It wasn’t too long ago that it was easy enough to walk up to the counter of an earlier departing flight to a destination of your choice and hitch a ride. The notion, at least back then, was that the empty space you saved on your next flight was insurance for the airline in case something went wrong – you were one less passenger that they had to deal with.
These days of a la carte pricing brought and end to that perk. Simply put, any benefit that a passenger might be able to reap was identified and squashed by the airlines, in this case, by means of a fee. That said, it’s still possible to stand by for an earlier flight, you just need to know the lay of the current land.
Lets start with the basics: in order to have a chance at standing by on an earlier flight, check to make sure that the routing and airline are identical. If you’re flying on American from Los Angeles to Seattle, for example, you can neither fly a two leg flight from LA-Portland-Seattle nor can you fly on the American Airlines codeshare operated by Alaska Airlines.
There also has to be space on the flight. Mind you, can still join the standby list on a full flight, but chances are low that you’re actually going to be awarded a ticket.
Not sure how full the flight is? Check out seatcounter.com before you even leave home or work to see your chances of getting a seat. Or, give the airline a quick call and ask for “availability” on the flights prior to yours.
Second, you usually have to be willing to pay. This fee ranges from $50 on upwards and is only waived for some elites on some airlines. American Airlines and Delta, for example, will let elite passengers standby for free, while almost ALL elites on United have to pay (get with the program guys!). Southwest doesn’t charge anyone.
Of course you can always try to sweet talk your way out of this fee. The best way to do this is to analyze your later departing flight and try to reason with the gate agent about your itinerary. If the later flight is overbooked, for example, they may waive your standby fee in lieu of paying to bump a later passenger. If the later flight is delayed or canceled, the same may hold true. There’s also an outside chance that they can forget or take pity on you, so it doesn’t hurt to try to standby (and then balk when they try to charge you).
The key to the whole standby game, however, lies in empowered passengers knowing available routes and loads. To get a head start on this, do your savvy web research (seatcounter) or even call the airline on the way to the airport. Once educated, you have a bit of leverage for negotiating your way onto a flight.
[flickr image via Chloester]