So just what are you if you are stand-by passenger? Basically, the airline sees you as someone that they're not making much money off of, since you decided that you would rather save a few hundred dollars instead of having a specific seat at a specific date. The tickets cost about a quarter of the price of a normal ticket. All stand-by passengers are divided into four groups:

  • S1: Current airline employees, retired employees with many years of experience, people who are very tight with the airline. Immediate family members of airline employees. Doesn't include cousins, nieces, etc.
  • S2 and S3:I'm not too sure about this one, but I believe these are people who haven't worked for the airline that long, but they're getting there. They're earning their place at the front of the line. Also includes people with special passes like Medallion.
  • S4: Friends of employees who have something called a "Buddy Pass". Since there are so many of these, you're ranked according to the seniority of the person who gave you the pass. People who have no connections whatsoever to any employees of the airline are at the very bottom of the list.

So you've decided on a destination. That's good. However, it is a very good idea not to be too specific about where you want to go. If you're travelling during any time other "high season" (airline lingo for "summer" and "Christmas"), your chances of getting a seat are much better, but even then, remember that different countries have different holiday periods. For example, in Germany, it's really hard to travel in September, because Germans have a lot of holidays during that particular month. And Germans love travelling. So always be aware of how things work in the places you'll be flying to and from.

If ever it looks impossible to go directly to your desired destination, all is not lost. This is one of the things that makes stand-by travelling much easier than it could be: you're not limited to one destination. If you want to go to France, say, your freedom as a stand-by lets you get on the plane to Madrid, and then take another plane from Barajas Airport to Charles-de-Gaulle in Paris, if that's where you want to end up.

The first Golden Rule of Travelling on Stand-by is:

Be flexible. It's easier to get somewhere if you consider all your options instead of just panicking and finally giving up on having any vacation at all.

Now you've got an idea of where you want to go, you've got your Buddy Pass and your vacation time... it's time to head off to the airport. Before you leave you'll want to know if there any empty seats left or if the airline has overbooked the flight. You can check this on the Internet or you can call the number of the airline and have an employee check it on the computer. Although it seems quite strange, the airline works on the basis that people often don't show up for their flight, for whatever reason. This allows them to sell more tickets than there are seats available on the plane. This is where the great divide between those who have shelled out for a ticket and those who have a measly "Seat Request" card widens. If somebody with a ticket can't make it to the airport on time, someone who doesn't actually have a seat can promptly fill it. This can sometimes land you in first class. On the other hand, if everyone shows up to claim their seat, you'll be stuck in the airport lounge, watching all the happy people board the plane. It is another challenge for you, the potential globetrotter, but you'll get through it.


So the second Golden Rule of Travelling on Stand-by is:

Be patient. It might seem like you'll never get on, but you will eventually, and once you do you'll be so happy.

Once you get to the airport, you proceed as if you had a normal ticket. First, check your luggage. The person at the counter will attach a special tag on your suitcase that says "Standby Baggage", and God forbid they should ever forget it, or else your luggage will end up taking the vacation instead of you. You'll get a boarding pass that tells you which gate you have to go to. Next, go through Customs and all the obligatory metal detectors. You'll have to get used to the different layouts of the airports and more importantly, the varying degrees of boorishness in the employees. (JFK in New York gets my top vote.)

Another thrilling thing about travelling stand-by is that you will most likely find out if you're getting on the plane 5 to 10 minutes before it leaves. Two things can happen: either you get on the plane or you don't.

First case scenario: They called your name! You're on the plane! Have a nice trip!

Second case scenario: All the seats have been claimed. You're still in the airport.


Fear not. First, keep your cool. You might be a little angry at your rotten luck, but remember you're not the only one this has ever happened to. (It happened to me, so there.) Check with the people at the desk to see what your options are. These people will help you if you ask them nicely. They'll issue you a new ticket for you, and you're on your way to the next gate. Keep trying. You might get lucky.

The third Golden Rule of Travelling on Stand-by (and this is really important)is:

Be polite. You should never, ever pester the employees working the desk.

They have a lot of other people to deal with, so be polite and just do what they tell you. For example, if they say: "Just have a seat", you have a seat. You do not keep getting up and demanding they answer whatever questions you have. These people have power over you, and your chances of getting on a plane get smaller the more frustrated they get.


When there are no more flights you can take, you can go home and try the next day. However, if you're stuck because you don't live in the same city as the airport you're in, you can try asking for a "Distress Passenger" rate in a hotel. Some places have it, some don't. If worst comes to worst and you can't get a place to sleep or you don't want to pay, airports usually have rooms with long benches where you can lie down for the night.

Another thing that seems really pointless but could actually help your chances: follow the dress code. Airlines have a dress code for stand-by passengers, and although it doesn't require you to rent a tux or anything, it does ask that you look "presentable". Yes, it is kind of stupid, but if you look like you just walked off the set of Ricki Lake, the guy at the front desk will think twice about putting you in first class. (And tough luck if it's the last seat available on the plane.)

