Understanding Buddy Pass Standby Travel

Travel Tips
The waiting game to see if you get on a flight can be nerve-racking!
The waiting game to see if you get on a flight can be nerve-racking!
Using airline employee benefit passes is risky but can be a great way to save money and gain flexibility with your travel. It's important to know the details before you commit.
What is a Buddy Pass?  |   What Does Standby Mean  |   How Much Does it Cost?  |   Pros  |   Cons  |   How to Use It  |   Didn't Get on the Flight?  |   Standby List Priority  |   Checking Flight Availability  |   Rules & Regs  |   Tips  |   Real-Life Stories

You may have heard of this thing where people can fly standby at a discounted rate. You may also know someone in the travel industry who has access to such benefits. If you'd like to take advantage of such a thing, you should know what you're getting into before you ask to use a pass.

Over the years, this type of travel has become more and more difficult and many airline employees are hesitant to give these tickets out at all for fear that their friends/family will be pissed off at them for a crappy ticket.

But if you understand the possible benefits and pitfalls, you can make an informed decision. As long as your benefactor knows you are "in-the-know" and are willing to take on the risk of anything from being stuck in an airport to getting international first class(!), you can score some great discounts and flexibility on your travel.

Here are the ins and outs of flying standby on an airline buddy pass. I have a lot of personal experience with both Southwest Airlines and Delta Airlines. For other airlines, be sure to ask your pass holder about their specific process, rules, fees, etc.

What is a Buddy Pass?

Typically an airline employee will receive a certain number of discounted tickets (known as buddy passes, friends & family passes, or non-rev travel) per month or year to give out to whomever they want.

The employee has an interface into the airline system to manage these tickets, assign them to someone, and book the flights. This is not a secured ticket. It is for standby travel.

What Does Standby Mean

In short, it means if there is an empty seat on the plane, you get it. If the flight is full, you do not get on (insert sad moment here) and you have to try for the next flight.

With so many changes in the airline industry over the years, there are fewer flights, and planes are leaving more and more packed full. Standby used to be easy. Even if a flight was marked as over-sold, you would likely get a seat. Now it's quite the opposite and it's getting harder and harder to get on a flight.

How Much Does it Cost?

Depending on the airline, the tickets will cost you anywhere from $0 (yes, an actual FREE ticket!) to a somewhat discounted fare.

Southwest Airlines tickets are free for travel within the 50 states and $40 (in taxes) for international travel. Delta Airlines tickets are a discount of the regular fare. Sometimes you can find a "real" ticket online for the same price or less so you have to decide if you want a sure thing or want to take the risk to get some of the "pros" listed below.
Getting up at the crack of dawn to start trying to get out on the first flight of the day.
Getting up at the crack of dawn to start trying to get out on the first flight of the day.

CONS

Let's start with the cons. I'm always a "bad news first" kinda gal.
  1. You are limited to airports where your airline flies.
    Not only that, but you are not allowed to fly code-shares (partner airlines). So even though you can buy a ticket online with Delta to fly to Bangkok, it is with a partner airline so you cannot use a buddy pass to go to Bangkok.
  2. You might not get on the flight. You might not get on multiple flights.
    Sometimes it goes seamlessly, but sometimes it can literally take you days to get to where you're going.
    • Things that do not work in your favor: airlines strikes, cancelled flights, holidays, having only one flight a day or even week to your destination.
    • If flights are full, you are likely to spend a heck of a lot of time in the airport waiting for an opening.
      The hours add up fast trying one flight, then another, then another. Then pile on top of that a possible overnight in the airport.
    • If there is only one flight a day, you still have to check out of your hotel and go to the airport.
      If the one flight is at night, you have to spend all day with no hotel, then if you miss the flight, it might not be worth it to get a hotel at midnight just to have to check out again in the morning. Likewise if there's one flight per week; you might really get an extended holiday!
  3. Not knowing your schedule, it's hard to pre-book accommodation.
    If you want to pre-book your first night's accommodation, you'll be risking having to eat that cost if you don't get on a flight.
  4. There might be a dress code.
    This isn't really a con unless you are married to flying in your PJs.
  5. You will probably end up in a middle seat.
    This doesn't always happen but usually if you are taking one of the last remaining seat, it's not going to be in a desirable spot.
  6. You can't request special meals.
    Since you don't know if you'll be getting on the flight, no special requests can be made.
  7. Sometimes the price is as much as a "real" ticket and if you don't get on a flight, you wonder why you did this at all.
Yep, this is me. One of the many times I have had to spend the night in an airport. (This area was deserted, I'm not taking a handicapped spot from someone)
Yep, this is me. One of the many times I have had to spend the night in an airport. (This area was deserted, I'm not taking a handicapped spot from someone)

