It's happened to all of us: emergencies happen, or you're having such a great time, you don't want to leave some beautiful locale. Or you suddenly find you can get away just a little earlier. But change fees for airlines can be hefty - generally in the $150-$200 range when you don't buy insurance or refundable tickets. So how can you change your flight on the cheap?
1) I want to depart earlier...what are my choices?
Check to see if your airline allows travelers to fly standby (for free) on the flight previous to their ticketed destination. Many do. Some airlines (like Virgin America) even allow you to change to any flight departing the same day to your destination as a "confirmed standby" for a small fee ($25-$50, for example, depending on distance), as long as there are seats available in the same class on the new flight. Check out Virgin America's guidelines here. These changes can generally only be done at the airport (and not online or on the phone), and of course, you need to arrive at the airport in time for the earlier flight.
2) I want to leave later, but don't want to pay anything. How?
It's a riskier move, but you could "accidentally" miss your flight. The rules vary by airline, but many will just put you on standby on a later flight if you miss your original - as long as you are at the airport within a certain amount of time after the originally scheduled flight. (Sticking with Virgin America, for example - they required folks who have missed flights to report to the airport within two hours of the scheduled flight to be rebooked for no fee as standby on a future flight.) If you want extra time before flying home, a trip to the airport on your original fly date is likely still required, but you can probably get a standby ticket at no charge - even for the next day if your flight is the last of the day. This travel examiner recently scored an extra night and rebooking (standby) at no charge because of missing the last flight of the day. Patience, of course, is necessary when flying standby, but just might be the perfect solution if your travel plans are flexible and your funds are low.
Another option is to volunteer to be bumped from your flight. Generally, this only happens at the airport after check-in, but volunteering to be bumped to a later flight will score you a refund or travel funds and perhaps even a hotel voucher. Ask at the gate if the flight is oversold; calling ahead of the flight to see if they are oversold and need volunteers is also an option.
The bottom line
Don't pay hefty change fees unless you need to! Always check the airline's FAQ section or call their customer service directly before shelling out money for changes.