This post was updated to reflect the most current policies on September 15, 2015.
Airlines these days rarely offer standby programs, which, in years past, used to offer reduced airfares for last-minute travelers who would simply show up at the airport. In fact, "flying standby" has taken on a slightly different meaning in past years: it applies to passengers who have already purchased a full-price ticket for a specific flight, but would rather hop onto a flight that better suits their schedule.
Suppose you’ve booked a cheap flight at 11:30 p.m. from Detroit to NYC. Your ideal flight, a 1:00 p.m. departure, costs $200 more. (After all, who wants to land at LaGuardia at 2 a.m.?) To solve this, you must head to your airline’s website and sift through the day’s flights. Standby travel is based on seat availability and is never guaranteed. If you find an open seat on your ideal flight, call the airline and request standby — or follow their standby procedures. Depending on the airline, the change to your itinerary can cost as little as nothing, or as much as $50.
Here's a quick rundown of each major airline's standby policies, in the hopes of saving you money, and securing your ideal flight, in the future. (Related: a more detailed explanation of how to fly standby.)Delta: There's a $50 same-day standby fee. Requests for a same-day flight change can be made up to 24 hours prior to the departure time of the original flight, and it only applies to trips in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That $50 fee is only charged if you actually catch the flight.
American Airlines / US Airways: Pay $75 and change to any U.S. flight, flying the same route, on the same calendar day, as long as there are eligible seats available.
Southwest: Standby policies on Southwest vary by fare type. For example, Business Select Fares and Anytime Fares do not charge for standby for same-day travel between the same two cities on the original ticket. Wanna Get Away Fares and Senior Fares require an upgrade fee to an Anytime Fare for standby travel.
JetBlue: Standby travel must be handled in person at the airport. It cannot be done over the phone or via email. Passengers may list for standby one flight prior to their confirmed scheduled departure. If you happen to be on a JetBlue flight that operates once per day, then you may be listed standby on the last flight one day prior. With JetBlue, all of these options are free of charge.
Spirit: Spirit Airlines keeps their standby policy simple. It’s a $25 fee to standby on an earlier flight that day.
Frontier: If you’re a Classic Plus ticket holder or member of Frontier’s EarlyReturns program, you can standby for earlier or later flights for free on Frontier Airlines. Economy tickets are not eligible for standby travel. By flying standby, passengers must follow an identical route as their original ticket -- so no changing from a layover to a nonstop flight. Alternatively, passengers can pay a flat fee and change to an earlier or later flight on their travel day, with a confirmed seat, by phone or at the airport ticket counter. The cost for that is $99 for those with Economy tickets, and free for those with Classic Plus fares.
United: Standby flights are available only for U.S. flights, and the same-day flight change option will be available within 24 hours prior to your originally scheduled flight. The requested flight must be departing within 24 hours from the time the request is made and can include any fare class, but you might have to pay the difference in fare. Cost: $75.
Virgin America: If you want to hop on a specific earlier or later flight when flying with this airline, you can confirm a change for a $25-$50 fee, depending on the destination/length of the flight. This all must be done on your day of travel and prior to the departure of the original ticket. Alternatively, you have the choice of arriving at the airport to see if there are seats available for the flight prior to your originally scheduled flight, and you can standby for free -- though this is not always guaranteed.
Alaska Air: Free same-day standby can be done at an airport kiosk, with an agent, or during Web Check-In.
Hawaiian Airlines: Only the following ticket holders have the ability to get free standby on Neighbor Island flights via Hawaiian Airlines: Pualani Platinum members, Pualani Gold members, and corporate customers who have booked through the Corporate Web Portal. To fly standby, requests must be made at least thirty minutes prior to flight departure. Note that you won't be allowed to standby for an earlier flight if you've already checked in your baggage for your original flight.