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.

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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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