June 29, 2012 -- Are you a daredevil? Ever bet against the odds? Then maybe this roulette-like savings strategy is for you.
I call it five risky ways to save on airfare: Take the risks and, if you win, you could save hundreds or even a thousand dollars. Or you could wind up with nothing. Or worse.
Ask yourself: Do I dare?
1. Standby flights:
If you think you can still go to the airport and say, "Give me one of those cheap standby tickets," then hop on a plane, you haven't flown in a while. Most airlines have done away with standby programs, with one exception I'll tell you about shortly.
What killed standby? Capacity cuts, for one. It's hard to find empty seats anymore, so airlines have little incentive to give passengers these kinds of price breaks anymore. But here are three modern standby strategies you can try.
Standby for different departure: You have a confirmed ticket but it's a cheap red-eye and you'd love to get on that earlier (and more expensive) flight. Try standby, but beware: the reason the earlier flight is more expensive is because it's more popular so it's likely full. Plus, today's standby is fee-based; exceptions are made for elite fliers and those who buy pricy "unrestricted" airfare, but most standby fliers fork over a fee ranging from $50 (Southwest) to $75 (American, United).
AirTran U: This is one of the last of the old-school standby programs, but it's limited to travelers aged 18 to 22. And it's not quite a steal: prices vary from $60 to $120 per flight segment, depending on destination. Still, if you're young and have a yen for last-minute travel, this could work for you.
Use an employee pass: Does a friend or family member work for an airline? Maybe you could use their Buddy Pass or whatever name it goes by. These passes aren't free but can provide extremely cheap flights. But because pass-holders are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to being seated on a plane, it could cost you dearly. Let me tell you a story:
A 29-year-old teacher from central Virginia planned to fly from Richmond to Frankfurt, Germany, last week on a $600 pass from an airline employee friend. She never got there. Oh, she got to JFK alright, but there were no seats on outbound flights to Frankfurt. The gate agent then suggested she head to Detroit, because the Detroit-Frankfurt route was supposedly less crowded. She went and, no seats. The woman spent four days shuttling to airports and racking up $400 in bills for hotels, cabs and meals, with nothing to show for it. "I had to cut my losses," said the woman (who declined to be identified and didn't want to name her legacy carrier) adding, "I wouldn't recommend this to anyone."
2. Look for last-minute weekend specials:
Several airlines including American, Delta, United and US Airways all have regular last-minute weekend-only airfare sales - and US Airways frequently includes international deals that are good for travel for a month or so. Prices for these deals range from cheap to middling, but here's the problem: They're good for "select cities" only, but you just might find something special.
One more place to look: in an airline's Twitter feeds or Facebook pages; these are places where last-minute deep discounting is sometimes found. You won't know if you don't look.
Every now and then, an adventurous friend of mine tells his family to saddle up because they're going to hit the airport and fly whatever's cheap. This fellow actually checks out last-minute deals from his home airport and makes an occasion of it; it might not be a destination on his bucket-list, but he usually has fun. You can try this too by checking out Priceline's "name your own price" deals or see if other comparison sites are offering potluck deals. It happens. You can always spice up your "mystery" adventure by checking your mobile for unusual things to see and do (and the folks at "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" always have ideas on regional cuisine).
4. Semi-risky international travel:
The risk here is pairing up two different airlines, and here's an example: You take a low-cost carrier to your jumping-off point to Europe -- maybe New York, Charlotte or Philly -- a hub city with a lots of competition on well-priced non-stop routes to London or wherever. The risks: baggage issues and making connections. If the low cost carrier is late to your jump-off city, you could wind up in Europe without a bag, or even worse, missing the flight yourself.
5. Destination cheaters beware:
You might have friends that have carried this off, but I do not recommend it, for some very big reasons. I'm talking about destination cheaters, and it works this way: you want to travel to a smallish town, but flights there are expensive so you find a cheaper flight to another city with a stop in the town you want to visit, and you get off there. Beware: this practice is specifically banned by most airlines and if you're found out, the rest of your ticket might be cancelled, and if you're an elite flier, you could lose your miles.
One minor risk you can always take: fly a red-eye or overnight flight. In most cases, it will be cheaper, but the risk is you'll be too tired to enjoy your getaway, especially if it's just a jaunt for a day or so.
So, are you willing to give the wheel a spin? Only you can decide if these odds are worth it. You could wind up on a nice, cheap vacation. Or you could wind up home on the couch.