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Both an art form and a gamble, flying standby requires patience, flexibility and the willingness to smile in the face of adversity. Like any gamble, volunteering to travel standby —essentially serving as seat-filler for unsold or unclaimed airline seats—could yield rewards like complimentary upgrades to first class or the crushing disappointment of being stuck at an airport for hours on end. Still, according to TPG Contributor Liana Lozada, the gamble is worthwhile, as there’s money to be saved—sometimes a lot of money.
Travelers can choose to fly standby in a couple of ways:
Standby listing. If you’re a ticketed passenger and want to board a different but same-day flight, you can choose to be listed as a standby passenger for your new desired departure. This listing must be done either in person by an airport ticket agent or over the phone by an airline reservations rep, and requires paying a minimal standby fee ($50 on average). If you’re chosen for a standby seat, though, you’ll bypass hefty flight-change or cancellation fees, and can usually still claim the miles from your original ticket if your flight route remains intact.
Buddy passes. Airline employees and retirees also fly standby, but follow a different listing and boarding procedure. Airline employees and retirees are able to distribute and issue “buddy passes” to friends and family to help ease their out-of-pocket expenses; these discounted standby vouchers, which are distributed annually to airline workers, can be anywhere from 30-60% off a retail ticket purchased online and normally include checking two standard-sized checked bags. Most airlines give the recipient a year to use their issued buddy pass.
At the gate, standby passengers are highlighted on the departure’s boarding screen, and are called to board by the ticket agent; those who paid for a standby slot board first, followed by highest-to-lowest company seniority employees and buddy pass holders. On an empty flight, buddy pass travelers occasionally get upgraded to first or business class without having to pay extra.
So what’s the catch to flying standby? Well, there are a few.
Standby and buddy pass travelers are at the bottom of the airline’s priority list. Outside of not making it onto any of their desired flights tried for (the industry calls those who do not get on the flight they listed for “bumped” passengers) and potentially overnighting in an unknown city, one also runs the risk of parting with their checked-in bag.
These flyers agree not to be compensated or accommodated for canceled or missed flights, or for overall inconveniences. It’s also the flyer’s responsibility to get listed on the flights they want, even after being bumped. Basically, whatever happens, happens—you just have to suck it up and smile.
Buddy passers are also viewed as company representatives, so entitlements and revenue perks are excluded, and polite, low key behavior is expected. To boot, miles covered on buddy passes cannot be claimed for business expenses. Buddy passes are meant for leisure travel only, so using them for business purposes could lead to the airline employee losing their travel benefits.
Clearly, standby and buddy passing is not for everyone, but it can be a godsend for solo, budget, or flexible travelers. The prices for both these non-revenue avenues do not fluctuate; the standby fee is set, and buddy pass prices are determined by the distance from departure city to arrival city, for both domestic and international flights.
For buddy passers, having an airline employee issue a pass the night before a desired flight will cost the same as issuing two months in advance. Swaying-with-the-wind types with airline-employee pals, take note.
How to Win at the Standby Game
Improving your odds with this unpredictable travel choice all starts with research. Take time to research the best days and airports to fly to and from a few weeks before; the airline employee/retiree who provided the pass could prove helpful here, since they can view flight availabilities on their employee website. Though airline agents have access to this information, they are less likely to give it freely, or take the time to strategize flight routes.
As expected, long weekends, holidays, and major national or city-wide events will elevate airport traffic, so avoiding these scenarios will up your chances of getting onto a flight. If holiday travel is a must, though, flying on the actual holiday is the easiest option.
For those traveling abroad, note that international travelers are less likely to be “no-shows”—a nickname for those who got stuck in traffic or sleep through their morning alarm—but overseas flights are also less likely to sell out, especially during low season. International standby travel is a toss-up, but as I mentioned earlier, the reward could be great: Business class on a flight from France is worth a little flexibility, at least in my book.
Mobility is a standby traveler’s ally, so pack light, but be prepared to check a bag at the gate in order to meet weight and cargo restrictions, even if it’s a carry-on bag. Gate agents are less likely to ask revenue passengers to check their bags, and will wait for the last of the standby bunch to meet the flight standards.
Once settled on a flying date, arrive at the airport as early as possible. Listing on the day’s earliest flight increases the chances of getting on a preferred flight. Early flights are also more likely to have no-shows. Flying standby will give you a newfound appreciation for these people—just try not to be one of them.
Once at the gate, never leave before the plane taxis out, even if it looks like there is no chance of getting on. Final seat miscounts sometimes lead to last-minute openings, with gate agents flying back outside to rapidly fill them in. This has happened to me on more than one occasion, and I was able to scurry to a seat with my lightly-packed carry-on.
Have a great standby success story—or any tips of your own—to share?
Know before you go.
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