The Pros and Cons of Flying Standby

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If you’re a frequent traveler, chances are you may have heard about the possibility of flying standby. If you’re not a frequent traveler, you may be wondering: what is flying standby, and why would I want to do it?

What is Flying Standby?

Put simply, when flying standby, you don’t have a guaranteed seat. If there are empty or unsold seats on the airplane when it is ready to leave, your standby ticket entitles you to one of those seats.

If there are no unsold seats, or more people trying to fly standby than there are open seats — you could be in trouble.

Flying standby is reserved for airline employees, friends and family of employees flying on ‘buddy passes,’ and passengers bumped from previous canceled flights. Occasionally, if a flight is overbooked, airlines will offer financial incentives for passengers to fly standby on a later flight.

So How Can I Fly Standby?

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Generally, knowing an airline employee is the simplest way to get standby tickets. Flight attendant, baggage handler, pilot… lots of people work hard every day to get you where you want to go!

Make some friends!!

Why Should I fly standby?

Standby tickets are often — although not always — significantly cheaper than regular flights. For instance, a roundtrip flight I recently made from Denver to Panama City was in excess of $700 on all of my favorite booking sites. Flying standby, I was able to do that route for around $400.

But, when I went to Colombia, flying standby on United cost about the same as flying roundtrip on VivaColombia and Frontier, two budget airlines. I opted to fly the route with the guaranteed tickets.

So, that’s flying standby in a nutshell. It’s a good tool to have in your travel arsenal, but it isn’t a golden bullet. Now, let’s talk about the pros and cons of flying standby

The Advantages of Flying Standby

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It offers amazing flexibility.

You don’t need to book a standby ticket in advance. In fact, you can’t — because your ability to fly depends on how full the flights are, which can be impossible to gauge far in advance. So basically, you can just keep an eye on flight availability (your buddy can help with this), and when there’s a good day, head to the airport and go.

Also, if there are seats, you can go anywhere the airline flies. Walk into the airport, look at the board, pick a place, and go. That’s a pretty freeing feeling.

Flying Standby is cheap (usually)

Since standby tickets are reserved for airlines employees, friends, and family, they can usually be had at a good discount. Some airlines allow families to fly for free, while others tie standby tickets to seniority or other systems. If you have a friend or family member who works for an airline, direct your specific logistical questions to them. Every airline has different rules for standby travel.

You might get First-Class/Business Class Seats

Especially on long-haul international flights, this can be a true travel-hack way to dramatically improve the quality of your flight without paying too much for the privilege.

However, everyone flying standby wants those seats. Standby seats are usually awarded according to an internal ranking system. GENERALLY, those primo seats will go to employees who have been with the airline for decades.

If you don’t fly, you don’t pay

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Although not being able to catch a flight is a possibility with this travel hack, if you choose to fly standby, you don’t have to pay anything unless you actually get on the plane. So if you can’t get on the flight to your weekend getaway, at least you’ve lost nothing except some time waiting at the airport.

The Problems With Flying Standby

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You might not be able to fly on the day you want

Flying standby is a poor choice if you absolutely have to be somewhere on a set date. You wouldn’t want to fly standby to a wedding, for example, because if the flights happened to be full for a few days, you would miss your wedding — and your friends surely wouldn’t be happy.

On several occasions, I’ve lost days waiting for seats to open up on flights before I could find my way to my destination. This means you had better be comfortable waiting around for hours — or even overnight — in airports.

You won’t have an onward ticket for international travel

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I had mixed results with this. I flew to Panama on a one-way ticket. When I first went to check in at the counter in Denver, an employee turned me away because I did not have proof of onward travel — a customs requirement for many countries, including Panama. However, the next employee I dealt with let me through with zero issue.

(Panamanian immigration, of course, never asked.)

Those of you familiar with extended international travel and one-way tickets probably already know this problem. It’s an outdated rule, but unfortunately still something we have to deal with. Flying standby is no exception to this.

You need to rely on another person

I’m a very independent traveler — I almost always make all my arrangements, plans, and buy my own tickets on my schedule. But when I flew standby, I had to rely on my buddy to make my bookings, check flight availability, and give me advice on how the system worked.

He came through — he got me there and back; but it was definitely a different experience than I’m used to.

(If you are an employee or a family member, you will have your own login to the standby booking system, so this point is moot. It definitely does apply if you’re flying on buddy passes, however).

Checking luggage is a pain

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I always travel carry-on, so this isn’t a problem. But traveling standby on buddy passes usually entitles you to free checked bags if you so desire. But if your bags end up on the plane and you don’t, your luggage will end up stuck at your destination airport.

A special pain if you’re traveling internationally.

I would strongly recommend traveling carry-on only if you are flying standby.

Standby passengers are sorted according to employee seniority and loyalty status.

I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. Flying standby is an employee perk, and airlines like to reward their most loyal employees. So people who have been with the company longer will automatically jump to the front of the standby list.

In my situation, for example, my buddy was a relatively new employee, and I have no frequent flier status with United. So every flight I took, I was at the very bottom of the standby list.

Booking Accommodation at Your Destination Can Be Difficult

You don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel, only to miss the first three nights you paid for because flight loads changed the day before.

As mentioned above, the fatal flaw with flying standby is you can’t GUARANTEE you’ll reach your destination when you want. So you need to have some flexibility — and if you can protect yourself financially, all the better.

So is flying Standby worth it?

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In short: it’s all about your flexibility.

I would say flying standby is worth it in certain circumstances — BUT NOT ALWAYS.

Make sure to consider your needs. If you can’t deal with losing a few days, or if uncertainty makes you anxious… flying standby probably isn’t for you. If you’re a seat-of-your-pants type; a budget traveler trying to save every buck and willing to sleep in an airport — sure, go for it. Just know that there’s no guarantee everything will go smoothly.

If you’re able to operate within that uncertainty, flying standby is a great option.

Have any tips or experiences with flying standby? Some major benefit or drawback that you think Imissed? Share ’em in the comments!

Always adventurous. Occasionally political. I write creative stories about life, love, climbing and travel.

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