Travel, especially near the holidays, can prove to be a trying event for the weary traveler. Budget travel, however, can take even more of a toll as departures, bookings, traffic, and sometimes even products advertised veer dramatically from the initial presentation. One minute you are sure you are getting on a flight to see your family on a buddy pass, the next minute you realize you’ve been in the airport for eight hours and missed five flights based on low “priority”. And then you start getting frustrated with the idea that you could have actually slept a little while longer, that you have disappointed those awaiting your arrival, and that this was a waste of money despite it being fairly inexpensive. You beg the universe for the eight hours of your life back because the last flight of the day pulled away from the gate, and you’re still on the wrong side of the doors.
The buddy pass, once revered as a perk airline employees passed on to their family and friends, is now oft touted as a vile and wasteful day at the airport. Mostly this hasn’t as much to do with the buddy pass benefit itself so much as that load counts for each flight exponentially has grown so that remaining unsold or unclaimed seats are few and far between. Since the entirety of the buddy pass system relies on empty seats, the system is becoming less and less beneficial for everyone. Though on one hand you might end up taking the last seat in First Class, you may also find yourself trapped in the airport without a flight for days at a time.
Living a travel life in standby can be frustrating, disappointing, boring. Yet if one is flexible, patient, and resilient, one can travel for very little cost at all. Since the buddy pass is generally just covering taxes, a $650 flight, for example, might now only cost you $200. However, it is not a guaranteed seat, and the view you may have for most if not all of the day is similar to this, of course with varying degrees of frantic bodies trying to push themselves impatiently on the next flight:
Last Tuesday, I attempted my first buddy pass stand-by flights to visit my father and family in Alabama for pre-holiday festivities. While I had been forewarned by the pilot I purchased from, and who more than patiently checked on flight loads for the two days I could travel, everything swerved left when I needed a right. I followed the basic rules (found below) but my luck was in the wrong stars that day.
Rule 1: Take the earliest flight possible.
Arriving at 7:00 a.m. for the first flight of the day is difficult, yes, but it is generally the best opportunity to fly out. No one else wants to get up that early, so there is greater possibility of open seats. When checking the flight loads, the 8:30 a.m. flight for my destination had the greatest number of open seats for the entire day. That meant there was a higher chance that the airline would be able to accommodate. The night before, 26 open seats and only 20 stand-by passengers meant if nothing changed, I was assuredly on-board and on my way!
But then, of course, everything changed. A large religious group opted for last minute booking, thus taking up a majority of the open seats. I stared patiently at the “stand-by” list on the monitor, noticing that I was ranked at #17, and that there were only 6 open seats. While this didn’t seem to fare well for my future seat-grabbing, I stayed patient, hoping the numbers would sway my way. And, surprisingly, they did! Somehow open seats magically appeared, either because so many missed their connections, failed to check in on time, or changed their flight for the day, but a slew of open seats suddenly stormed the monitor. Unfortunately, the slew was only 16, cutting me and the two behind me off.
Lesson from Rule 1: While the first flight is the BEST flight to take, you are not the only one with this same idea.
Rule 2: Keep calm and carry on…your luggage.
The best way to see it is this: you are a representative of the employee you purchased the buddy pass from. Therefore, to stay in his or her good graces (relative or not) remember to be respectful and patient with the employees at the desk and at the gate. Pouting or “pulling strings” or begging or yelling will not get you any higher in priority. Many airlines are efficient and organized with their standby passengers, but their priority is not you who is flying for next to nothing and most likely at the last minute. Their focus is the paying customers who all booked well in advance. Buddy passes are, however, a privalege, and certainly not a right, so act accordingly.
Along with face to face behavior is also what you intend to bring with you. It is most recommended to carry your luggage on-board. Yes, it means packing smaller and more conservatively, but it does guarantee that your underwear will be with you if you don’t happen to make it onto any flights. While at the airport the other day, I happened upon a younger gentleman who was stuck in the same position as I was, in stand-by mode. He, we will call him Sam, assumed he would be getting on the 9:50 flight, so checked his luggage. When Same didn’t board that flight, and learned I was in a similar predicament, he complained to me about the locale of his luggage. Hopefully he has since been reunited with his underthings, but since he didn’t make any of the flights that day, he was already plotting to wash the undies he was wearing in the bathroom sink. *Note: don’t do this unless it is in your hotel room.
Also consider that just because you “know someone” who works for the airlines, you certainly shouldn’t assume you can bring any manner of things on-board. Even if you were a pilot, the wife of a pilot, or the owner of the company, you still must adhere to TSA luggage rules when on a public flight. This is a good time to mention that often over-crowded flights will lose overhead bin space quickly. Since stand-by is the last to board, it is possible you will have to check your bag, so be prepared to let go. As long as you are on the same flight as your extra clothes, checking is an easier way to travel.
Lesson from rule 2: Packing only the necessities to carry with you will keep you from underwear despair.
