Everything to know about flying standby on Southwest

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If you ever need to fly standby — catching an earlier or later flight to the same destination if there is an open seat — Southwest has excellent standby policies, especially for Southwest elite status members and those who purchase premium fares. But it’s not an easy process.

Here is everything you need to know about how to fly standby with Southwest Airlines.

You can fly standby with Southwest, but it can be better to just change your flight since they’re no change fees. (Photo by Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock)

How to fly standby on Southwest

If you want to fly standby, you must request it at the airport ticket counter. Or if you’ve already checked in, you have to ask at the gate. According to Southwest, you cannot make the request online or by calling. But, Southwest doesn’t charge change fees, so instead of flying standby, you could try to change your Southwest ticket to a different flight with a guaranteed seat. You can do that at Southwest.com, at a Southwest kiosk or with a customer service agent (phone or in person at the airport). If it happens to be within one hour of your original flight’s departure time, you will no longer be able to make changes online.

If you don’t make it onto a flight as a standby and you’ve missed your original flight, you can still change your reservation and pay only the fare difference as long as you alerted Southwest (at least 10 minutes before your scheduled flight) of your cancellation. You can try to rebook online or speak with a customer service agent. If you alerted Southwest in time but are unable to rebook away from the airport, then ask at the ticket counter or gate within two hours of your original flight to get onto a standby list, hoping a seat opens up on a later flight.

Your fare type determines the standby rules

Let’s say you have a guaranteed seat on a flight and want to see if you can catch an earlier one. Depending on the type of fare you purchased and your elite status with Southwest, you may be able to fly standby at no extra cost. If you missed your flight, you will need to have let Southwest know at least 10 minutes ahead of the flight that you will not make it or need to change your reservation. Otherwise, you will be considered a “no show” and will be out the full price of your ticket.

When you fly standby, you are hoping to fly either on an earlier or on a later flight than your original. Everything hinges on whether the flight you want to take has an open seat. If you purchased a Wanna Get Away or Senior fare, Southwest’s lowest-cost fares, you can only fly standby by paying the difference in the fare price between the two flights.

The cost will not be charged to your credit card until you are cleared from the standby list and receive a boarding pass. If you choose to upgrade to an Anytime fare, Southwest’s middle-of-the-road fare that earns you more points but is not Business Select, you can fly standby for an earlier flight without paying the difference in fare price.

Those who have Anytime or Business Select Southwest tickets are allowed to fly standby, without paying an additional fare, between the same cities on the same day if there is an open seat on an earlier flight. These fare types also receive A zone boarding privileges. That means they are the first zone to board the plane and the first passengers to select their seats, but you may forfeit A zone boarding when flying standby.

You may also need to pay additional taxes and fees for the new flight with Anytime and Business Select fares. In addition to flying standby, you can always cancel and rebook anytime with no fees. Though you will have to pay the difference in price if you make changes on a Wanna Get Away ticket or if you end up on a flight on a different day regardless of fare type or elite status.

For same-day flight changes for Business Select and Anytime fares, you will not have to pay any difference in fare as long as the flight is earlier than your originally scheduled flight and is between the same cities. You may also change from nonstop to multi-stop flights or vice versa with no penalty. If the new flight is after the originally scheduled flight and you alerted Southwest at least 10 minutes prior to your original flight that you would need to change or cancel, you will pay the difference in fare price, if there is one.

Remember, you can use Southwest points to make up the different in fare price and you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest instantly when you have any of the following cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve®
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
  • Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to earn Southwest points if you don’t need them in a hurry.

Elite status gets you more flexibility

A key perk of holding Southwest status, which includes A-List and A-List Preferred, is the ability to fly standby for an earlier flight on the same day as your original flight without paying any difference in the fare price. The airline gives A-List and A-List Preferred status to Southwest Rapid Rewards members with 35,000 to 70,000 qualifying Southwest points or 25 to 50 one-way flights in a calendar year.

Southwest began allowing elite members to fly standby for no extra cost within two hours of their original flight time in the fall of 2016. And in 2017, the airline extended the free standby time from two hours to 24 hours ahead of the originally scheduled flight as long as the standby flight is prior to the original flight and on the same day.

For flights that don’t meet requirements for no-added-cost standby, A-List and A-List Preferred Members receive priority standby and will need to pay the difference in fare if there is an available seat. A-List Preferred members receive priority over A-List members.

Additionally, A-List Preferred and A-List members receive priority boarding, which means Southwest checks them in before everyone else 36 hours ahead of the departure time. When flying standby, however, elite members lose the privilege of priority boarding.

What about companions?

If you hold the Southwest Companion Pass, which lets one person fly free with you for up to two years (still have to pay taxes and fees), or if you’re traveling with a companion, there are a few things to consider regarding standby. Even if you are an A-List or A-List Preferred member, your companion is not afforded your same benefits unless they also hold elite status.

However, some elite status members have reported being able to speak to a Southwest supervisor on the customer service phone line to get the companion (from the Southwest Companion Pass) also moved to the new flight. So it may be on a case-by-case basis, depending on who you talk to. If you are flying standby, the person traveling with you will also be able to fly standby, based on the fares you purchased.

The Southwest Companion Pass can be easy to earn because the bonuses you earn with the Southwest credit cards count toward earning the Companion Pass. Chase (the bank that issues Southwest cards) will only allow you to have one personal Southwest card at a time:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card – Most perks of the Southwest personal cards, take a look at our Southwest Priority card review to learn how to make the most of all of them.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card – Lowest annual fee, our Southwest Plus card review explains everything you get with this card.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

But you can also have one or more Southwest Business cards, in addition to a personal card:

Bottom line

Flying standby is not a simple procedure on Southwest and probably best avoided, which shouldn’t be hard, since Southwest doesn’t have any change or cancellation fees. So if you find yourself needing to catch an earlier or later flight, try to rebook yourself online or by calling Southwest customer service, especially if you have elite status or hold premium fares and thus won’t be subject to a change in price.

If that fails, head to the airport within two hours of the originally scheduled flight to get on a standby list and then wait to see if you get a seat.

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Jason Stauffer was a writer for Million Mile Secrets where he covered points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. His work has appeared in The Points Guy and NextAdvisor.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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