What It’s Really Like to Travel Using Free Flights

An insider’s take on why flying standby is not for the weakhearted

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

“If I had free flights through a family member, I would go overseas every weekend.” I hear things like this a lot.

Here’s the deal: My mom worked for United Airlines and kept her buddy passes after retirement, allowing me to take an empty seat on a plane for free (or very cheaply if I’m traveling internationally). I’m incredibly lucky for that. It’s one of the only reasons I have traveled so much in my life.

However, there are hidden drawbacks to traveling as a standby passenger that you might not see on the glittering surface as you imagine a jet-setting lifestyle. Here’s what it’s really like.

It’s a lot of running around

The biggest disadvantage of traveling standby on a flight is that you may not get on. Airport staff is generous in bumping you to the next flight so you can try again. But often, the next flight is in an entirely different terminal and is taking off 40 minutes later.

In other words, you’ll have to run.

On the flip side, it can be a major waiting game. Like hours. Days, even. As a child, I got to know the Chicago airport so well it was like my second home. Once, I got separated from my parents at ORD but felt so comfortable there that I just sat down to read a book until they found me (leaving my mom to panic for a while).

Another time, we were given tickets, boarded the plane, stowed our carry-ons, and settled into our seats. A few minutes later, the flight attendant came back to inform us that the passengers who had bought tickets for those seats had made it to the gate in time. We got kicked off the flight.

So it was on to the next.

There are no plans with standby

Even the best-laid plans are in constant flux when you’re flying standby. Sure, the airfare is affordable, but if you get stuck in a city overnight and have to pay for a hotel room, are you saving money? At that point, you might as well have purchased a $200 plane ticket and made it to your destination.

That’s not to say everything always goes smoothly when you buy a ticket. But standby is always a gamble. Every time. If I’m meeting up with anyone on the other end, I warn them that I’m flying standby. I tell them that I may not make it on time, or at all. And that I may not be happy when I get there.

For example, I have spent:

  • Two consecutive nights in a sleeping bag in the Frankfurt airport
  • One night curled up on a bench in New York’s JFK airport surrounded by a group of strangers in a similar situation
  • Seven hours in the middle seat in the last row (a.k.a. no reclining for me) during a trip to Hawaii
  • All day at the Chicago airport racing to flight after flight only to realize we weren’t going to make it, so we turned around and flew back to Indiana

To try to curb this slow torment, you can investigate the flights online ahead of time to see how many seats are open in each class, along with how many other standby passengers are listed. Unfortunately, these numbers can shift the last minute. You might be fine one second, but screwed the next when a flight holding an entire high school band gets canceled and all those kids are shoved onto your plane.

Flexibility is necessary for any standby traveler.

It’s pointless to try standby on peak travel days

Want to fly home for free on Thanksgiving? Forget about it. You’ll never make the flight. I have tried and been burned enough to know it’s not an option unless you are really brave and don’t mind missing family time. If you want to fly during these times, you’ll need to go the traditional route if you actually want to make it.

When you fly standby, you typically have to plan around major holidays, spring break times, and summer vacations.

Even certain days of the week are more of a challenge, like weekends. Friday is when all the business folks take a plane home, and Saturday and Sunday are when the tourists prefer to make it back. Basically, you have to be willing to travel when no one else wants to, which can be a pain.

Standby is a stress test

If you haven’t gathered this already, traveling standby does a number on your nerves. It’s great if you’re short on money or don’t have to be somewhere by a definite date. I made it to and from Europe with no problem last year, so it can work out well.

But to everyone who says, “I would fly to China tomorrow if I had free flights available to me,” I have to say that I don’t believe you. Maybe you would, and that’s great for you. But you would be a zombie for weeks when you got back — and not just from the jet lag.

Traveling standby often requires a heck of a lot more energy than using a regular ticket. There’s a whole level of finger-crossing that not everyone can handle.

However, there is one nice side effect, aside from being able to travel places I couldn’t have otherwise. Standby has trained me to be a much more patient traveler than I ever would have been otherwise. I’m usually good with whatever, as long as I have a book.

Originally published at https://tiffanyverbeck.com.

Tiffany Verbeck uses her awesome storytelling skills gained from a master’s degree to write on personal finance, lifestyle, and creativity: tiffanyverbeck.com.

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