The emergence of online booking and agencies specializing in last-minute deals has drastically reduced the number of planes forced to take off with empty seats. As a result, the last-minute standby deal, once the holy grail of the international traveler, has largely been relegated to anachronism. In its place, passengers with a little flexibility on their schedule can take their chances on an upgrade or same-day flight change, but typically for a nominal fee rather than a considerable saving.
Standby no longer means turning up at the airport and holding out for the opportunity to snap up an unfilled seat at a substantial discount. Instead, flying standby today means reserving and paying for a ticket but changing on the day to a different time or upgrade. Different airlines have varying definitions of standby. Delta, for example, allows a same-day confirmed change for passengers with flexible tickets, along with a same-day upgrade. In both cases, passengers need to request a spot on the standby list at the airline desk no more than 24 hours before scheduled departure. Some airlines, such as United, use an involuntary standby list to cater to passengers bumped from an overbooked flight, in which case the standby passenger will not have to pay a fee. To place yourself on voluntary standby, apply in person at the airline kiosk, not over the phone.
Some airlines offer same-day standby, for example, for passengers who wish to try an earlier or later flight. Really, though, the term standby in this sense just involves changing a flight without paying a fee. CNN Travel discloses, however, that airlines are more likely to oblige loyalty-program members and high-priority travelers than first-time passengers. AirTranU operates one of the only conventional last-minute standby programs, but only for travelers age 18 to 22. The savings can be considerable. Airline staff can also nominate friends or family for an employee or “buddy” pass, where the passenger is added to the standby registry without the need for a reservation. The savings can be huge, but the receiving passenger must wait for a seat to become available, which could be days, and is ultimately at the mercy of the check-in staff.
Travel on standby has little to offer the passenger with a clear, nonnegotiable itinerary to fulfill. Instead, flexibility is key. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday present the best odds of standby travel, as these are the least likely days for airlines to be booked full. Since some airlines update the availability of seats for each flight online, it is also worth regularly checking on each flight’s status. Each airline has different policies for standby, including fees, so make sure you familiarize yourself with these beforehand.
Arrive early at the airport to get a top spot on the standby list, but bear in mind that passengers on loyalty programs ultimately have top priority, however tacit the understanding. You can accumulate standby-list status without flying regularly, though; for instance, use credit cards that offer travel points for airlines. In most cases, it is unlikely you will be able to check luggage, so travel light. Be patient and unobtrusive, but do listen carefully for announcements and know what to look for; at United, only passenger initials are displayed on the standby list. There will be long periods of waiting, so keep something at hand to entertain yourself.