Standby flights: How to make flying on standby work for you

Some travelers like to plan their vacations down to every last detail; others prefer spontaneous trips filled with surprises. If you fall into the latter category, standby flights may be just the type of travel adventure you crave. The practice can be risky and patience is key, but successful standby flights can lead to a bounty of rewards, from money saved to flexible itineraries.

1. Standby tickets definition

If you’ve reserved a seat on one flight but wish to board another – perhaps an earlier or later flight – you must apply for a standby spot. Make this request by speaking to a ticket agent either over the phone or in person, and arrive at the airport as early as possible, particularly if your goal is to make an earlier flight. The agent might be able to address your odds for making the new flight based on the plane’s seat availability.

2. Buddy passes

Buddy passes allow current and former airline employees, as well as their family and friends, to board flights with vacant seats. If you’re flying with a buddy pass, you are technically booked as a standby passenger. In other words, you have to hope a spot opens up or remains vacant before you board; there is no guaranteed reservation in place. See if your friend or family members who work for the airline can check specific flights for availability before you make the trek to the airport. Keep in mind, buddy passes are allowed only for leisure travel.

3. Cheap last-minute flights

Standby travel is risky, but savings can be substantial. If you change your flight through normal channels prior to boarding, you’ll likely face a high penalty. The standby fee, however, is significantly less than flight-change fees, and you can usually keep your earned miles. If you qualify as an elite flier, or you purchased an unrestricted airfare, the fee is typically waived. Although you have to pay for your buddy pass ticket, it can be up to 60 percent off the airline’s standard price. There’s also a chance you'll get bumped up to first or business class, and you’ll only pay taxes on the fare.

4. What to expect when flying standby

Once you sign up as a standby passenger, your name will be listed on the departure gate’s screen. The gate agent will call your name if a seat opens up. Keep in mind, buddy pass holders typically receive the lowest priority.

Your odds for landing a seat decrease significantly during peak travel times, such as holidays and long weekends. While it’s uncommon for international travelers to miss their flights, it’s also true that overseas flights are rarely fully-booked, so scoring a standby seat on an international flight is possible.

It’s important to remember that you could spend days waiting for a seat to open up, so be prepared to pay for accommodations if you get stuck somewhere. The airline will not pay for expenses you incur during this time.

5. Luggage on standby flights

Never check your bags when trying to make a standby flight. If you wind up getting a seat on an earlier flight, your checked bags will remain on your original flight and won’t arrive at your final destination until much later. Instead, pack all of your items in a carry-on bag.