The Secret to (Super) Affordable Travel
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
The most common question I get when I post travel photos is: "How can you afford to do all that traveling?" Well, my secret is that I was (up until August 2020, thanks pandemic) an airline employee! And if you want to try to get the same access to cheaper flights, my advice is to make friends with an airline employee - I'm mostly kidding, but it's true.
Before I get into what it means to be a standby flyer - I am a former Delta Air Lines employee. I started working for the company in August 2017 at BNA (Nashville) as a ticket counter agent, then moved to SEA (Seattle) as a Delta Sky Club ambassador, and then moved to AUS (Austin) to open the new Sky Club there. One of the main reasons I started working at the company (besides loving flying Delta) is the access to travel benefits that would allow me to fly standby on Delta flights at no cost (and on all other airlines at a discounted standby rate).
Yes, that might seem glamorous, and it absolutely is when standby goes off without a hitch, but more often than not, it can get a bit complicated. This post will lay out the good and the bad of flying without a confirmed ticket. To explain it simply, when I fly standby, or what airlines call "non-revenue," I don't have a confirmed ticket - my boarding pass says "standby," and while it can get me through security and to the gate, it alone doesn't afford me a seat on the flight. I can check what we call the loads (meaning how many seats are open on a flight), list myself, and hope that the gate agent gives me an empty or unsold seat.
As an airline employee, my direct family also flies free, and I'm also given several "buddy passes" per year. I can assign a buddy pass for a friend, which is a standby ticket at a heavily discounted price (like a friend could pay $78 to fly standby to, say, Cleveland, when a one-way ticket is likely upwards of $250). Employees are also given a companion, which is typically reserved for a husband, wife, or domestic partner - and they also fly standby for free on Delta and at a discounted rate on other airlines. It's important to note that every airline varies in terms of their non-revenue, employee passenger benefits, and I'm only speaking in terms of what I experienced with Delta.
Common questions I get are: How do you get through security without a boarding pass? Well, we do get a boarding pass when we check in, but it just says "standby" in the same spot where you'd find a seat assignment. Most airports domestically will let you through to the gate, although some international airports will hold you at the counter until the gate calls and says you've been assigned a seat, and then you have to sprint to the gate. That's always a pain. Once we've checked in - how does it work? Well, we head to the gate and wait for our names to be called - if the flight is relatively empty, we might get our seats well before boarding even starts, and there's other times, during a full flight, where we are waiting until right when the doors close to hear our names, or we won't hear our name at all and bummer, we didn't get on. Do you ever see all the people hovering around the gate as everyone is boarding? Yeah, that's us non-revenue passengers.
The point is that we're supposed to be relatively inconspicuous, so when I ask if you've ever seen people hovering around the gate, the hope is that your answer is no. Non-revenue passengers are well aware that flight benefits are a blessing, and we're also well aware that paying customers might not want to be privy to the fact that there are people hopping on a flight for free, especially if we're getting assigned a business class or first class seat. The important thing is to dress the part, fit in as much as possible, treat the gate agent and flight crew with the utmost respect, and don't make noise (mostly kidding).
Here's where it gets dicey - when a flight is sold out or even oversold, or when there's a really long standby list and your hire date is much lower than other employees trying to travel (Delta operates its standby lists by hire date). In those cases, I'm in trouble. Sometimes I'll get lucky and the gate agent will be calling a passenger name before the gate closes (what we call a no show) and I'll get his/her seat! Also, it's essential to have a plan A, B, and even C, because if you don't get a seat on a flight, you'll need another route. Another thing that's necessary as a non-revenue passenger - don't ever expect to get where you need to go on the day you anticipate (for example, I didn't get a seat on a flight from Atlanta to Buenos Aires, so I had to spend the night and try again the next day).
Now do I start with the cons of non-revenue traveling, or perhaps the pros? I'm typically the person who wants good news first, so here are a few of the great benefits of standby travel:
The absolute best part of the standby experience is the flexibility - I can wake up one morning and say, "You know what? I want to go to Las Vegas!" All I have to do is hop into the Delta employee database, pack up a bag, and if all goes well, I'm off to Vegas! Say you get there on a Thursday, you planned to head home Saturday night, but you're having so much fun that you want to stay an extra day and fly back Monday. That's fine! Just change your listing. Those changes cost nothing, as do the flights. It's really great.
First Class/Business Class
Okay, I lied. Maybe this is the best part, especially Delta One (the business class cabin on transcontinental or international flights). I love traveling abroad, and so when I plan to do that, I'll look at the loads for all the cities that fly to Amsterdam, for example, and I'll choose the flight that has the most unsold or available Delta One seats. Delta is the best because it will place its employees in any open seats in business class, and with the flexibility of the above, it's usually doable. The cabin crew almost always treats you as a paying customer (they have the food regardless, so someone eats it or it goes to waste) and you get to lay back and enjoy the ride.
This goes without saying - but to really explain this, I'll tell you about the time my entire family flew from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa in the business class cabin on Thanksgiving. That flight up front is usually full (it's the longest flight, so people will pay for a Delta One seat), but because we flew on a holiday, all four of us could get into the front - and seats like that for all of us would cost at least a few thousand dollars. All we did was pay some taxes (was still only $150) and we had the greatest vacation making tons of memories together. There's nothing like the opportunity to experience travel and not break the bank.
As I explained in the paragraphs above, there are a few negatives:
Most standby passengers know to never check luggage on a trip with an unconfirmed ticket. More often than not, flights can be tight, and you might get a last-minute seat, and you also might not - so if you do get a last minute seat, the odds that your checked luggage make it on the flight are slim (yes, your bag is tagged on your intended flight, but if you don't get on, the bag doesn't either). It gets even worse if your itinerary involves two or more flights, and so it's universally understood amongst the non-revenue passenger community that the best thing is to pack in a carry-on suitcase and bring it with you on each leg of the trip.
Hire date/seniority status
When I was first hired on at Delta in 2017, I would list myself on flights with other employees who were hired in 2002, meaning I was typically very very low on the priority list. With Delta, employees are seated in open seats based on their hire date. It becomes a game, as employees are given a few higher priority check-in options per year that can bump them up in the list, but you have to be careful in using them, as you need them to last throughout the year! At times, though, you'll miss out on that business class seat, or any seat at all, if there are employees or two who are above you on the standby list. The longer you're with the company, the better the standby experience gets.
I've touched on this a bit, but it also must be it's own section. My dad, for example, is technically listed as someone who can fly with my travel benefits, but he never uses them because he's terrible with uncertainty. He wants to know he has a seat, when he's traveling, and that he'll get where he needs to be, and that's just impossible to know as a non-revenue standby passenger. The life of a standby passenger requires absolute flexibility. For example, I once had to stay in Johannesburg for three extra days past my expected departure because I couldn't get a darn seat on the flight back to Atlanta, and you cannot complain about that, because you're lucky to have the travel benefits regardless.
So there you have it - my secret! Become an airline employee or become friends with one. The last thing I'll say is that, while I do present these benefits as the most amazing perk (they are), I put in the work to have them. I worked 25 hours a week for the company, and you don't get vacations as a part-timer, so you have to become friends with your fellow employees who value travel and set up some trades in order to get days off (I worked double days for one employee so he would have five days off, and then he'd do the same for me the following week).
Do you think that you could be a standby flyer? Or do you feel more comfortable having a confirmed seat? Let's have a conversation in the comments!