Last-Minute Holiday Travel Hacks: How This Credit Card Expert Saves Money on Airfare

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It’s amazing how airlines can offer such a wide range of prices for the exact same seat on different flights during the day. 

The most expensive flight between two cities will often cost three times the price of the least expensive one on the same day. The least expensive tickets are typically those that depart in the early morning or late at night, when fewer people typically want to travel. 

Frugal travelers will book these early or late flights, putting up with the inconvenience to save money. But recently, airlines have started offering more standby and same-day confirmed options to change your ticket for free or a small fee. These options can offer travelers a chance to enjoy the low prices of off-peak tickets while flying at a more desirable time. 

What is flying standby?

When you have a confirmed reservation, many airlines allow you to be placed on a standby list for an earlier flight. If the flight has plenty of unsold seats, you could “clear” the standby list soon after boarding begins — airline industry speak for “getting a boarding pass for your new flight.” 

Otherwise, standby passengers must remain in the gate area during boarding, waiting to find out if a seat will become available before departure, typically due to no-shows. 

No-shows happen more than you might imagine, as passengers can get stuck on late flights or experience other delays on the way to the airport. Others may simply abandon their tickets when plans change — but don’t tell the airline.

What is a same-day confirmed change?

Rather than hoping to clear a standby list at the gate, same-day confirmed changes allow passengers to change their ticket to a new flight, and receive a new boarding pass before they go to the airport. This makes same-day confirmed changes a superior option, when available, but they often come with an additional fee. 

How standby options and same-day confirmed offers can save you money

Let’s say you want to fly from Denver to Atlanta on Southwest Airlines. On the day you’d like to travel, there’s a flight leaving at 7:40 p.m. that costs just $119, while the flight leaving at 4:15 p.m. is $298. You really don’t want to arrive in Atlanta after midnight, but you also don’t want to spend an additional $189 for the same trip. 

Instead, you could buy Southwest’s Wanna Get Away Plus fare which costs $139, and offers same-day confirmed changes. As soon as midnight in your departure city, you can use the Southwest website or app to change to the more expensive flight at no additional charge. This option is also available for those who hold A-List elite status in their Rapid Rewards program. 

If there aren’t any seats available on the earlier flight you want, then you can add your name to the standby list, appear at the gate and hope that someone no-shows. You could even use the same-day confirm option to change your flight, and then standby for an even earlier one. 

Since neither option is guaranteed to work, you should be prepared for the possibility that you’ll have to take your originally scheduled flight. But if there are numerous flights operating to your destination that day, and you’re not traveling during a busy time of year, then your chances of finding an available seat on an earlier flight can be excellent. 

To get an idea of what’s available, try searching one morning for seats on your favorite route, and see how many flights are offered. There are often seats for sale in the morning for flights departing later that day. The prices will likely be high, but if you can fly standby or have a same-day confirmed option, then you’ll still pay the lower, advanced purchase price and perhaps a small fee

Which airlines offer the best saving opportunities?

Each airline has their own rules when it comes to same-day confirmed changes and standby flights. Some are better than others, but for the most part, fees range from $25 to $75.

  • Alaska Airlines. Same-day confirmed changes are $25 within California, and $50 elsewhere. These fees are waived for those with elite status in their frequent flier program. Saver fares aren’t eligible, and if you’re connecting, you must keep the same connecting cities. Alaska also offers free same-day standby at no cost to elites, those flying select routes and those who aren’t on Saver fare.
  • American Airlines. Same-day confirmed changes are available starting at $50. That fee is waived for their Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum members. Standby is available for free to passengers, and both options are available 24 hours before departure. 
  • Delta Airlines. Same-day confirmed changes are available, starting at $75, depending on the ticket type, but are complimentary for Diamond, Platinum & Gold Medallion members. Same-day standby is free for all passengers. Both options are available 24 hours before departure. 
  • JetBlue. This airline offers what it calls “same-day switch” and its standby option. Each cost $75, but this fee is waived for Mosaic elite members. These options become available at midnight in the departure city, on the day of travel. JetBlue also allows you to switch your flight to one into a nearby airport.
  • Southwest. Southwest offers same-day confirmed changes at no cost for those who hold a ticket in their Wanna Get Away Plus fare class or higher, and those who hold A-List status. Same-day standby is available to all passengers at no cost. Tickets are eligible for both options at midnight in the departure city, on the day of travel. 
  • United Airlines. Same-day confirmed changes can be made for a $75 fee, but are waived for Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Platinum, 1K and Global Services elites. All United passengers are eligible for free same-day standby, and both services are available 24 hours prior to departure.

Other tips for saving money on holiday travel

  • Check for schedule changes. When the airline has changed your flight schedule, or there’s been a significant delay, then you’re typically entitled to choose a different flight at no extra cost. 
  • Look for weather waivers. When significant adverse weather is expected, airlines will issue waivers that allow passengers to select a different flight at no cost. This is a great way to adjust your travel plans in your favor while avoiding potential delays. 
  • Travel on the day of the holiday. While holiday season travel can be very expensive, there are often low-priced flights available on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and on New Year’s Eve. It’s possible to take a short flight on Thanksgiving morning and be on-time for turkey dinner in the afternoon.

The bottom line

Same-day standby and same-day confirmed are relatively new options that most airlines are offering. You can take these flight options into account when you book your tickets, allowing you to pay for a less expensive flight but flying at a more convenient time. You might be able to fly for far less money than you thought.

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