Cheap standby flights -- still a thing?

I don’t have any real cites, but I have the impression that in the past, you could show up at an airport on the day of a flight, and if a flight had an empty seat to fill, you could get a great deal on it, whereas now, that seat would be significantly more expensive than if you had booked it in advance. Am I anywhere near right about that? If I suddenly get bitten by the travel bug, and am not too particular about where I go, can I still get a deal?

I don’t know of any major airline in the US that has such travel (other than for airline employees). In fact, I don’t know of any such fares during this century.

One thing that has changed: In the past, you absolutely could not get any discounted fares without a 7-day or 14-day (or the like) advance purchase that required a Saturday night stay. Airlines are more flexible about their fares now. If there really are a lot of unsold seats close to the flight date, they may offer a modestly discounted reserved (not standby) fare. And the Saturday night requirements for domestic travel have all but disappeared.

My admittedly armchair understanding is that the airlines are much better about setting prices these days, to the extent that they’re far more likely to not have any empty seats. So your chances of pulling this off are significantly lower.

I used to be able to do this in the 1970s (when I just needed to get anywhere near DC to see my GF), but I don’t think that you can count on similar deals today.

OTOH, you can get cruises for dirt cheap with this method. I know people that hang around the cruise ports of departure waiting for the opportunity. I’ve met cruise passengers with comparable cabins who paid 1/5 what I did simply by waiting until the last-minute. In many cases, they got their booking just a day or two in advance of sailing.

Most fares are now either non-refundable and/or have hefty change fees, which allows airlines greater certainty. (And this is one reason that all fares are much cheaper than they were in the past.) That changes the dynamic so that, more often than not, you will get a cheaper non-refundable ticket if you book early.

Airlines, along with hotels, do have sophisticated dynamic pricing algorithms to vary prices to try to optimize revenue. But this is not a single-iteration process, it’s sophisticated multi-iteration game theory. In principle, it might be in their interest to fill the last seats up on a given flight at the last minute at half the current price - but only if they could do so secretly! If they consistently dropped published prices dramatically for flights that aren’t full, customers would get wise to that, and many would just routinely gamble on waiting until the last minute for a dirt cheap ticket. The airlines don’t want that, so they will sacrifice a bit of short term revenue to influence long term behavior. I think that’s why you rarely find the kind of last minute bargains that you could in decades past.

More than that. You could book a “standby ticket,” as they were known, in advance. Heck, you could book a return trip, both ways on standby, in advance.

When I was at university in the early 1980s, such tickets were very popular among the “Let’s spend the summer backpacking through Europe” set. They were cheap, but they were also a gamble–if there was no room on the aircraft for you, you not only didn’t go, but there were no refunds. I don’t know if you could try your standby ticket on the next flight, but I do recall that this happened to a friend of mine trying to get home (Toronto) from London. It took an expensive transatlantic phone call to parents, who used their credit card to book a confirmed seat on the next flight. The savings on that standby ticket were gone.

Depends on the flight and where you are. In the US, during the summer, empty seats are rare, but they are less rare in other places and times.

I fly standby often, because my daughter works for an airline. While she can only see the load for flights her airline has, there is a message board where she can ask about the load on a particular flight, often well in advance. That helps a lot in choosing flights.

There is also a pecking order of standby priorities, with standby on your airline getting priority over another.

And we all know about the dress code these days.

This is very different, though. Airline employees & their family, who fly almost for free, can usually only fly standby (unless they buy a normal ticket, of course). But that’s just a question of prioritizing revenue-generating customers over giving freebies to your employees.

Empty seats? LOL - if you want a “deal”, volunteer to give up your seat and take a later flight in case of overbooking in exchange for voucher you can use for future travel.

I know American Airlines recently introduced an economy class. You can get a better fare if you’re willing to accept some trade-offs.
You don’t get to put a bag in the overhead. Anything that can’t fit under your seat has to be checked ( extra charge, off course). Extra charge on top of the extra charge for gate checking
You have to board last.
You don’t get a seat assignment until you check in. I assume this means if the flight is oversold, you stand a greater chance of being bumped.

I’m not sure how much the savings are or if other airlines have similar plans.

I was a little confused by this, as “economy class” has been the standard name for cattle class on airlines since I remember. But you’re right: it’s is “an” economy class. (Economy classes seem to have tiers now with at least American Airlines.) Apparently, it’s called “basic economy” and is a rung below standard economy class with the restrictions you noted.

Because they don’t yet dare to call it “steerage.” :stuck_out_tongue:

I have to fly for my job; I’m by no means a “road warrior,” but I fly a fair amount, and I’ve done so for 30 years. The way that US commercial aviation is run now, I’d be perfectly happy to never have to fly again.

Then I think you have a poor memory, although you’re not alone! Almost everyone thinks flying today is so much worse than it used to be; but by any objective measure, flying today is a vastly better experience than it was in decades past.

You are complaining specifically about unbundled “no frills” services, as do many people. But when you look at the behavior of consumers, a large majority have shown consistently that they want cheap no-frills tickets, and that few people want to pay a few dollars more for bundled extras.