PROS

Of course this is WHY we do this at all.
  1. The price can be cheaper than anything else you'll find.
    Again, each airline uses a different fee structure so it really depends on the airline, timing, and destination.
  2. The price is not any different if you book last minute.
    The buddy pass price will almost assuredly be cheaper than the last-minute gouge on a regular ticket.
  3. You have total flexibility in departure and return dates and they can be changed at any time without a penalty.
    This leaves you open to decide to stay on holiday longer!
  4. There are no baggage fees!
    This has become a big money saver since baggage fees keep getting higher. You can usually check up to 2 bags for free.
  5. You can fly in and out of different airports.
    A round trip is really just 2 one-way tickets combined so you can fly from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, travel around, then fly home from Paris.
  6. The location change fee is minimal ($20 on Delta).
    Travel plans change en route? No problem. Choose a different airport to fly home from.
  7. Now here's the best thing. If first class is available, you get it! At no extra charge!!
    There's nothing like flying international first class and it's certainly nothing most people would be able to afford otherwise.
We're even steven at Pros = 7, Cons = 7. If it seems like there's a good possibility you might get Pro #7, then it counts for 2 points.
International first class is an entirely different flying experience.
International first class is an entirely different flying experience.

How to Use It

As I said earlier, your benefactor will book the flight for you. This is called "listing" you on a flight. You are on the list of people who want to get on that flight.

You will get a receipt and confirmation number just like you would any other booked flight. Depending on the airline, you can check in online like normal. Most of the time if I try to check in at a kiosk at the airport, it will tell me I have to go to the counter. I actually prefer this since I can ask the agent how full the flight looks.

You will not get a boarding pass per se. You get a seat request. It looks pretty much like a boarding pass and it gets you through security.

You can check your bag. It varies by airline but normally if you do not get on the flight, your bag will not be put on the plane. This can get a bit hairy though if you are bumped from multiple flights. If you can, take carry-on only.

You go to the gate and (unless the flight is incredibly empty), you wait until almost everyone has boarded. Sometimes longer. The gate agent will call standby passenger names (in order of priority - see below) over the intercom. If you hear your name, you rejoice internally, receive your boarding pass, and let your breath out as you board the plane (to a middle seat no doubt).

More modern airports will have the standby and upgrade lists on a monitor at the gate and they won't call names over the intercom. If you see your name move over to the "cleared" list, then you're on the flight! You can use your seat request paper as your boarding pass.

It can be so stressful in those last minutes! If you don't get called, do not leave until the gate door is closed! I have been called at the last possible second.

Didn't Get on the Flight?

Take a second to deal with the crushing moment when you realize you didn't get the flight you were hoping for.

I have had the total anti-climactic drama of having headed off to the airport to go spend a month in India, and ending up back at home that same night just to try for another flight the next day.

You can get in touch with your friend who gave you the pass and have them switch you to a different flight, but the best route is to have the gate agent re-list you on a different flight as soon as you miss your first flight. Give them time to finish closing out the flight you just missed, then they'll help you.

Standby List Priority

Each flight has a standby list. A list of people waiting for seats. This list also includes passengers asking for an upgrade, active employees perhaps "dead-heading" (trying to get a ride home), and lately even passengers who bought discount tickets and don't have an assigned seat yet.

You are added to the standby list by the airline's method of priority. For all airlines, I'm sure you can guess that paying customers get first priority.

