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.