I had just started driving up to western New York to watch an opening Thursday Night NFL game. And, of course, my buddy and I had planned and packed to tailgate well before kick-off. But just north of Fredericksburg, Va., my SUV’s transmission decided it didn’t want to make the near-500-mile trek.
I really don’t blame it.
As I slithered home on back roads and good faith, my friend called up his friend who works for a major airline. I heard the term “standby” several times. I wondered what was up. Within minutes, we changed cars and hustled to the airport, shedding our tailgate supplies and extra bags along the way.
Out Great American Football & Tailgate Road Trip had just transformed into an entirely new standby flight adventure. I wasn’t sure what I was in store for and exactly when (and if) I would get home.
But over the next three days, I learned that flying stand-by was a mostly reliable and absolutely cost-effective way to get from Point A to B to C — hang out for a while — and finally reach Point D: home.
Before TSA guidelines and enhanced screenings, flying stand-by meant something altogether different than it means today. Back then, you could hang out a ticket counter, hoping to land a seat without a reservation of any sort. But those days are no more.
Today stand-by refers to one common and one less common scenario. You’ve probably at least tried the first: attempting to switch your flight with an airline ticket agent when you already have a booked seat on another.
Maybe you got out of a business presentation a bit early — and hoped to miss taking the redeye home. Or perhaps the opposite happened, and your flight was delayed, causing you to miss your connection. The airline may have booked you for a seat tomorrow, but you’re hoping on a wing and a prayer to make it back today. So you’ll wait around with an unconfirmed ticket and no seat assignment until all ticket passengers have boarded, even the late ones. (You’ll secretly wish they don’t show up. It’s OK. We understand.). You’ll also wait for any stand-by passengers who have preference over you, for one reason or another. And then maybe, just maybe, they’ll call your name to sit next to a flight attendant, up against the bulkhead.
There is an important distinction here between flying standby and outright changing your flight, the latter of which likely requires lofty fees. Because you’re not booking a seat, but simply taking up a seat that would go unsold, you’ll only pay a nominal standby fee. Bonus: you get to keep all your miles and points accrued through flying standby in this scenario.
As you might have noted from my story, I didn’t have an existing flight reservation. I didn’t even know I was going to fly at all that day until two hours before I boarded the plane.
So I booked a Buddy Pass. Rather, a friend of mine booked it for me. There is nothing wrong or illegal with this arrangement; current and former airline employees are given an allotment of these passes to use each year as they please, whether it’s jet-setting to exotic locales solo or sharing them with family and friends.
But these Buddy Passes are hardly mile-high Golden Tickets. Far from it. While the fare is attractive — I paid about $70 each way for a roundtrip flight that would have cost a few hundred dollars – you’re still at the bottom of the pecking order. In addition to being the absolute last seating priority, you may be asked to meet certain conditions. For example, we were told not to wear any vulgar T-shirts or flip-flops. In other words, my whole outfit was shot.
There are a few other drawbacks to Buddy Passes, including the fact that you may not get to sit with any travel buddies. Additionally, in contrast to the first standby scenario we described, you cannot use Buddy Pass flights toward any airline loyalty programs, such miles or points.
Flying standby is an airport adventure that you can never truly control. But you can help increase the odds of getting to your destination and back without wasting hours in the terminal lounge by following these tips:
As for my own Buddy Pass standby experience, it went smoother than imagined. Our friend at the airline scouted a clear path from Richmond to Boston to Buffalo. We made it to our football game without a hitch. He did caution that the Boston-to-Richmond return leg might be crowded. We didn’t make our original flight — and I took the last one out while my friend flew back in the morning. All in all, our impromptu standby experiment worked out like a well-scouted plan.
And fortunately, my transmission repair bill was as reasonable as my airfare.
Mike Ward is a copywriter, family columnist and sometimes comic who lives in Richmond, Va. with his wife, two young kids and two mutts. He likes long road trips and rooting for losing sports teams.