For Southwest, it's the order in which you get listed on the flight. First come first serve kind of a thing. This is very important. Once you choose a path, stick with it! If you don't get on that flight, your listing will be rolled over, you'll be re-listed on the next flight to that destination, and you won't lose your place in line. But if you decide that flight isn't looking good and don't want to wait to get bumped, you lose your place in line and get a new position based on the time you switch your listing to a different flight.

For Delta Airlines it's a combination of status and the employee's (benefactor's) hire date. First comes status. Active employees flying standby get first priority, then retirees, then people using buddy passes from active employees, and finally people using buddy passes from retirees. Then within each status, the hire date comes into play. If you have a buddy pass from an active employee who has worked there forever, you'll be in pretty good shape. That also means that those employees who walk up last minute casually thinking "hmmm, I'll just hop on this flight to get home" can really screw you out of getting on a flight which makes the difference in either making or not making your connecting international flight.

Checking Flight Availability

As a non-employee, it can be difficult to get the real number of empty seats on your own. You can ask your employee friend to check for you but you don't always want to bug them every hour on the day of your flight.

But definitely have them check it a few days before the flight to see how it looks.

The numbers do change up until the last minute! There might be plenty of seats available at noon, and by 2pm they are oversold with people moved from another flight, checked in late, etc.

Your best bet it to ask someone at the airport. When you check in, they can let you know how full the flight is. From then on, you have to try to find an airline agent that isn't very busy.

With Delta you can see how many seats are available by using the Delta mobile app, but it doesn't show you how many people are listed on standby and haven't checked in yet. Maybe that's just as well since all I do is fret over those people checking in at the last minute.

Rules & Regs

There are not many stipulations, but they are important and of course vary by airline. The main points are these:
  • There are sometimes blackout dates during the main holidays like Labor Day or the winter celebrations.
  • Buddy pass etiquette means not advertising the fact that you're flying on a discount pass. Other passengers don't want to think they got a raw deal because you are flying for free and they paid full price. Especially if you end up in first class!
  • The dress codes have been greatly relaxed over the years and there is thankfully no longer a need to bring special standby clothes (and shoes!) in your backpack. You pretty much just need to be neat and tidy. No PJs, bathing suits, gang gear, etc.
  • You need to be nice. If you get irate because of not getting on a flight, your employee friend is at risk of losing their privileges. Be flexible.
You might get a middle non-reclining seat, but just be happy you got a seat at all.
You might get a middle non-reclining seat, but just be happy you got a seat at all.

Tips

I have been flying on buddy passes for almost 20 years. Most of it you have zero control over, but there are a few things that can help you get to where you're going, or at least help you feel like you're doing what you can.

Check in at the Gate
I like to check in at the gate when I get there to ask if I'm properly listed. More than once I have seen someone (myself included) not get properly checked in. That's means it's like you're not even there and you won't get called for a seat.

Also, it really shouldn't make any difference since you are called based on priority, but I like the idea of them having a face to the name. Then I stick close by near the counter. If some strange thing happens and they just need to grab someone to put on the plane, I want them to see me and know that I'm trying for a seat.

Be Super Polite
Don't ask gate agents how full the plane is when they're super busy. Or if you do need/want to check your chances, just acknowledge that you know they're busy but would they mind ....

For the most part, the gate agents are awesome. But I will say that once in a while you will get one that treats you like a free-loader. Like you didn't pay anything for your ticket and how dare you think that you deserve any service or consideration. You have to suck it up and you cannot be anything but polite to these people.

Be Creative with Different Routes
Advocate for yourself. The gate agents really go out of their way a lot of times to look at re-routing you through other cities and all sorts of creative ways of getting you to your destination. But sometimes you just need to get online yourself and search for all sorts of one-way flights that go through various cities. It might not be a published point A to point B set of flights but that's okay with these passes. You are usually limited to 3 legs, but the agent can work some magic if needed.

Start as Early in the Day as Possible
If there are multiple flights a day, start trying on the first flight of the day even if it means you'll have a long layover before your next leg. You don't want to miss an available seat in case the rest of the flights for the day fill up!

