Standby Travel: The Good, The Bad, and the Frustrating

“Yay! There are five open seats!” I thought to myself as I hung up the phone after inquiring about a flight to Texas. It was the summer of 2006 and I was dying to test out my travel benefits for the first time. I listed myself on the flight that was scheduled for that evening, put on my favorite pair of jeans and a plain white blouse, quickly packed my bags and headed for the airport.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the gate that I realized I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’ve always been an avid traveler but this was my first time “flying for free”. I had very little knowledge about standby travel and due to my impulsivity didn’t really think much about it.

I went up to the counter, flashed a big smile at the gate agent, gave her my seat request card and asked if there was room for me. She told me that standbys would be called once all the confirmed passengers were boarded and to wait till then. Sounded easy enough so I sat down and started planning activities for my impromptu trip to Texas.

Half an hour later, when all of the confirmed passengers were boarded up, the standbys were called to get their boarding passes. I did not make it on and since it was the last flight to Texas that day I had to go home. Disappointed and annoyed that I wasted my day off hanging out at the airport I never wanted to use my benefits again. I mean what good were they? There were five empty seats and I still didn’t make it on!

Months later I tried again using a different approach. I dressed up and listed myself on the earliest flight that had at least ten open seats. I figured that I would have more opportunities to get to my destination this way.

After spending 12 hours at the airport I did not get on any of the flights. The first flight that I was listed on was cancelled, the next filled up because of the cancellation, and the last one was delayed for hours due to a maintenance problem.

My first experiences with standby travel weren’t pleasant and even to this day they still vary. Sometimes I would have bad experiences where I’d make the connecting flight but not the one to my final destination so I’d get stuck somewhere. I’ve also had wonderful experiences where I’d get first class to an international destination.

If it’s your first time using travel benefits it’s normal to feel anxious and stressed out, after all, there are no guarantees while flying standby. Here are some of my tips:

1. Make sure to get listed on the earliest flight that has the most empty seats. In the beginning I thought that 5 open seats were enough to get on but actually it’s a risky number. You should go for the flights that have at least 15 empty seats. Also make sure to see how many other standbys are listed and where you rank among them. To see where you rank look for the priority code on your seat request card (S1, S2, S3, S3/C, etc). Each airline is different with priority and since I am mostly familiar with Delta’s policy here is how theirs works:

Priority Codes in order of most importance:








Keep in mind that the open seats will be given by order of seniority (date of hire) and priority code. The most senior will be the first to get the empty seat, first class or coach (if they signed up to fly first class). Then the open seats on coach will get filled up till there are no more seats available. I will elaborate on rank and priority codes on a later post.

2. Watch the weather channel. The weather may look perfect in your area but what’s the forecast in other cities or states? Weather will impact your flight and can greatly decrease your chances of making it on. Snowstorms in the winter and thunderstorms in the summer can wreak havoc on major airports like Chicago’s O’Hare International.

3. A lot of airports have monitors at the gates that will have a list of names of the the passengers flying standby. All you will have to do is check these monitors constantly to see if you have been given a seating assignment. When you get a confirmed seat and are boarding the plane simply hand your seat request card to the ticket agent. They will run it through the machine, give you a piece of paper that has your seat number and return the seat request card to you. If you are at an airport that doesn’t have the monitors you will have to speak to the gate agent. They will usually start assigning seats once the paying passengers have boarded and will call you up to retrieve your boarding pass.

4. If you end up not making the flight the gate agents will automatically roll you over to the next.

5. Be prepared to spend hours at the airport. Bring a good book to read.

I know that it’s frustrating and sometimes disheartening to travel standby. It’s certainly not for everyone. Still it’s an invaluable benefit to possess especially if travel is your passion. Traveling the world is very expensive so be grateful that you have the ability to explore without having to spend lots of money on air travel. Be patient and optimistic and you might just get on the flight.

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