The inflation-adjusted cost of air travel has dropped so much that if you want to compare comfort between (say) 1980 and today, the fair comparison is between an economy seat in 1980 and business or even some cheaper first class seats today. And other measures such as safety, on-time arrival, lost luggage - all of these things are vastly improved. Fun article, with links to hard data:

Is it less expensive (relatively speaking) today than it was in 1980? Sure, I’ll buy that. And, it’s far easier for the consumer to shop for their own tickets and flights than it used to be. And, yes, the safety record of the airlines in the past few decades has been amazing.

That said, here’s what I mean by worse:

  • Flights are nearly always 100% full.
  • The pitch (space between rows) has been shrunk by most airlines again and again over the years, to the point where you feel like you have very little space to your own. Heaven forbid you wind up sitting next to a bigger person, or the person in front of you reclines their seat into your lap.
  • Low ticket prices have been compensated for by the airlines by fees for baggage, fees for snacks, etc.
  • Airlines have moved more and more of their flights to their “regional” partners, which mean smaller regional jets, with even less room.

Safer and cheaper are part of “good,” but by no means all of it. Air travel is, IMO, simply no fun at all anymore.

Pitch isn’t the same as space, though. The seat in front of you (which is included in the pitch) probably takes up less space than it did 30 years ago.

That depends on the plane. The larger Embraer jets often have more room than a mainline jet. Thankfully the market for 50-seat and smaller jets, which were usually the really terrible ones, has shrunk in recent years.

Ok, but efficient planning for capacity is one of the reasons ticket prices have dropped so much.

Perhaps, if you compare the cheapest ticket in 1980 to the cheapest ticket today. But you’re ignoring the point that the correct comparison price-for-price would be economy in 1980 vs (approximately) business class today; or (literally) two economy seats today vs one seat in 1980.

That’s simply not true. The cost of air travel has roughy halved in the past 3 decades. Buying a snack or paying $25 for baggage does not offset that.

There’s another thing, too: people are in an incomparably worse mood at the airport than they used to be pre 9/11. After hours of being treated like criminals, most are in just about the worst state of mind ever. My 86 year old Minnesota grandmother was consistently searched, questioned, hounded, and driven to tears by security at the airport on flight after flight after flight. I and my sister were ready to clobber anyone after that. Everyone is miserable and hostile. There is no amount of saving money that can make up for the horrible experience of flying now. I can’t begin to describe how happy I would be to pay twice the amount to go back to the way that flying used to be, and I would be happy to never have to do it again. If I had a choice, I would not do it if I were being paid a thousand dollars a flight instead of being charged. But there are times when you don’t have any choice.

That may well be (I’m not an industry insider, so perhaps I’m misusing the term). So, let me rephrase: the amount of space that I have when I fly feels noticeably less than it was decades ago. I have a touch of claustrophobia; there have been times in the past few years, particularly when I’ve wound up in a middle seat, where I have felt the claustrophobia creeping in on me. I never used to feel that way when flying.

For reference: I fly from Chicago O’Hare to Birmingham, AL regularly for work. I wind up flying on United, which only flies Embraer regional jets to BHM. They’re a one-and-two setup, maybe 20 rows or so, and feel very cramped. I don’t know if those are the “larger” Embraers or not.

Also, I’m not a terribly big guy – 5’10", 180 lbs. I feel sorry for a taller or stouter guy who has to fly on those.

Well, absolutely. They’re better at planning for full flights, and that helps them improve profitability, but combined with the reduced space between rows, it makes the flying experience nearly always feel cramped and uncomfortable.

That’s not an entirely useful comparison, however. As a traveler, I’m only using one seat for myself. The fact that it costs less relatively is nice, but that one seat is, overall, of lower quality (IMO) than an economy seat was in 1980.

I only fly domestic; I couldn’t tell you the last time that I’ve seen a three-class setup (first, business, coach) on a domestic flight. As my employer pays for my travel, they won’t pay for first class (when it’s even available; note what I wrote above about regional jets), so if I want that, I have to pay for it myself.

I didn’t mean to imply that it was a complete one-to-one compensation (i.e., that the fees completely offset the lower ticket prices). However, IMO, it just feels petty when I buy a ticket, then I get nickled-and-dimed to check a bag, to select a seat assignment, to get a snack while on the plane, etc.

The fact that it’s cheaper to fly, relatively speaking, is part of why so many more people fly today than in the past. Charitably, you could say that air travel has gotten democratized. Uncharitably, you could say that it’s become like bus travel.

My point was that there are flights with empty seats. My wife can tell you from long experience that the first flight from SFO to PHL is easy to get on as a standby.

Obviously paying customers come first. Besides employees and their families, it seems the only standby is for changing the flight on an existing ticket.
I’ve done that often, usually in Boston to Newark shuttles where you got a late ticket home and stood by for an earlier flight if your meeting ended early.

Loads have increased, but the flights you take are probably, by definition, popular ones, so each flier gets the impression of very crowded flights. Say 50 flights are 100% full (100 people) and 50 are 10% full. 5000 people are on the full flights, 500 on the empty ones, so like 89% of passengers think all flights are 100% full.

Amen. I remember getting a good steak - for free - on Eastern Airlines.