There are essentially two types of standby flights: most of us fall into category 1, which is comprised of travellers who have purchased a ticket but, for whatever reason, are waiting to get on a different flight. Sometimes it’s people who’ve missed the original flight or connection, and sometimes it’s people who are trying to catch an earlier or later flight. No matter what the reason, they’re all waiting for the next available seat that they’ve paid for already.
Then there are the more rare standby travellers, which fall into category 2. These are what we call “nonrevs” because the airlines do not make any revenues from these types of passengers. Mostly they are airport employees, their family and friends. One of the perks of working with an airline is that they don’t necessarily have to buy their seats. Instead they put their name on a list (which is typically prioritized by relationship to the airline) and after all the paying customers are taken care of, they can vie for the remaining seats.
Both types of passengers could end up waiting a few hours or a few days to get a seat on the next flight. If you have nowhere to be and you’re happy killing time at the airport, you can still find ways to lock in a cheap flight by flying standby. But it’s not as easy as it was in years past. Just like airline food, standby flights are becoming few and far between.
The third category of standby travellers are now extinct. Those were the spontaneous fly-by-nighters who would simply arrive at the airport and say, “Hey, I want to go to Florida, I’ll be waiting over there when you have a seat for me!” That was back in the day when there were more empty seats available on your average flight. Nowadays, however, airlines are extremely good at filling seats. So good in fact, that sometimes they overbook! Have you ever been at the airport and hear the person at the desk offering money or flyer miles to anyone willing to give up their seat? That’s an overbooked flight. That’s also another way you can save on your trip – by taking advantage of the airline’s offer to be bumped.
How much does flying standby really cost?
One of the major considerations when flying standby is often overlooked – that’s the cost of uncertainty and the potential to spend days in the airport. There are absolutely no guarantees when flying standby, and just because you want the first flight out doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Especially if you’re a nonrev. So if you’re there for a day or two or more, will you need a hotel room? How many meals will you need to buy (airport food is seriously expensive).
Standby is a gamble. Is it worth the risk of spending five days at the airport to get a ticket half price — or even free? That’s entirely up to you to decide if the benefit outweighs the risk.