Can I show up to the airport and expect to find a cheap ticket?
July 4, 2013 10:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to avoid the insanely expensive "emergency" (bereavement) ticket prices for airfare. Is it feasible to just show up to a major airport like Chicago O'Hare without a ticket, and see what kind of cheap stand-by ticket I get? I'm assuming that airlines with an empty seat would want it filled at the last minute... I wouldn't mind waiting for hours at the airport for such a seat. Intended destination is Los Angeles or nearby.
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure the major airlines care much about filling the seats beyond a certain point. Often empty seats are compensated by more cargo or less fuel. The airlines are also very good about predicting demand and setting the prices to ensure it matches their optimal supply.

Last minute fares are often more expensive in my experience and the ticket counters at airports rarely have more leeway than the online or phone ticketing agents.
posted by NoDef at 10:59 AM on July 4, 2013

Have you considered priceline's name your own price feature? I'm not saying you can't wait around for cheap stand-by seats, just that I've never heard of that being done successfully. Good luck!
posted by en el aire at 11:02 AM on July 4, 2013

I've only ever been able to fly standby when I already had a ticket for the same destination in-hand.
posted by quince at 11:11 AM on July 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I got a cheap less-than-24 hour ticket through Travelocity, I think that trying online is going to give you a much better chance of a ticket than at the airport. I did try the bereavement route, but as you have discovered, it doesn't really exist anymore.
posted by nanook at 11:13 AM on July 4, 2013

I'm sorry for your loss.

If you are trying to fly THIS WEEKEND you will be royally screwed. There aren't ANY empty seats on holliday weekends, and there are damn few empty seats on regular flights any more.

Airlines do have bereavement fares. Call Southwest and fly out of Midway, but give them a shot at offering you a discounted ticket.

Where are you trying to fly? That will impact your ability to even GET a ticket this weekend.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:38 AM on July 4, 2013

2 years ago, Delta had the best bereavement fare -- they would give you any ticket on any flight for the same cost as the fly-on-a-Wednesday-purchase-two-weeks-in-advance flight. I don't know if that's still the case, but I would call Delta first.
posted by KathrynT at 11:42 AM on July 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just a note on bereavement fare: last time I used one I had to purchase a full-price same-day ticket. When I could send them proof of my bereavement (note from the funeral director) they refunded the difference.

It is possible to just hang out at the airport until you get a flight. But the next several days are major US travel holidays. Be prepared to wait. And while it might be cheaper in the long-run, you'll likely have to pay the arm and a leg today.

Here are Delta's, American's, and United's policies on berivement/compassionalte fares.

It might be tempting to take part of a flight (Say a single leg to a closer hub in Denver or Dallas, but don't. It'll be another airport that you're stuck in and have to start the process over.) Since this is generally a business holiday you might have good luck on a late flight tonight.
posted by Ookseer at 12:11 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you've got some time to hang around, and an adventurous spirit, you might show up a your local FBO, and try to hitch a ride on a private plane. In these days of high fuel prices, good etiquette is the same as it is when hitching a car ride: if you can, offer to contribute to the fuel costs. Many private pilots will be happy to give you a seat, and a good percentage won't hear of taking your money.
posted by paulsc at 12:54 PM on July 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I did it years ago, back in 2000. I got a call at work that my dad had had a stroke. I worked 15 minutes from Dulles at the time. I bought a reasonably priced Airtran ticket online for a flight in a few hours and took off for the airport. When I got to Dulles Airtran had some sort of catastrophic computer failure and all flights were on hold. As I walked down the concourse thinking about my options I noticed a United flight to Atlanta was boarding. I dropped my sob story about my Dad on the gate agent after tapping away on her keyboard for a minute she got me on the flight really cheap, $89 IIRC.

I wonder if post 9/11 security theatre would make that impossible today?
posted by COD at 1:23 PM on July 4, 2013

It's a major travel weekend, but people want to fly at each end and maximize their vacation time.

Try booking tickets for Friday or Saturday with one of the last minute fair discounters, Travelocity maybe?

Depending on how soon you need to be there, try Greyhound or Amtrak.
posted by yohko at 2:49 PM on July 4, 2013

Unfortunately, airlines don't care a lot about filling seats. Once some percentage of the seats on a flight have been booked (say, 80%), the flight will be profitable. And they've cut back on flights so on average, 95% of seats are booked. That means a Wednesday flight might be only 85% full but the Friday evening flight is 105% full, averaging out to 95%.

When I've needed bereavement fares, I've just booked through Southwest because they let you change flights without fees. And if you end up not going, you can apply the cost of the ticket you purchased to another flight.

If you do just go to the airport, be prepared for the more intense security screening - buying a ticket at the airport is "suspicious activity." And try to pack light. It's hard to fly stand-by if you need to check a bag and I almost lost it when my bags didn't make it on my flight home for my mother's funeral. Plus then I needed to go back to the airport later when it showed up.

Sorry for your loss and safe travels.
posted by kat518 at 3:15 PM on July 4, 2013

I've just been reading about budget airline Allegiant Air and how you'll get the best deal with them by showing up at the airport the day of travel and paying cash. They don't operate out of most major hubs, however...Allegiant Air destinations.

I find the "airlines don't care much about filling seats" notion in this thread bizarre. They're quite interested in filling every seat; giving you a bargain on short notice, not so much. In fact, they know full well they've got you by the short hairs when you travel that way .

posted by Rash at 7:16 PM on July 4, 2013

Airlines don't generally do standby. As far as i can tell, the current pricing model is that customers will pay the higher rate because they need the flight. Call several airlines, and plead your case, a talented and compassionate airline rep can sometimes do wonders.
posted by theora55 at 9:35 AM on July 5, 2013

About five years ago I thought I needed a quick bereavement fare. International flight. I called the cheapest airline (Delta) and they said their bereavement fares were actually higher than online prices at their websites but included free changes in scheduling. Another time (also Delta) I needed to extend my stay for a funeral. Even though I had bought the usual no-changes cheap ticket online, they let me fly four days later for no charge.

Many years before, I just called and got the next flight at the price of the cheapest mid week g red eye price. And a free transfer when I missed that flight.

Airlines are not consistent about this. Call around and check website prices too.

I an sorry for your loss.
posted by K.P. at 1:26 PM on July 5, 2013

I am also sorry for not answering the Queston as asked. I hate it when people do that to my questions.

When I was younger I found Greyhound half way across the USA to be tolerably uncomfortable and worth the savings. If you were planning on hanging around the airport for a day anyway for a half price fare...well, the bus might actually get you there in the same time spent at that price.
posted by K.P. at 1:49 PM on July 5, 2013

A bit late but nth-ing those who mention trying Delta. My grandmother died last fall. I was able to get a good fare, about a third less than the ridiculous listings they had online for last minute flights by calling them directly and asking for bereavement fare. I even missed my connection at MSP due to a weather related delay, but was able to rebook with no problems and no charge. Now, YMMV since I have a frequent flyer miles account and maybe that made the difference. But it can't hurt to call and ask.
posted by weathergal at 3:04 AM on July 6, 2013

Chiming in with those who say try Priceline, Kayak, etc. When my grandmother died I found a ticket late that night for a reasonable, even cheapish, fare, and the airline (can't remember - USAir? - but it was 2000, so the airline doesn't matter that much) said to simply go to the gate agent when I checked in to see about refunding part for the bereavement fare. When I did so, the bereavement fare was 3x what I'd paid online, and the gate agent was shocked at the deal I'd gotten myself. Ymmv.

So sorry for your loss.
posted by AthenaPolias at 10:02 AM on July 6, 2013

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