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!

Expansions in the business-class-only service

The all-business-class model for airline carriers has been a touchy subject over the last few months. With all but two of the airlines now out of business (OpenSkies and Singapore Airlines‘ select flights), many wonder if the original approach was a good idea.

Yet OpenSkies (EC, owned by British Airways) and Singapore Airlines (SQ) continue to press on — and even expand. Earlier this month, OpenSkies announced that they would be adding service further into the European Union, while SQ just expanded their A340 service from Los Angeles into Singapore.

How can these carriers thrive in such tight times? How can they survive where so many others failed? Well, there’s no doubt that the deep pockets of each carrier are helping ride out the storm of high oil prices. While Americans sort out their financial woes, each airline plans to build a product and loyal customer base, get the word out on their product as much as possible and fight for a place in the future market.

Things could be a little rough for OpenSkies. With the American economy suffering and the EU economy headed in the same direction, demand for business class seats is going to be dropping off pretty quick. Unfortunately, the worst may yet be to come.

According to Singapore Airlines, their business-class-only service has conversely enjoyed packed flights and thriving business.

The true gauge for each airline, regardless of their current situation, is long term sustainability independent of their parent airline or routes. If the routes fail to generate profit after a few years they will surely disappear, but perhaps if we’re all lucky and the trend picks up, OpenSkies’ and SQ’s business-class-only flights will be here to stay.

Are frequent flyer programs dying?

With all of the recent cutbacks in the airline industry, frequent flyer programs are taking a beating. While passenger loyalty rewards are a great perk to air travel, any freebies given away by the carriers cut into the bottom line — a mark that has fallen under intense scrutiny over the last six months.

To mitigate some of the loss from award mileage and ticket redemptions, airlines are making it harder and more expensive to use to earn and use your miles. Just last month, Delta Airlines instituted a fuel surcharge for booking an award flight; now in addition to taxes that you pay for that ticket you’ll have to pony up up to fifty dollars for the privilege of booking it. Others, like American Airlines, are increasing the number of miles that you have to redeem for certain tickets and charging an additional fee to upgrade your seats into a higher class.

All of these changes are provoking industry analysts to worry about the future of frequent flier programs. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, points out that some alternative reward credit cards are now more beneficial then keeping a miles card. Others, like Clark Howard point to the devaluing mile and wonder if it’s even worth accruing miles at all, saying “Don’t waste any effort chasing frequent flyer miles, which are like fool’s gold.”

Is the situation really this dire?For the casual traveler, it may be. Those of you who only fly once in a while and slowly earn miles up to a free ticket every five or ten years may see their award programs changed or their miles devalued from under their feet — such is the nature of business in a tight, evolving industry.

But for the acute traveler, there are many many reasons to still keep banking miles. Elite status, the key to getting upgrades, better seats and more miles is still a huge part of any mileage program and is still worth attaining. And there are still many uses for your miles — even if those avenues are harder to approach. Patience, timing and strategy play a critical role in making the correct award booking and with the right perspective it’s still possible — if not easy — to find award tickets.

If you want to bore down into the nitty gritty of making your miles work for you, here’s a tip: think about how much you travel and think about how much time you want to devote to working the system. If mile accrual is an every-so-often occurrence and you’re having a hard enough time finding a chance to cook dinner, you might want to relax, have a couple of bottles of wine and ask your neighborhood geek to look into your miles situation.

Alternatively, if you’re a 150k mile/year earner with some time at the airport lounge, orient yourself with Flyertalk, Airfarewatchdog and your local airline’s website. You’ll quickly learn how to best apply your miles.

Just don’t stop plugging your frequent flyer number into your reservations — trust me, it’s worth it.

How to rent three cars and get a free plane ticket on Delta

Got some free time over the next three weeks? Delta just launched a promo offering 9,999 miles for each rental with one of their auto partners Avis or Budget. Each qualifying rental gets you the miles, regardless of how long you keep the vehicle, as long as you book with Delta’s Car Search tool. You have until the end of the month to rent and you need to sign up to become a SkyMiles member first.

Sure, you may not be traveling three times in the next month, but do you need to? If you can get three car rentals cheap enough, the time and money invested in getting a car at the airport for 24 hours can easily be less than a domestic ticket that you could book with miles.

Rental car fees vary wildly across geographical boundaries, but almost every airport in the country has either an Avis or a Budget rental car location. And many of those rural locations have plenty of inventory (at damn good prices) available for the rest of July.

Here in Detroit, a car rental over a weekend night on Budget is about 55$. Times three is 165$ for 29,997 miles or an award ticket. In Kalamazoo, a more rural airport near where my parents live, it’s 24$. That’s 72$ for a flight.

Sure, you have to factor in what you’re going to DO with the car and what you’re going to do with YOUR car while you have the rental. You could always just take it home or to a parking lot and park it. Or park it on the lawn of the rental company.

But it’s not a bad way to rack up a few frequent flyer miles to use for future adventure on Delta Airlines.

What could you do with 25k miles or a domestic award ticket? You could fly from your freezing hometown in New Hampshire down to Phoenix next January to get some sun and play some golf while your coworkers freeze. You could fly to Colorado to get some kick ass skiing in next May. You could pay for your girlfriend to come visit you next time you’re in San Diego on business.

Sound like a good use for your 74$ invested this month?

Plane ticket screw-ups: Avoid these common mistakes

Last week I posted on a Swedish woman currently doing battle with a UK-based travel agency who screwed-up her name on her plane tickets.

While this case does not appear to be the woman’s fault, travel columnist and blogger Christopher Elliott says that plenty of travelers make the mistake of putting the wrong name on their ticket booking, or at least a name that does not match what is on their passport – like if I book a flight for Jeff White, despite my passport saying ‘Jeffrey’.

That mistake tops his list of the five most common ticket errors travelers make. The others:

  • Booking on the wrong airline
  • Reversing departure point and destination
  • Getting the dates of travel wrong
  • Choosing a ticket that is too restrictive

As always, Elliott provides practical advice about how to avoid these simple mistakes, which turn out to be anything but simple to fix after you’ve made them.