It might seem a little daunting at first, especially if you're alone and it's your first time travelling this way, but you'll find that after a few missed planes and a couple of days of waiting around, you'll feel right at home in any airport.

Some more on nonrev travel... Both of my parents have standby rights on American Airlines, which uses a rather complicated priority system for standby travel:

  • A: Priority classification, which comes in several levels. The highest levels are used for employees travelling on company business, such as deadheading flight crews or mechanics traveling to fix a stranded aircraft. Several priority classifications are also used for personal travel: A9 for travel in case of a family emergency, A11 for middle management. Unless you work for the airline yourself, you probably won't get one of these.
  • D: Each employee gets two "D1" tickets every year, as well as an unlimited number of "D2" tickets, which can be used for themselves, their dependents, their spouse (or domestic partner in the case of some *ahem* flight attendants), or their parents. D1 and D2 travel is free within the continental US for employees with five years of seniority, but carries a surcharge otherwise (typically about ten percent of the base fare, which usually works out to about a quarter of the typical internet fare). People outside the employee's immediate family can get "D3" tickets, which cost about 25 percent of the base fare.
  • ID: ID stands for "industry discount," and is available to anyone who works in the airline industry. Depending on which company you work for, you can receive either an "ID75" (75% off) or "ID90" (90% off) fare. Employees of companies within the same airline alliance have priority within their fare class. Recently, a bunch of airlines have created a single zone-based fare structure for interline travel, called ZED, although very few employees seem to understand how it works.
Employees and their immediate families can also fly "positive space," i.e., with a seat assignment, for 20% off.

(In law school, I eventually deduced that this pricing structure comes from the Internal Revenue Code. The airlines give their employees the best deal possible, short of what would have to be declared on their tax return as additional compensation rather than just a fringe benefit.)

Generally speaking, D3 and ID tickets are only cost-effective on international flights: for domestic flights, you're better off just booking a ticket with jetBlue or Southwest, since you get positive space for only slightly more money.

So here's how the seats get allocated for domestic flights:

  1. Prior to the date of travel, the passenger is listed in the airline's CRS system. This is called "meal listing" because it lets the airline know how many meals they should put on the plane. (Even though in-flight meals are rare as hell nowadays, the term is still used: the airline needs the listing for other reasons as well.)
  2. Four hours before departure, check-in for standby passengers opens. If there are enough unreserved seats to accommodate everyone on the standby list, they receive boarding passes as soon as they check in, at which point they can go to the gate and board along with everyone else. Some airlines even let standby passengers check in online nowadays, although they usually have to use hidden back-door sites to do so (it still beats the hell out of going to the airport at 3 AM for a 7 AM flight).
  3. If there aren't enough seats to accommodate everyone, the airline will seat the A passengers first, followed by D1, then D2, etc. If a standby passenger checks in but a seat is not open yet, they receive a "priority verification" pass which allows them to go through security to the gate (it looks just like a ticket).
  4. Just before boarding begins, the gate agent pages each passenger that hasn't checked in, in order to verify that they really aren't coming. If any seats are still open at that point, the agent pages the next few standby passengers on the list and gives them boarding passes.
  5. When general boarding is completed, the airline does a head count, pages any remaining stragglers, and allocates any remaining seats to additional standby passengers.
  6. Once the plane is full or all the passengers are seated, the door to the jetbridge is closed, the plane departs, and any remaining standby passengers are transferred to later flights.
If the airport requires passengers to clear passport control on their way to the gate, ignore everything from point 4 onward: check-in gets cut off about an hour before departure, and standby passengers are then given boarding passes for the remaining seats from the ticket counter.

If a standby passenger is connecting to another flight, they are given a "through" classification for the second flight, which gives them priority over other passengers in their class. Passengers who couldn't get on a previous flight also get priority, although their priority is below that of through passengers.

This process can be a genuine pain in the ass. Some stories I can relate:

  • Many years ago, I went to Ireland with my father. We were going to fly from Dublin to London, using an ID90 on Aer Lingus, and then connect to our flight home from there. Then, the first morning flight to London had a mechanical failure, so its passengers were all accommodated on other flights. Result: although we were ready to go at 7 AM, we ended up waiting in Dublin Airport all day as every single flight was booked solid and transferring its passengers to later flights. We finally got out on the last British Midland flight of the evening and had to spend a night with family near Heathrow.
  • A couple of years ago, I flew from Miami to Los Angeles and back on a D2. I checked in at LAX in the afternoon for a 5 o'clock flight, and after being rolled over from three flights, finally made it out on the last seat of the red eye at midnight. The last seat happened to be broken, and I knew that it would be placarded and taken out of service if I reported it, so I sat upright for the next five hours. (I still managed to sleep, though.)
Still, standby is worth it: I say this as someone who flew first class to Japan and back for about $200, enjoying free champagne, caviar, and DVD's all the way. It's hardly enough to make you want to work for an airline, but I digress...

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