Flying Standby Then vs. NowFlying Standby "used" to mean: go to the airport and pick up a ticket when an airline releases empty seats on a flight for sale "cheap" or even "free". Now a days, airlines are very good at filling (if not overfilling) their flights and those leftover seats are allocated to specialty travel websites like Expedia.com, PriceLine.com, Lastminutetravel.com, and cheapseats.com , just to name a few. Flying standby today means you have a paid ticket and are looking to travel at a different time, want an upgrade, and are prepared to pay full fare (plus likely fees) if you do not have a ticket.
PreparationHow flexible are your plans? Look at different days to travel. The least traveled days of the week are Tuesday through Thursday. In addition to these being the days for cheaper flights, they will have the maximum opportunity for change or upgrade. Check the space available for the flights to your destination on the airline website (travel sites may only show what is allocated to them). Next, check the airline standby flight change policies. Most will let you change, but with a fee and/ or difference in airfare (do not expect a refund in the event the changed flight is cheaper to the one you booked). Go ahead and ask about filling an empty seat at a reduced rate. As a policy, most airlines no longer will do these arrangements, but if you notice a flight exceptionally empty, it does not hurt to ask.
Take your TimeArrive early to the airport, before your requested change, to ensure optimal placement on the stand by list. Realize that several flights may come and go before you finally get "fit in". Keep in mind that YOU are choosing how early to arrive, so relax and try to enjoy the time. Fortunately, many airports can be quite pleasant and this is a great time to catch up on reading.
Manage ExpectationsFlying standby is opportunistic, not a guarantee. In the minds of the overworked ticket agents you are not the top priority. Understand the rules of the airlines and how they assign standby seats. Typically they go to frequent travelers that are in their awards program first. If there are two or more people in your party, realize you may not end up sitting together. Above all, be accessible to the ticket agent, listen for your name, and try not to be a pest. Remember, an attitude of gratitude goes a long way when traveling.
Travel LightVery seldom are standby passengers able to check luggage on that flight (and if you do, be prepared that it may take a detour). Every airline recommends taking carry on only. Depending on where you are going, consider shipping your more extensive suitcase needs via carrier such as USPS, UPS, Federal Express etc. - this is especially effective for the holidays.
Be a MemberAirline frequent flyer membership points can be accrued without ever boarding a plane. Credit card companies, shopping websites, and debit cards have arrangements to incentivize spending with them in exchange for travel points. Choose the airline that has your preferred destinations, join their program, and move up the priority list as your points accumulate. Of course the best perk is potentially flying free.
Flying standby is really quite simple: check travel sites for last minute opportunities, just check other flights availability, mark your goal and go with plenty of time to make sure you are- on top of the list. Be prepared for fees, pack light and take plenty to entertain yourself. Above all, remember that traveling is fun and being able to get to your destination earlier than planned or with a better class of service is well worth the effort.