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Monday, September 28, 2009

Standby for Free

Want to know how to make it from downtown Chicago to downtown DC in less than four hours door to door? Fly standby.

In these days of fees for everything from advance itinerary changes to emergency row seats to cabin upgrades, it may surprise you to know that you can still fly standby for free. It certainly surprised a group of travel writers with whom I was recently sharing this tale.

I have this annoying tendency of getting places way too early. That includes the airport. So, on a Sunday morning, I found myself at Washington National Airport (DCA) two hours before my flight to Chicago However, there was another flight to O’Hare in just 55 minutes. Since I only had carry-on, I wanted to take a stab at getting on the earlier flight. Fortunately, a ticket agent assisted me through the steps needed to do so on the check-in kiosk.

Here’s how it works. First, you check in for your original flight, which is confirmed. At a certain point, after rejecting all of the options the airline gives you for paying extra for specific seats, you can opt to fly standby on an earlier flight. The choices are listed on the screen. You touch the flight you want and a boarding pass prints with both your standby status information and your confirmed flight information (you need to print a separate boarding pass for the confirmed flight). Get to the gate on time, and assuming there are seats, you are on your way. You can also do this when checking in on-line.

So, how did I make it from the Loop back home in four hours? By knowing the standby trick. I left my hotel at 11:30, took the CTA train from the Loop to O’Hare, and arrived at the airport at 12:18. My original flight was scheduled for 2:25 (which was likely to get delayed, as storms were developing on the East Coast). There was an on-time departure at 1:05, but I thought catching it would be impossible. I had to get from the CTA train stop to the ticketing area (a lengthy journey, which included an uphill climb on a non-working escalator); press the correct buttons in a speedy manner at the nearest check-in kiosk; get through the security line; and then make it to the gate in less than 35 minutes. That may be an easy thing to do at a smaller airport like DCA, but O’Hare is a behemoth. But guess what? I arrived at the gate area just as they were calling my name for standby approval, and I boarded the plane five minutes later. After a bumpy 90-minute ride, I arrived in DC and somehow managed to perfectly time all of my Metro connections. Travel time from DCA home (including the walk from the Metro station to my condo): 35 minutes. Total travel time from downtown Chicago: Four hours on the dot.

The moral of the story: If you absolutely, positively don’t have to get to your destination earlier than expected, don’t pay to change your reservation. Instead, get to the airport early and try standby…especially if you are traveling a route where a flight takes off every hour or two. True, standby seats may not be available. But then, it’s just a matter of going back to Plan A.

A second moral: The total cost of taking public transportation to and from the airports in both cities, round-trip, was $8.20. Carbon footprint: Baby feet. Four cab rides would have cost at least $115. Carbon footprint: Shaquille O’Neal times four.

1 comment:

susan said...

this is such a great tip!
important though that this really only works if you don't check any luggage, non?