How to fly standby to Europe

Question: Can you give me some tips? I know you usually fly standby. How does one do that? Do you just show up and say, "Hey, I’d like to fly to Vienna…can you put me on the waiting list?" Would it be cheaper to fly something like southwest into a major hub like DC and then find a flight from there to Vienna? When is an optimal time to buy tickets for a flight? The sooner the better? Or is there a sweet spot for buying tickets?
Any advice you can give would be much appreciated!


airplane seatsUnfortunately, I’m not the expert on buying cheap plane tickets that I ought to be after flying so much over the last 4 years: we have flight privileges because of a family member. I believe that just about the only way of consistently flying standby is to have an employee or family member discount.  If you want you can try to call individual airlines and ask if they offer it. If that works let me know, because I have never tried it.

Standby is awesome. If you only have a week vacation, and you don’t want to lose a day waiting around the airport, it may not be for you. However, we’ve found that we almost always fly out on the day that we planned—it seems like the only time we haven’t has been for  unforeseen circumstances like bad weather or flight attendant strikes which flights .

If you ever have the good luck of getting a chance to fly standby, please keep these facts in mind:

1. Your luggage might go out on a different flight than you. This happens because you have to send the luggage when you check in, and you often don’t know if you’re going to get on a flight until right when the plane leaves. When you go on one flight and your stuff goes on another, this leaves a slightly higher possibility of your bags getting lost or stolen. Consequently, you’ll want to insure your bags, or just pack anything you can’t afford to lose in your carry-ons. We have never had our bags lost…one time when the bags didn’t show up until later the airline had someone drive them out to our hotel, but nothing was missing. We have been lucky: however, we have family members who have been less lucky. If they do get lost, they will ask for proof such as receipts of the items that were in the bags. Furthermore, if you have any connections, make sure that your baggage will get forwarded on to the next flight. Sometimes you have to pick them up and check them in again. This is one of the trickiest things about flying standby.

2. Get there early, as early as you can. This goes beyond the traditional advice to get to airports early, because you’re trying to get your name as high on the list as possible. The earlier, the better. Jacob and I like to try to be there at least two hours early.

3. Certain days have anecdotally been better for us to fly standby. Tuesday and Wednesday seem to be the best, while Sundays and Monday mornings are the worst. Also, flying right on the day of a holiday, like Christmas Day, seems to be more likely to have more open seats than the days leading up to it.

4. Be on your best behavior. Many airline employees seem to have a disdain for standby passengers—maybe historically they have acted entitled? In any event you can get your name removed from the standby list if an employee feels so inclined so just don’t make any enemies. Always be polite and always admit you are in the wrong. I have stories behind this piece of advice of course. Just trust me on this one, airline employees these days can be quite disgruntled. It’s not an easy industry to work for. Don’t give them a reason to vent on you.

jacob suitcase

Taking a shared taxi to Jerusalem

5. You’ll have to decide if you want to pay to reserve a hotel in your destination when you can’t know for certain you’ll be getting on the flight. We have usually just kept on hand a phone number or two and called to make sure there was an opening once we arrived at our destination (there just about always is.) Then you can take the transportation options like a shared taxi to get to where you’re going. I also recommend having a couple addresses on hand that you can give the taxi driver. If you book in advance, do it knowing that you might lose your money if you don’t make the flight.

6. The first and the last flight out generally have the most open seats.

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As for your other questions, yes it it usually better to fly out of—and into— a major hub. For Vienna, I think your best bets might be London, Paris, Frankfurt, or Amsterdam. I think you’d be able to find the cheapest flights to London from the States. And NYC would probably be your best bet to fly out of—or, since you’re on the west coast, Los Angeles.

Here is a pretty cool website I found for flying out of Amsterdam and back to the States. It’s the only website I’ve found that actively promotes standby tickets: http://airtech.com/contact-us.html But you can’t book online, you have to call them to see if they have any available tickets.

I haven’t noticed a huge change in price in buying tickets in advance versus buying them the day before. What I would do is sign up for the newsletters of some of your favorite airlines. To give a head start, I hear Aer Lingus offers flights as cheap as $300 from Dublin to NYC one way (and keep in mind flights are often the same price one way as they are return.) Then when they do a massive transatlantic sale you can take advantage. Skyscanner is a great search engine to compare prices. You can search a whole month of dates at a time to see the cheapest date to fly for that month. Off season is the cheapest time of year. That would mean NOT visiting Europe during the summer, especially late July-early August. For Vienna, April-May might be a good time if you’re wanting to avoid cold weather and the busy season.

Also, don’t forget to sign up for the flight program of whatever airline you choose. Then you can begin to accumulate points.

And don’t cross a travel agent off of your list. It never hurts to walk in and ask someone to look up prices for you. They might have specials that you aren’t aware of.

I have to say the coolest deal we’ve ever managed was using our Capital One credit card points to get our whole family out to New Zealand from California. If you use a credit card enough, over a year’s time you can actually not have to pay a penny towards the flight which feels pretty good.

***Please comment if you have some tips and tricks for hacking air travel.***

Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 366 awesome articles for us.

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