Rule 3: Be prepared to stay awhile.
This is part of the journey! Know that while the best scenario is walking onto the flight of your choice, plan for the likelihood that you will be there a while. Get some exercise by investigating the new wing of the airport. Bring that book you keep meaning to read, to that at least lets you look good if you pretend to read it. Get ahead of all your birthday cards by addressing them all now, if not writing long letters to people who have only ever received an email. Download games and movies to your device of choice to entertain yourself.
Depending on the airport, you might find yourself impressed with what there is for entertainment. Some have bars with live music (often a pianist), televisions with an interesting sports event or TV other than the news, even a museum. For example, the Las Vegas airport, aka McCarran Airport, offers a free flight museum. It is no where near the size of the Louvre, but it’s a great way to remember that what we are doing, flying, is pretty miraculous in itself. But even smaller airports, like Salt Lake City International, offers amenities that can be beneficial if you have time between possible flights. InMotion Pictures rents DVDs and DVD players, and there are several massage businesses as well. If you find you might be in the airport a while, pop on to the airport website and search for the facilities and services that are provided.
While many airports have an impressive selections of dining options, few options are particularly healthy or cheap so I would suggest bringing your own. My favorite travel foods are apples, mini-hummus and vegetables to go, hard boiled eggs, and even fruit leathers. Choose foods that are less processed and high in fiber and protein. Always bring an empty water bottle to fill and drink throughout the day. However, sometimes you have to just try to local food- if you are trapped in the San Francisco Airport, maybe get a bowl of clam chowder!
Lesson from rule 3: Preparing for waiting as part of the adventure will take the sting out of the wait.
Rule 4: Hohoholiday travel is hohohorrible.
Just like choosing the right time of day, the right time of year is equally important. Consider holidays or other public intrusions at your destination. I almost missed my flight out of Las Vegas to get back home once because a president’s plane was preparing for take off. Though I arrived the suggested 30 minutes ahead of time, it still wasn’t enough time and I literally sprinted through the airport to my gate and barely walked on. Knowing of major political, sport, or holiday activity at either airport you intend to go to may save you a great deal of grief if you plan for it.
That said, flying stand-by anywhere near a major holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas, even if it is weeks away from your intended departure date, can prevent you finding a flight. When last I attempted to travel stand-by, it was a week after Thanksgiving- bad move on my part. Though you might anticipate that most or all travelers would have flocked home that Sunday, too many opted to stay a little longer with family and to catch that later flight home. What did that mean for me? Impacted, full, or even overbooked flights and no chance of getting out at any point that week based on my priority.
Remember Sam? He didn’t realize he wasn’t just going to walk onto a flight that day, and was shocked by the number of people on loading into each plane. “Don’t people work?” he kept asking. Well, yes, I’m sure they do, but it is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. He almost wept when we checked the flight loads for that day and the rest of the week. “There are seats on Saturday, but no guarantee that won’t change by then,” I told him. He was dismayed- he needed to get home so he could work. For me, I simply returned to my apartment that night.
Lesson from rule 4: Though you need to stay flexible, plan around holidays and other events that will impact flight loads, especially when you are trying to fly home for work.
Rule 5: Have a plan B.
Making the phone call to my dad that the trip to see family wasn’t going to happen was a hard one. Initially, that first flight of the day looked so promising, I hadn’t made a plan b. This is a rookie mistake! Before you get family or friends amped for your visit, and before you make non-refundable hotel reservations, consider as many back-up plans as possible. If you are planning your dream vacation and must have an exact itinerary, save up your money and don’t fly stand-by. However, a quick visit to see family for a non-holiday or non-major event (i.e. stand-by and being the maid of honor at a wedding may not be a good mix) or just a jaunt to a favorite city is a great use of a buddy pass.
But even so, have a backup. Sam’s unplanned backup became flying into a different airport and taking a bus in to his home town. This certainly wasn’t his initial plan, and he wasn’t thrilled about it, but it was the only reasonable way to get himself home by the time he needed to be at work. Also prepare the people you are coming to visit. Let them know it is dicey, and that they need to be flexible too. If they can’t wait around to maybe pick you up at the airport at any number of arrival times over the next three days, consider what ground transportation you can take, or if there is a nearby museum you can visit while you wait for a pickup.
Cheap hotel sites often will allow you to make reservations that you do not need to pay for in advance and can cancel up to a certain date. Double-check that date: they are often different depending on popularity of the hotel. Some will allow you to cancel on the same day- these are the best to hold on to. If you are feeling lucky, download the “Hotel Tonight” app to do a search for hotels once you land. And most importantly, prepare yourself emotionally. It is possible you will be the one most disappointed by your lack of a flight. Don’t give up- rebook your buddy pass if you don’t get on for a better time and date and try again! It will be worth it to make it to whatever destination you are dreaming of!
Lesson from rule 5: Backup your backup plan with another plan B. He who is prepared prevails!