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How to fly standby and avoid paying a change fee

Have you ever booked a flight several months in advance, only to have your plans change when the travel dates get closer? Airlines are notoriously strict with their change-fee policies, so a switch to a flight even a day earlier or later than your original flight could cost anywhere from $20 to $100.

However, if you want to take an earlier (or later) flight the same day as your scheduled flight, consider flying standby—without paying a change fee.

Most airlines’ standby procedures are similar. If you plan to fly standby instead of taking your scheduled flight, check in at a self-service kiosk or the airline ticket counter. If seats are available on another eligible flight, you will be placed on standby. Then, proceed through security and to the departure gate. The gate attendant will allow confirmed passengers to board, and if space is still available, will allow standby passengers to board.

Traditional standby

Most airlines will allow you to change your domestic flight (free of charge) on the same day you’re scheduled to fly. As with all policies, rules vary by airline. Some airlines require that the earlier or later flight must be within three hours of your original flight.

An exception to the rule is US Airways. The airline requires passengers to purchase standby coupons for $25. The standby coupon is valid for alternate flights on the same day; however, if there are no available seats, the coupon can be used for another standby flight within one year.

Some very restricted tickets might not allow standby travel, so if you’re unsure about your ticket, it’s a good idea to contact the airline to find out about specific fare restrictions.

Confirmed standby

Some airlines, including Delta and Northwest, have introduced an option for travelers who prefer to have a confirmed ticket. Instead of waiting until 30 minutes prior to departure to see if there are available seats on a particular flight, travelers can pay a small fee for the peace of mind of a confirmed seat.

Northwest charges $25 for its FlyNow option. If seats are available on a desired flight within three hours of check-in, travelers can get a confirmed seat for $25. Delta’s same-day confirmed travel option is also available for $25. Delta offers this option for domestic flights (including domestic flights on Song), and flights to/from Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Delta does not offer a free same-day standby option.

Unlike most airlines, ATA does not have an official standby policy. However, the airline allows travelers to make same-day changes by paying the difference in fare (if any) in exchange for a confirmed seat.

Other options

AirTran has a unique standby option for travelers ages 18 to 22. Its X-Fares Standby Program allows travelers to fly standby for $59 to $79 per flight segment on most of the airline’s flights (excluding flights to and from The Bahamas). Travelers on an X-Fares ticket cannot check luggage and cannot make advance reservations. X-Fares can be a good option for students or other youths who are flexible with travel times. The current X-Fares program is valid through December 15. (Editor’s Note: After this article was published, AirTran replaced X-Fares with a program called AirTran U. Visit AirTran’s website for complete details.)

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