It Can Take All the Patience You've Got
There have always been ways for free-spirited souls to travel inexpensively, from hitchhiking to flying standby or living nomadically out of a small camper van. These options all share a few common characteristics: They require a sense of adventure, demand a tolerance of uncertainty and are infinitely more complicated when you have children. Flying standby is the one you're likeliest to attempt, and it's certainly manageable if you're patient enough—or desperate enough—to give it a shot. As always, some advance planning helps smooth the path.
Standby Isn't What It Used to Be
In the carefree days before 9/11, it was possible to show up at the airport and find a seat on an outbound plane with minimal fuss and expense. Increased security measures took much of the fun out of that approach, and the rest evaporated as airlines learned to book and overbook their flights through sophisticated passenger-flow algorithms. Standby still exists, but it's used differently now. Instead of showing up and hoping for a ticket on an under-sold flight, today you buy tickets and then hang out at the airport on the chance you'll be able to get onto an earlier flight. In other words, it's no longer an opportunity to save money, but to have a shot at getting somewhere earlier.
How It Works
There are a few different wrinkles to modern standby flying. Getting on an earlier flight is certainly a bonus when you're traveling with kids because it gets them where you're going that much sooner. If you're willing to pay the difference in fares or if you have loyalty points hoarded up for a rainy day, you might be able to upgrade. Otherwise, choose between confirmed or unconfirmed standby seats. A confirmed seat is exactly what it says: You pay a premium over the initial ticket price, and the airline guarantees you a seat on that earlier flight. If you don't want to pay extra, or if confirmed seats aren't available on an earlier flight, you'll have to take your chances. This sometimes means sitting in the airport as the earlier flights fill up and go without you, or it might even mean having to split up the party, sending some parents and kids on separate flights. Neither of those options is especially ideal.
Why Would I Even Try This With Kids?
If you think it sounds like a test of your patience, you're right. It's not a decision to take lightly, but there are any number of reasons to reluctantly opt to go standby. Getting bumped from your flight is an obvious one. The potential for a bad storm or other outside circumstance to interfere with your original flight is another good reason to roll the dice. Sometimes, a change in circumstances at your destination might demand an earlier flight: A rescheduled meeting, a friend or relative who can no longer drive you from the airport or any number of similar scenarios. When these situations crop up, rolling the dice on standby seats might be your best or only option.
Smoothing the Process
There are things you can do to make flying standby easier. Introduce yourself to the staff at the airline's counter as soon as you arrive and stay within sight and earshot the whole time. Openings crop up in a hurry and disappear just as quickly, so if you're not Johnny-on-the-spot, you'll miss out. It helps to be as flexible as possible. A willingness to pay for an upgrade or to fly to a nearby city instead of your destination airport, can make all the difference in the world. As always, pack lots of snacks and entertainment options for the kids. Cards and games that don't require batteries or recharging are especially good to have when the wait is a long one. If your kids are past the toddler stage, explain the process to them in advance so they know what to expect. Have a plan for locating each other if the only seats available are in different sections of the plane.
The Buddy Pass
If you really need to travel on a shoestring and you have friends or family who work for an airline, you may be tempted to use a so-called buddy pass for your flight. These allow you to travel almost for free, paying only the appropriate taxes and incidental fees, rather than the full fare. That sounds like a great budget stretcher—and it can be—but it puts you at the absolute bottom of the totem pole. Everyone who's paid for a ticket gets seated ahead of you, and open seats are already few and far between. In a worst-case scenario this can mean whole days spent at the airport, so it's something to be avoided except in the most dire of circumstances.