Flying standby is kind of like being a beauty-pageant finalist: You're waiting anxiously for your name to be called, and it helps to maintain a sunny disposition lest the judges (moody gate agents) torpedo your chance of walking triumphantly down the Jetway.
In their quest to find new sources of revenue, though, most airlines have introduced an alternative to the stressful standby queue. Passengers can now pay $25 to get a confirmed seat on an earlier flight the day they're scheduled to travel. American, Delta, Northwest, United, Continental, and US Airways all offer this option. Of course, all their policies differ, and the fine print can make this more complicated than it seems at first glance.
For example, in most cases you can only switch to a flight leaving within three hours of the time you request the change. Sounds good, but if there isn't a flight to your destination with open seats during that window, you have to keep checking back and then hustle to the airport once you get a seat. Or worse, Northwest and US Airways don't let you make same-day changes over the phone. You may have to go to the airport anyway (Northwest does let you do this online).
Still, these offers are already proving popular, and industry watchers expect interest only to rise. "Planes are going to be full, so the chances of standing by and getting on are going to be difficult at best," says Terry Trippler, an airline expert with CheapSeats.com.
In some cases, the option to jump to the head of the line means that free standby has evaporated. Delta stopped allowing free standby travel when it introduced its $25 "same-day confirmed" option, and US Airways lets passengers fly standby only if a flight is full; if there are empty seats, you have to pay to make a same-day change. Don't want to pay? American, Continental, JetBlue, Northwest, and United still let you take your chances at the gate. Enjoy it while you can.
Susan Stellin is the author of How to Travel Practically Anywhere (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).