Flying standby means waiting at the airport without a confirmed booking for an empty seat to become available on a flight  

Passengers may have to fly standby if their flight gets overbooked or canceled.

Airlines usually preferentially provide standby flights to individual passengers on their loyalty programs, too.

Flying standby has multiple perks, including potentially being upgraded to a better seat and receiving discounted tickets. But, there are also multiple downsides of flying standby.

Standby passengers may be separated from their luggage, which would remain on the original flight. And they may not be provided a boarding ticket, which may cause them issues at their destination. 

What is a Standby Flight?

A standby flight is when a passenger without a seat waits at the gate in case there’s an extra seat left after all scheduled passengers have boarded the flight.

There are a few situations in which a person may have to fly standby: 

  1. When a passenger hasn’t booked a flight and is waiting to board a flight where there may be extra seats remaining after the other passengers have boarded. 
  2. When a passenger misses a flight to a destination and tries boarding another flight to the same destination. 
  3. An airline may designate one or more passengers without seats as ‘standby’ before boarding.

What a Standby Flight Used to Mean

A standby flight used to mean landing a cheap last-minute flight ticket.

People used to be able to go to the airport without a ticket and buy a seat on an undersold flight.

This is now no longer possible.

Why Airlines Put You on Standby

Airlines put you on standby if you’ve been bumped off a flight you were initially booked on, want to get on an earlier flight on the same day, or want to travel to a different airport.

Airlines sometimes oversell flight tickets to compensate for passengers who won’t show up for the flight. But at times, their predictions are inaccurate, and there are more passengers than seats. 

Priority of Standby Flight Passengers

Every airline has its own priority system, but they usually follow the following conventions: 

  1. Passengers who’ve paid the full fare 
  2. Flight crews on commute to work
  3. Passengers on standby with an original flight at the same airline
  4. Buddy pass travelers 
  5. Passengers on standby with an original flight from a different airline. 

The Chances of Getting on a Standby Flight

The chances of getting on a standby flight are generally low, though the chances can depend on the destination.

It’s extremely rare for passengers to get on a standby flight for a domestic destination, but more common for passengers to get placed on standby flights for international destinations. 

Related: What Are the Cheapest Days to Fly International?

How to Improve Your Chances of Flying Standby

These five factors increase your chances of flying on standby. 

1. Travel Light

Most airlines will prefer to provide you with a standby seat if you have less luggage, especially if you aren’t looking to check your baggage.

Since standby seats are filled at the last minute, airlines prefer to hand standby seats to passengers with just a carry on.

2. Have Flexible Plans

Passengers willing to accept more flexible schedules are more likely to receive standby flights.

For example, if your original flight was to London, but you’re willing to get a standby flight to a nearby city like Nottingham, you’ll be more likely to get on a standby flight. 

3. Fly Alone

People who fly alone are more likely to be given a standby flight than those in a group.

As most standby flights will only have one or only a few standby seats, airlines won’t be able to accommodate a group.

4. Travel in the Off-Season

You’ll more likely to be able to fly standby during the off-season, since fewer people will be traveling then.

Fewer people traveling overall means less competition for standby seats. 

5. Join Airline Reward Programs

Most airlines provide preferential treatment for members of their rewards programs, including preferential treatment for standby flights. 

What Happens With Your Luggage

If you get on a standby flight to the same destination, any luggage you checked will remain on the original flight that you intended to fly on.

If you fly on an earlier flight, you’ll have to wait longer to collect your luggage as you wait for the other plane to land.

Pros of Flying Standby

These are the benefits of flying standby. 

1. Flexibility

Flying standby offers you increased flexibility since you won’t be booking a ticket in advance. 

2. Cheaper

Standby tickets are often reserved for airline employees, and their friends and family sometimes receive large discounts.

You’ll likely receive a larger discount for flying on a standby flight than a regular one. 

3. First/Business Class Deal

You could receive a good deal on a first or business-class flight, especially on a long-haul international flight.

4. Pay only when you fly.

Flying standby means you’ll only pay for a flight that you’re actually guaranteed a seat on. 

Cons of Flying Standby

1. Uncertainty

Flying standby is uncertain, so it’s not a good idea if you have to be somewhere on a certain day and at a certain time.

For example, if you’re going to a wedding, flying standby is a bad choice because you’re not guaranteed a flight in time for a wedding. 

2. No Onward Ticket

An onward ticket is proof that you’ve booked a flight originating from one country that will enter another.

Standby travelers are not guaranteed to receive an onward ticket, which may be an issue depending on where you are flying to.

3. Checking Luggage

A standby passenger’s luggage may not be placed on the same flight as them.

In this case, they’ll have to retrieve it when the other flight lands.

4. Pay More For Accommodation.

Last minute flights aren’t cheaper, nor is booking a hotel room at the last minute either.

Additionally, besides paying more for a hotel room, you may also have trouble finding availability at the last minute.

In conclusion:

  • Flying standby means waiting to see if there is availability on a flight after all of its passengers have boarded.
  • Flying standby used to mean going last minute to an airport to buy a cheap ticket on an undersold flight.
  • Passengers may have to fly standby if their original flight is overbooked.
  • Flying standby can get a passenger a discounted fare since airlines often provide benefits to standby flyers, especially if they’re a part of their rewards program.
  • But flying standby also has its problems, including a passenger being separated from their luggage.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).