For example, let's say you're flying from San Diego to Amsterdam and the standard published schedule has you leaving San Diego at 12:30pm to get to Atlanta for your connecting flight. The 12:30pm flight is the 5th of a total of 8 flights from San Diego to Atlanta that day. That means there are 5 flights that would get you to Atlanta in time for your connecting flight. Give yourself the best chance and try them all. Have your employee friend list you on the first flight out of San Diego in the morning to Atlanta.

Pack a Carry-On Bag Only
With all of the unknowns, you really need to keep your bag with you. I have even been asked to gate-check my bag before but as soon as I explain that I'm flying standby, they let me hang onto it.

Choose Your Dates Wisely
It should be pretty obvious, but don't fly around the holidays when everyone else if flying. That said, flying ON the actual day might be a great idea! Almost nobody flies on Thanksgiving Day itself.

Also flying mid-week and red-eye flights might increase your chances. 5 o'clock on a Friday might not be your best choice. Try to fly when other people aren't.

Don't Risk it For Time-Sensitive Travel
If you absolutely need to be somewhere at a certain day / time, either start trying for a flight 2 or 3 days before you actually need to be there, or buy a regular ticket. If you are flying to catch a cruise, don't risk it!

On Southwest, don't relist on the next flight until you have missed your flight and that flight is closed out or your priority position starts over.
Cheers! Pre-flight mimosa makes all the stress go away.
Cheers! Pre-flight mimosa makes all the stress go away.

Real-Life Stories

Oh the ups and downs of standby travel! I have many years of flight stories under my belt. You always hope for the best, but that doesn't always happen.
  • My friend and I were flying from LAX via JFK to Rome. The total cost was something like $550 each round trip. Pretty good! We checked the flight the night before and it looked like the flight was full and we wouldn't get on it. As it turns out, they switched to a larger plane so we not only got on, but we got first class in our own pod with fully horizontal bed, Tumi gift bag, and full sized pillow and comforter!! It was amazing.
  • On the flip side, there were 3 of us flying home from Peru once where there was only one flight a day at 9pm. We had to check out of the hotel in the morning, putt around until flight time, miss the flight, check back into the hotel for a few hours, and start it over again in the morning.
  • I was in Mumbai (Bombay), India during an airline strike. All passengers were getting re-routed to other airlines (including mine). I was 22nd on the list and to top it off, there was only one flight a day and it was late at night. The very nice woman in charge of the airport told me it was not safe for me to leave the airport alone at that hour so I just spent the night in the filthy no-facilities airport ... for 2 nights. I was hot and dirty and only had my travel snacks to eat. On the 3rd night they said it would be over a week until the all the standbys got out. But they did have one seat available for the first person on the standby list. I politely stepped in front and said "nope, here's my credit card." I bought the seat and was on my way. Money savings down the drain.
  • Getting home from Roatan, Honduras, there was only one flight a week. I was flying standby with my mom and her husband who both had higher priority than I did. They were called up and boarded the flight and I was super happy for them. It looked like I was staying in Honduras for another week. Passenger boarding had finished quite a while ago and it looked like they were wrapping things up. They called one more name, waited a few minutes, and called the passenger again. Nothing. They called my name and quickly looked around to see if I was coming. Yes - here I am!! They were rushing, saying they didn't have time to print my boarding pass. They scribbled down a seat number on a piece of paper and told me to run to the plane (out on the tarmac)! I looked at my paper on the way out there ... A1 ... front row, first class. Woohoo!! My mom and her husband were back in coach. Sorry.
  • Trying to get 8 of us to Thailand from the US, our chances were slim. 3 of our group got out of LAX and the rest of the upcoming flights were all full. We ended up driving up to San Francisco, missing the last flight of the night, and everyone having to sleep on the floor of the airport to try for the early morning flight. We were completely exhausted, but getting first class that next morning made it all worth it.
I have many many more stories of both being stuck, frustrated, and tired, and also those of being beside myself giddy with a mimosa in hand before takeoff. Weigh it all out, make your choice.
A first class pod UPSTAIRS! Trying to act cool but we had to get a few photos.
A first class pod UPSTAIRS! Trying to act cool but we had to get a few photos.
This is luxury flying! The seat goes fully horizontal for some real sleep.
This is luxury flying! The seat goes fully horizontal for some real sleep.

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