-to-date standby policy and fees. Next, download the airline’s app. Doing so allows you to program same-day flight changes and receive updates on standby availability. If you’re on standby and choose to leave the airport during a layover, the app helps ensure you'll be back and at the departure gate in time for your standby flight.

You can increase your chance of securing standby seats by signing up for elite status with the airline. Elite passengers can sometimes bump passengers of lower status. Elite membership also ensures a higher-status passenger does not bump you off your scheduled flight.

Travelling during off-peak times increases your chance of securing the standby flights you want. Airlines have fewer standby seats available during holidays and weekends. During quieter travel times, you can often call ahead and check standby availability before leaving for the airport. Other suggestions for flying standby include:

  • Pack lightly. Avoid checked luggage, as there may not be enough room in the plane’s baggage hold. If this happens, your checked luggage would have to be transported on a later flight. Travel with carry-on only and check that your bag meets the airline’scarry-on weight limit
  • Arrive Early. The chance of securing standby flights on earlier flights is higher than on flights later in the day, so get to the airport at least two hours before the flight you’re hoping to catch. 
  • Travel Alone. The chance a flight will have multiple standby seats is slim at best. Individual travellers are more likely to secure airline standby flights. 
  • Be Polite and Pleasant. At the departure gate, politely explain you’re on the standby list. If you’re not already on the standby list, ask if the gate agent can add your name. Make a good impression, and your chance of securing a standby seat increases.
  • Bring Some Entertainment. You may have a long weight if you're flying standby. A book, magazine, tablet, or smartphone helps pass the time. 
  • Be Patient. It’s easy to get antsy when your desired flight is boarding and your name hasn’t been called. Flight crews sometimes make decisions about standby seats at the last minute, so be patient. Your chance of a seat doesn’t end until the departure gate closes.

What Is the Standby "Buddy Pass" System?

Do you know someone who works for an airline? If so, you may be able to fly standby using an airline “buddy pass.” Airline employees receive several free passes they can share with friends and family each year. Passengers traveling on buddy passes must pay all relevant taxes and fees, but the ticket cost is free. If you have a buddy pass, you’re on standby until a flight seat becomes available.

Buddy passes come with confirmation codes, which you activate by calling an airline reservation agent who will give you information on the flight’s passenger load and your chances of securing a seat. Buddy passes are first-come, first-served, so arrive at the airport early.

Airline standby flights are not for everyone. However, if you have a flexible schedule and a little patience, they’re an excellent way to make changes to your travel itinerary.

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