How to get on earlier flight without paying fee

Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (Photo: Alan Levine / Flickr)

Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (Photo: Alan Levine / Flickr)

Getting on an earlier flight can mean getting home in time to have dinner with your family, rather than a solo snack around midnight. If you are headed off on vacation, it means you might be able to make it to the beach in time to get some sun.

During normal airline operations, changing to an earlier flight will cost you, unless you’re an elite level frequent flyer or purchased a full-fare ticket. Arguing that it’s in the airline’s best interest to allow you on an earlier flight because it opens a seat that could be sold to others just won’t cut it. A request like that will elicit a very brief response that ends with, “NEXT IN LINE PLEASE.”

There are two scenarios that can often lead to getting on an earlier flight, free. Your seat assignment may not be ideal but at least you’re on your way sooner. The key is finding and exploiting the fact that something bad is happening and it will cost the airline a lot less to put you on an earlier flight than staying with your current reservation. It requires a bit of on-the-spot research combined with a high-degree of diplomacy. You have a lot more options if you don’t check luggage.

First scenario: your missed connection.

Let’s say you’re in Sioux Falls with a ticket to Atlanta via Chicago O’Hare; your flight departs at noon and has a one hour connection in Chicago, arriving in Atlanta around 5:00 PM.

When you get to your gate at the Sioux Falls airport around 10:45 AM, you see that the early morning flight (on the same airline) was delayed, is still at the gate and departs in 15 minutes. Getting on this earlier flight would allow you to connect in Chicago and grab an earlier flight to Atlanta.

There are two things to do immediately: check the status of the aircraft that’s in route to Sioux Falls that will become your scheduled (noon) flight to Chicago. Don’t trust the airline’s monitors, check via FlightAware’s mobile app, it can track multiple legs of an inbound aircraft on many (but not all) airlines.

If your inbound flight is running late and there is a reasonable possibility of missing your ticketed connection from Chicago to Atlanta, it’s definitely in the airline’s interest to put you on the earlier flights (provided that a seat is available) especially if your scheduled flight from Chicago to Atlanta is the last flight of the day and/or oversold.

The same argument can be made even if you’re not making a connection but your incoming aircraft is running late. With justification, gate agents have the ability to waive fees. Your job now is to make them aware of your impending connection problem and how the airline can avoid it.

Did you miss: 20 different biz class seats in one room- PHOTOS ?

Second scenario: other passenger’s missed connection.

You’re in San Francisco with a ticket on the last flight of the day to Seattle. However, there is an earlier flight and you’re at SFO in plenty of time to take it.

First thing to do is to see if there are available seats. You can ask an agent or log onto the airline’s mobile site and see if it’s possible to buy a one-way ticket (don’t abandon your effort even if shows full). It will also be very helpful to know if your ticketed flight is full or even oversold.

There are likely numerous other passengers en-route to San Francisco who are connecting to Seattle. Some of those inbound flights could be late or cancelled; gate agents can view the passengers whose inbound flights may not arrive in time. They’re called “miss-connects” and you want one of their seats! Approach the gate agent and ask about miss-connects and inform the agent that you’re on the later flight (it will be very helpful if your ticketed flight is full or oversold).

Putting you on the earlier flight allows the airline to accommodate the “miss-connects” onto your later flight without hassle or cost to anyone.

Gate agents: handle with care.

(Photo: dykstranet / Flickr)

(Photo: dykstranet / Flickr)

Gate agents are the most powerful people you will ever encounter when dealing with an airline.

They rarely hear good news; be especially nice to them. I find that asking for their help or advice with a bit of empathy or humor goes a long way toward success: “It looks like my noon flight is running late and my connection is in doubt, do you think it would be possible for me to take this earlier flight to Chicago and then the earlier one to New Orleans?”   or “Does it appear there’ll be any miss-connects for this earlier flight, I’d be very happy to open a seat for you on the later flight.”

Sometimes also mentioning that the earlier flight allows you to get home and see your family helps as well, empathy goes a long way. Gate agents have families too.

How often are you able to get gate agents to bend the rules and allow you to change flights without a fee? Please leave your comments below. 

–Bob Cowen

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  • Ryan

    Thanks for the inside perspective. What one has Mt. Dew?!?

  • 2ruse

    when i worked for a major airline 20 years ago, we did use the logic of ‘get the passenger out of here ASAP, then we’ll have 1 fewer pax to rebook if something happens later today’, and i was shocked that other airlines didn’t understand that it was to their benefit to accommodate pax as early as possible – somebody decided that they could wring some extra dollars somehow, and common sense went out the window – sad – but i agree that asking an agent (whether at the gate or at the ticket counter) nicely can go a long way

  • Reillypie

    You slay me – They didn’t serve Dr Pepper! Love it!
    I’m a flight attendant, do you have any idea how often people get ANNOYED because we don’t serve Mr Pibb and Mountain Dew? Not sure which airlines they normally fly,, but I have an idea!

