Going directly to the airport to book a flight at the airline counter itself, no prior reservation - is this really a thing?

Are there really people who do not book an airline flight in advance, but in fact just go to the airline ticket counter on the day of the intended flight and book then and there? I had only heard of gangsters or rich people doing this but wondered if it was really still a thing today.

It’s a thing, but in these days of easy online booking, probably not very common. But, if you’re very conscious of your monetary budget but not so conscientious about your time or comfort budgets, and if a discount airline operates between your desired airports, there are apparently some travelers who do this. With some discount airlines, you can apparently avoid online booking fees by purchasing your tickets at the airport counter, and save some money. For the vast majority of flights, though, this is actually significantly more expensive. And, of course, your preferred flight might be fully booked by the time you get there, so you might be stuck waiting for the next available flight.

People do it all the time when their flight is canceled, particularly when the alternative flight is on a different airline.

I’ve done it 15 years ago or so. Thing is I bought a ticket for a week earlier by accident (I was shopping rates and dates across hotels air and car rental and got the flight date mixed up when I booked). So when i showed up I had a ticket for a flight that already left about a week ago. I asked (with my head very low) how much would a ticket cost. It was about $450 which I got, the original ticket was $275. I do suspect that the service rep did punch some buttons to make the price go down somewhat.

The airline later did refund me for that original ticket considering I bought the other one + I gave my sad story.

With that ticket I was told that I could go to the airport lounge, which I declined, not knowing how awesome they are at the time, and something I regret to this day because I never had another opportunity.

All in all it was pretty cool as I did walk into the airport and just buy a ticket and fly to my destination.

I actually had it done for me. I was flying back to MSP via Schiphol from Bristol, UK. My flight to Schiphol was cancelled (there were only 3 passengers). I had to get back home but was able to present the assister with the information that there were direct flights from Heathrow leaving later that morning. So, the Bristol airport scheduled me for that flight, gave me some money to buy breakfast and booked me a cab to Heathrow. We made it just in time to catch the flight.

I did it once for work about 30 years ago. My supervisor told me “There’s an emergency and you need to go our customer site first thing tomorrow morning!!” They gave me a big-ass stack of traveler’s checks (I told you it was 30 years ago) and told me I was on my own for plane and rental car arrangements.

Discreet inquiries revealed it wasn’t really an emergency, but the result of a pissing match between managers about who would do something (my management insisted that only someone from our office could do it - I and my customer counterpart both knew he was perfectly capable of doing it), so I decided to leave the next morning.

Took a cab to the airport, walked up to the counter and asked for the next flight to my destination. Didn’t have any luggage as it was just a day trip. Wasn’t my money, so I didn’t care how much it cost, and if anyone in accounting tried to give me shit later, I’d point out that from a technical standpoint, my trip was completely unnecessary. You want to use me as your pawn in an office politics battle, you gotta pay. I paid about $375 for a last minute trip from LAX to San Jose. When I got there I used my per diem to buy my counterpart lunch.

Early 90s, so way before 9/11, so don’t know if it would be possible today.

My son had to do it once. He was home on leave from the Marines and his unit was called up to be deployed. He had to get to 29 Palms in a hurry.
We walked in the Airport, in 15 minutes he was flying off.
Scary time.

My wife and I missed a budget airline flight from Paris to Vienna. We asked about changing our tickets and the ticket agent said it was cheaper to just buy a ticket on the next flight (in a few hours) and then we could claim a (very slight) refund for our unused ticket at a later date. The ticket price at the counter was basically the same price we paid online, I think.

Before the internet, this is how things were done. Especially in Hawaii for interisland flights, which for some is a daily work commute. Back then, it was one set price for any seat (don’t think they had First Class) that didn’t change as the flight got fuller.

If you missed your flight, you just waited for the next one. Like taking a bus.

AFAIK, you can still do this today.

This is actually one of my “bucket list” dreams… walk into the airport, look at the Departures monitor and decide where i want to go for a week.

