Ten tips for flying standby

It’s one o’clock on Friday, you had a margarita at lunch and your boss already checked out to Long Island for the weekend — it’s about time you decided to get the heck out of dodge. But your flight is at 7:30, and even if you got out of work early you would still be sitting at LaGuardia for five hours waiting for your flight — and that’s no fun.

Solution? Fly standby.

The concept of standing by, or taking an earlier flight, on an itinerary has been around since the beginning of commercial aviation. The problem is that many people are afraid to try it. Whether this is because they’re unfamiliar with the procedure or don’t want to risk waiting at the airport for hours, few passengers are willing to throw their their hat in the ring and try to bounce onto a different flight.

The rewards, however, can be succulent. Imagine getting to your destination three hours early while the sun is still up, meandering over to dinner with friends and getting a few drinks before your original flight even landed. Or imagine spending that extra time throwing the Frisbee in the park before your colleagues have even left their desks at the office.

Worth a shot? We’ve put together a list of ten handy tips for standing by on your next flight. Take a look and start packing those bags!

  • Know when the flights are. Take a look at your airline’s website before you even start thinking about standing by to see if there are any earlier direct flights that are identical to yours. Note that you can’t stand by on an itinerary with more legs — like you can’t standby from DTW-IND-LGA if your original flight was DTW-LGA, but you can standby on separate legs independently. So if your original itinerary is DTW-IND-LGA, you can standby on an earlier DTW-IND leg and either try to standby on an earlier IND-LGA leg or go out in Indianapolis for a long layover and a beer.
  • Know the loads. If you find that there are flights before yours that you could potentially take, check online at seatcounter.com to see if your flight is full. Fare buckets can be confusing, so as a thumbnail, if you see more than a few red “0”‘s next to your desired flight it’s getting pretty full and might not be worth your time. Alternatively, you can always call the airline and ask “is flight 389 leaving at 3PM full? How many seats are left? I want to standby.”
  • Inquire at checkin. Many airlines offer standby options when you’re checking in online or at the airport. Ask the ticket agent if you can “confirm” a standby seat. If they can’t do it for you, you can always add yourself at the gate. Note that often confirming a stanby seat will cost you a fee (about 25$) — take this into account when planning.
  • Get there early. If the ticket agent or online checkin can’t help you, get to the gate as quickly as you can and ask to be put on the standby list. The sooner you get there the higher you will be in the queue. If the ticket agent or someone else added you, it never hurts to check at the gate as well.
  • Don’t check luggage. If you can’t confirm a standby seat at the ticket counter, you’ll have to try to get in at the gate. Unfortunately you can’t fly without your luggage (and they won’t move it for you), so you can’t standby if you checked it.
  • Be patient. Standbys are often called at the end of boarding right before departure, so don’t go to Chilis and get a 26 layer burrito while the jetway door is still open — they still might call you.
  • Travel solo. This may not always be possible if you’re traveling with a large group that you want to keep booked together, but single passengers have a better chance of getting a standby seat than a group of passengers. If you really want to increase your chances, call the airline and ask them to separate your reservation into single-person itineraries.
  • Earn elite status. If you’re an elite member of the airline’s frequent flyer program, often times you’ll get bumped to the top of the standby list. This greatly increases your odds of getting on the flight.
  • Be flexible and prepared. Often times the last standby seats are also the worst. So be prepared to sit in the back of the plane between two people next to the lav. Hey, at least you’re early.
  • Know your limitations. On most airlines, you can standby on a flight at any other time during the day of your original ticket. Before or after. If you’re planning on playing the risky, risky game of skipping your original fight and taking one later in the day though, make sure you do your homework and know that the target flight has plenty of space for you. If the later flight is full, the airline has no obligation to take you.

Finally, plan for the worst. Getting onto an early flight can be great, but don’t plan all of your vacation around it. Consider any earlier flight a gift to your weekend and make sure you make good use of it once you land early!