  • Xander Pantalones

    The best strategy is the last point: be nice. Gate agents are dealing with self-absorbed demanding jerks all day. A simple “Hi, I’m hoping you can help me…” is a good way to start. Sometimes it works.

  • bloom

    I have had good success when the airline (usually on Delta) changes flight times from the original booking. Especially true if you booked months in advance since it seems airlines always “tweek” their schedule a little. You can call customer service and explain that the schedule changed and they may move you to a different flight. I have had good success with this on Delta and Alaska.

  • David

    Love the last photo :).

  • Justdontfly

    Isn’t sad that these types are the same type as dealing with a government agency instead of a company that sells a service to customers. Do airlines even know the definition of a customer anymore?

  • http://www.yourfittrip.com Lindsay D @yourfittrip

    I find United (whether gate agents or the their policy being stricter) never puts me on an earlier flight. Delta is usually totally game for it. I’m keeping a count and that has been the case every single time.

  • movedtoomuch

    Sometimes there are no more seats. Even if you paid, and all the seats are taken – the only way it can be fixed is to KICK SOMEBODY OUT OF THEIR SEAT. Simple physics. Or math I guess.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Squeaky! You are a super spouse! And I agree, he shoulda been in front. — Chris

  • Squeekyclean1

    This just happened to us this past weekend. I had booked my husband on a FC ticket from PBI to PVD on Delta. It was supposed to leave at 12:36 and arrive in Atl at 2:55. He received a phone call saying his flight was delayed two hours out of PBI. I called the Delta medallion line and spoke with an agent. I asked if they could get him on the 11:09 flight. He said yes. I asked if he would still be in FC as I paid for a FC ticket. He said yes. When I looked at his boarding ticket, it showed he was going to make his connection in Atlanta but when they made the change, he was re assigned a seat (in the back) in coach. I was so upset! I paid for a FC seat for him and they could not accommodate the ATL to PVD segment because FC was now full. This just seemed incredibly unfair to me. Even though they offered vouchers, I was not satisfied. I paid for a first class ticket and by golly he should’ve flown first class. He did not.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Hey thanks, LVGA! We love hearing from insiders like you… really helps round out the post! Remember everyone, being nice is always a good strategy! Now, which airline serves Dr Pepper? — Chris

  • LasVegas Gate Agent

    More times than you know a flight may be in a “possible” oversold situation. Its not critical, and the pre determined “no show calculations” are usually correct and we have enough seats for all confirmed passengers. Not to be confused with flights that are in a critical oversale and qualify volunteers for DBC denied boarding compensation. Those flights are audited and specific regulations must be followed. Gate Agents tasks for each flight are many and more. If you want to change flights (direct or connection) to a flight that has more availability than the one you are currently booked on we often will make that change with no fee. It gives us a seat or two to play with if needed. Best to asked more than 30 minutes before departure. I enjoy my job and and appreciate passengers that have a kind word and a good sense of humor. Don’t use the approach that its the least we could do since we,delayed your last flight,TSA lines were long,wifi was down, didn’t serve Dr Pepper, temperature hot/cold, hated the movie, ,and the inflight magazine was used. Know what your asking me, (as mentioned in the article) “It appears this flight may be very full, Would it be possible to take flight XYZ connecting to XYZ. If you have already checked a bag flight changes may not be possible depending on the airline.

  • lamkinpr

    I found success trying to get out of Florida before a potential hurricane on an earlier flight with no change fee. I arrived at EWR in time for an earlier connection to Shannon, but it turned out to be exactly full and I had to wait for my scheduled flight. But I still beat the storm. Another time, I very nicely requested an earlier flight home from LaGuardia and was willing to pay the change fee, but the agent refused my credit card. She said it was her present to me. It pays to be nice.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Good point, Edward! Thanks! — chris

  • Edward_YYJ

    Winter travel can make a big difference. If the airline can get you off their To-Do list before a winter storm hits at either your departure, connection or destination airport the agent is more likely to approve your request without a change fee.

  • tubulus

    I found it sort of shocking when I realized this was no longer free. When I was a kid I remember we ALWAYS took the earlier flight home, because we were the types who always showed up to the airport 3 hours early.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Good to know, Gary! Thanks for the comment. — chris

  • garydpdx

    I have had success as a walk-on with AA and UA (regardless of status) as an earlier/delayed flight is boarding, i.e., don’t ditch your later ticketed flight until things are a GO. On the other hand with AC, the conversation starts at $75 … :(