I do realize I’d have to quick book a hotel before my flight took off, or I’d spend the whole flight worrying about where I was going to sleep.

I did it several times, but I was going from Chicago (MDW) to Louisville (SDF). It was basically a bus ride on Southwest, with flights leaving every hour or so. A pre-scheduled flight was like $35 each way at the time, but if I had nothing to do on a 3-day weekend and decided to visit home, the price wasn’t onerous.

I know this was common back in the 70s because I did it several times. The first was after a road trip to take a friend back to college in Texas. My other friend and I went to the airport and bought two tickets back to Memphis. This was actually my first flight.

The next summer, I bought a month bus pass with the intention of travelling to and around the Rocky Mountains. I was planning on camping and was carrying a lot of gear. When the bus got to St. Louis, I realized I had way over-packed for this adventure, went to the airport and bought a ticket home. I dumped the excess baggage and started over on the bus. A couple days later after sightseeing in Denver, I went to the airport and bought a ticket on a small airline to Aspen. After a few days there, I got sick. I bought a ticket back to Denver. Then a ticket to Memphis via changing planes in Dallas. Those flights were miserable, I felt like shit and I just wanted to get home.

But that was when flying was cheap and easy. I didn’t fly again for ten years or so and by then knew to use a travel agent to get the best rate and avoid any hassles.

Done it a few times with missed flights.

One time sticks in my memory though. c. 2005 I turned up at Munich airport with what I had thought was an e-ticket on my phone. Turns out that was just a confirmation and they’d posted my paper tickets to my home address (in the UK). They refused to reissue my tickets at the desk despite my email confirmation. But they were happy to sell me the last two seats on the flight - the seats I wasn’t taking because I didn’t have my ticket.

Needless to say, I’ve never flown Lufthansa again, and BOY do they regret it.

Back in my traveling consultant days, my client relationship managers would do this as a regular practice. Based on client availability schedules, they weren’t set on where they might have to be the next day. So, off to the airport to get a flight to Boise, then maybe the next day it’s Chicago, or maybe it’s Atlanta.

I actually used to work at Bristol airport, selling coffee.

Once, after a flight got cancelled, there were two people talking to the check-in desk trying to arrange onward transport; one accepted a hotel for the night and a flight the next day, while the other was rushed off to Heathrow in a taxi… then about 10 minutes after the taxi left, the person waiting for tomorrow realised he’d been handed the other guy’s passport back by mistake.


I heard from the taxi guys later that they did manage to chase the original taxi down with a second (luckily they all have radios) and swap passports in a service station- he did make it in time to catch the flight, if you were wondering.

I don’t think I ever saw people just go up to the desk to buy tickets, except when there was some kind of mistake/chaos going on, incidentally. Of course, an impressive range of mistakes and general chaos happened basically every day… The job itself wasn’t exactly thrilling, but it really was the best for people watching.

I used to do stand by in my ticket scalping days. It’s a flip of the coin if you get in or not but if you do it’s dirt cheap.

I remember someone telling me (many years ago) that they used to go to the airport Friday evenings and ask what flights had available seats. If they liked any of the destinations, they would get a ticket at a huge discount and enjoy a (weekend?) vacation.

The Eastern Air Shuttle between NYC, Washington and Boston was like that. No reservations, no assigned seats and no boarding passes. In fact, I think you boarded and then paid the flight attendant.

When I was in college in the 80’s, and Southwest was beginning to push to become more of a national carrier, they would offer $19 one way flights. A group of friends and I went to Love Field in Dallas and bought tickets at the counter to go to Chicago for the day, coming back that night. Had a blast.

The shuttle flights in the northeast still exist, at least in some form. Eastern Shuttle became Trump Shuttle which became US Airways Shuttle which became American Airlines shuttle. And the former Pan Am shuttle is now the Delta Shuttle. They’re not quite like they once were back in the day, but I’m pretty sure you can still show up without a reservation.