A Day in the Life of a Standby Traveler

We’re the last ones to board the plane.

If we can, we’ll show up two hours early at the gate with packed bags and pretty attire, covering up the fact that we slept for two days in a nearby terminal.

Funny as it sounds, it’s the type of traveling where we show up at the airport with no ticket. We don’t know where – and if – we will be going anywhere.

Standby or non-rev travel is the act of traveling on an empty seat in a commercial aircraft. Such travel is offered to airline employees and their immediate family members. As a daughter of a pilot, I’ve had the luxuries of flying standby around the world, being able to explore Asia, Europe, and beyond with free airfare.

Don’t let these sweet deals fool you, though. One free vacation can turn into days of trying to return home. I’ll be taking you through the processes of flying standby and test if you’re capable of being a non-rev traveler.

girl traveler printing boarding pass
BOARDING PASSES: They’re all usually online. It’s now rare to find your ticket agent printing out your boarding pass in most areas – a relief for standby cause that’s the time for inspection on what you’re wearing (Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels).

How It Works

Thank goodness for digital days! Standby travel, once managed by telephones and papers, has become almost completely virtual. To travel somewhere, standby travelers log into their company’s intranet where upcoming flights can be seen. Through their own airline, non-revs would travel for free; through other airlines, it’s a big discount from the original price.

On this standby list, you can determine if a flight is oversold, has available seats, and what ranking you may be on the list. This ranking depends on your seniority level and position. So for example, my father, a captain, will most likely get the first available seat over a newly-hired ramp guy.

Once booking a flight, you’re printed a standby boarding pass that allows you to reach your desired gate. At this point, the waiting game can turn into a lottery, as the list of non-revs will be waiting for their names to be called. You may be waiting for a person to miss their flight, a higher-ranking non-rev to not show up, or for – fingers crossed – a first class seat or a row of empty seats to go untouched.

Even if there are five people ahead of you, DON’T GIVE UP! Not until the gate has officially closed. There have been moments where I’m walking away from the gate when I finally hear my name. I’ll admit that my fastest runs are always in the airport.

There have also been other (rare) times where I was given a seat, only to find it taken away when I board the plane. I was 12 in Hawaii when they said there was a seat for me and my younger sister, 6, only to find that there was only one. I held my sister in my lap as a very loud passenger to my right told me that what I was doing wasn’t right. The flight attendants realized the situation before closing the gate and notified my father, who didn’t see this as he was sitting jumpseat (an extra seat in the cockpit available only for standby pilots). He was furious at the ticket agents as all three of us walked off of the plane.

Five minutes later, we were invited back on, as a family of seven walked out of the plane (we later found out that the mother of the family became aggressive and convinced that a normal, middle eastern man next to her was a terrorist).

… Free seats?! We walked back on with all the passengers glaring at us, convinced that we were the ones who delayed the flight.

Depending on the airport, waiting in the terminals such as O’Hare International Airport is a breeze. Lots of distractions!

The Pros and Cons of Standby

I have flown first class to New Zealand and back for free. At the same time, I have slept in Hong Kong’s International Airport for four days.

If you’re not dressed nice enough (e.g. a small rip in your jeans), the ticket agents can take your ticket away from you. If you’re not at the gate by the time the ticket agent calls your name, he or she can immediately take you off the list.

In these moments, standby travel can be very humbling to a fellow adventurer. You don’t know if you’re going to get stuck in a foreign-speaking country. You don’t know if you’ll be spending even more than a regular ticket just to get out of there, only to be stuck in the next location you land in. It’s a risk you’re willing to take.

How to travel during COVID-19

There’d be multiple occasions as a child where my family and I became stuck in a random country. My father will whip out his iPad and start typing and calling various airline representatives. All of sudden, we would be heading to another country that may have more available seats in their area. Narita, Sydney, Honolulu, Seoul – my sisters and I would begin to remember which airports had the best and worst things to offer… as well as the best places to sleep in. To kill time, we would sometimes explore the *secret* pilot’s room, where lounge chairs, candy machines, and lines of coats would become our playground.

In these rare moments, we would spend more time in the airport or on a plane than outdoors throughout the entire trip.

Are You Ready?

All I need for a one to two-week trip is a 28L rucksack with portable sandals and a laptop. Carry-on is always a go-to for me as standby – check-in takes longer and standby luggage is not under protection when lost, damaged, or stolen.

So is it really worth it in the end? Just ask yourself this:

  • Are you always on time?
  • Are you okay with sleeping anywhere?
  • Do you work well in sudden and intense stress?
  • Are you okay with constantly changing your travel itinerary?
  • Can you risk your time, money, and energy?
  • Are you an all-or-nothing traveler?

If you said yes to the following, then you’re cleared to go! Find a job in the airlines, go on standby, and hop on the next flight you can. Hey – it’s all for the love of travel.

About the Author
Born in Washington, raised in Guam, and now living in Vegas, DeAnna grew up living the “standby life” – in short, catching any open plane seat she could get her hands on. Now, Dee values interviewing the ones who represent change – from entrepreneurs in Peru to descendants of the Fa’amatai in the Pacific.

Published by Badass Female Travelers

It's simple - we're females. We travel. And of course, we're badass. Discover the numinous accounts of women's journeys around the world.

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