The Pros and Cons of Flying Standby

If you’re a frequent traveler, chances are you may have heard about the benefits of flying standby. If you’re not a frequent traveler, you may be wondering: what is flying standby, and what are the benefits of flying standby? 

What is Flying Standby?

Put simply, when flying standby, you don’t have a guaranteed seat. If there are empty or unsold seats on the airplane when it is ready to leave, your standby ticket entitles you to one of those seats. If there are no unsold seats, or more people trying to fly standby than there are open seats? You could be in trouble.

Flying standby is reserved for airline employees, friends and family of employees flying on ‘buddy passes,’ and passengers bumped from previous canceled flights. Occasionally, if a flight is overbooked, airlines will offer financial incentives for passengers to fly standby on a later flight. 

So How Can I Fly Standby?

Generally, knowing an airline employee is the simplest way to get standby tickets.

Why Should I fly standby?

Standby tickets are often —although not always — significantly cheaper than regular flights. For instance, a roundtrip flight I recently made from Denver to Panama City was in excess of $700 on all of my favorite booking sites. Flying standby, I was able to do that route for around $400. 

But, when I went to Colombia, flying standby on United cost about the same as flying roundtrip on VivaColombia and Frontier, two budget airlines. I opted to fly the route with the guaranteed tickets.

So, that’s flying standby in a nutshell. It’s a good tool to have in your travel arsenal, but it isn’t a golden bullet. Let’s talk about the Pros and Cons of Flying Standby

The Advantages of Flying Standby

  1. It offers amazing flexibility.

    You don’t need to book a standby ticket in advance. In fact, you can’t — because your ability to fly depends on how full the flights are, which can be impossible to gauge far in advance. So basically, you can just keep an eye on flight availability (your buddy can help with this), and when there’s a good day, head to the airport and go.

  2. Flying Standby’s cheaper (usually)

    Since standby tickets are reserved for airlines employees, friends, and family, they can usually be had at a good discount. Some airlines allow families to fly for free, while others tie standby tickets to seniority or other systems. If you have a friend or family member who works for an airline, direct your specific logistical questions to them. Every airline has different rules for standby travel.

  3. There’s the possibility of getting First-Class/ Business class for a steal

    Especially on long-haul international flights, this can be a true travel-hack way to dramatically improve the quality of your flight without paying too much for the privilege.

  4. If you don’t fly, you don’t pay

    Although not being able to catch a flight is a possibility with this travel hack, if you choose to fly standby, you don’t have to pay anything unless you actually get on the plane. So if you can’t get on the flight to your weekend getaway, at least you’ve lost nothing except some time waiting at the airport.

The Problems With Flying Standby

  1. You might not be able to fly on the day you want

    Flying standby is a poor choice if you absolutely have to be somewhere for an event. You wouldn’t want to fly standby to a wedding, for example, because if the flights happened to be full for a few days, you would miss your wedding — and your friends surely wouldn’t be happy.

    The first time I tried to fly to Panama, I spent an entire day at the airport and was unable to get on a flight. Bad weather had caused a cancellation earlier in the day, and the standby lists were full with passengers from canceled flights trying to get home. They all got priority over me. They were paying, ticket passengers, while I was traveling on a discounted buddy pass. In that situation, you’re the last priority.

    I left the airport and got some Thai food — a good consolation prize. But then I had to wait three more days before I could fly. So I lost three days in Panama. Not the end of the world, but probably the biggest drawback to this travel hack.

  1. You won’t have an onward ticket for international travel

    I had mixed results with this. I flew to Panama on a one-way ticket, and had my buddy arrange the return ticket a few days before I wanted to leave the country. But when I first went to check in at the United counter in Denver, an employee turned me away because I did not have proof of onward travel — a customs requirement for many countries, including Panama. (Immigration never checks this, but airlines sometimes do). However, the next employee I dealt with let me through with zero issue.

    (Panamanian immigration, of course, never asked).

    Those of you familiar with extended international travel and one-way tickets probably already know this problem. It’s an outdated rule but unfortunately still something we have to deal with. Flying standby is no exception to this.

  2. You need to rely on another person

    I’m a very independent traveler — I almost always make all my arrangements, plans, and buy my own tickets on my schedule. But when I flew standby, I had to rely on my buddy to make my bookings, check flight availability, and give me advice on how the system worked.

    He came through — he got me there and back; but it was definitely a different experience than I’m used to.

  3. Checking luggage is a pain

    I always travel carry-on, so this isn’t a problem. But traveling standby on buddy passes usually entitles you to two checked bags if you so desire. But if your bags end up on the plane and you don’t — well… the problem here is obvious, I think.

    This can be especially problematic if your itinerary calls for two or more flights.

    I would strongly recommend traveling carry-on only if you are flying standby.

  4. Standby passengers are sorted according to employee seniority and loyalty status.

    In my situation, for example, my buddy was a relatively new employee, and I have no frequent flier status with United. So every flight I took, I was at the very bottom of the standby list.

  5. Booking Accommodation at Your Destination Can Be Difficult

    You don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel, only two miss the first three nights you paid for because flight loads changed the day before.

So is flying Standby worth it?

That depends on what type of traveler you are, and how flexible you can be with your travel plans. I would say flying standby is worth it in certain circumstances — BUT NOT ALWAYS.

Make sure to consider your needs. If you can’t deal with losing a few days, or if uncertainty makes you anxious… flying standby probably isn’t for you. If you’re a seat-of-your-pants type, a budget traveler trying to save every buck and willing to sleep in an airport — sure, go for it. Just know that there’s no guarantee everything will go smoothly.

If you’re able to operate within that uncertainty, flying standby is a great option.

Have any tips or experiences with flying standby? Some major benefit or drawback that you think i missed? Share ’em in the comments!


7 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Flying Standby

  1. My sister-in-law is a stewardess for Virgin, quite senior, and my husband has had some good flights on standby. However we stopped doing it because the tax we paid was almost the equivalent of a cheap flight. Also, they had this habit of allowing my husband to fly Upper Class but not myself.

    Also we got fed up with standing around with our luggage for whole days. On one occasion we got put on at the last minute and started off sitting in the galley with all sorts of objects banging around us (we were moved later). On that same occasion our luggage was not on the flight and we arrived in LA (from London) with just what we stood up in. (We now carry changes of clothes in our hand luggage.)

  2. Interesting post. I fly standby sometimes as I had a friends that works in the industry. Ever single time I have managed to fly though so it’s never been an issue.

  3. Thanks for sharing the tips. I guess you’d need lots of flexibility and time to spare.
    I fly with kids and we only ever have two weeks at a time thus no stand by for me. I plan way in advance as we have no flexibility with dates.

    • Yeah I can’t imagine it being fun with kids. But as with anything, I’m sure it is doable if you really need to do it, or you set your mind to doing it.

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