Traveling standby is NOT for the faint of heart

I consider myself a flexible individual and traveler. Generally, I am in no rush to get anywhere. Combine these two factors and I’m a perfect candidate for standby travel!

Not familiar with standby? It’s a reservation system outside of the normal revenue stream for airlines. Generally, airline staff receives flying benefits that they can share with friends or family. It’s different for each airline and even each staff, as I learned…

My sweet friend Deb works for the Alaska Airlines group, on one of their smaller lines. She hooked Adam and me up with standby passes for a weekend in Portland. We booked with a discount code that gave us roughly 90% off a standard one-way fare. Seriously – a great deal. While the price is great, there is a catch: you are not guaranteed a seat. There’s a legend available on each flight so you can anticipate how likely it is that you’ll get on that flight. Ish.

Our flight to Portland was smooth. The legend said “Good!” and through the backend, Deb could tell there were 50 free seats, +/-. Adam and I boarded easily, sat together and made it to PDX in less than 4 hours.

The way home… A little different. The night before we left, Deb checked flight loads and there were less than 15 seats available and there were that many people on standby. And this is where I learned that not all standby passes are equal: I was the last on the list, the bottom of the barrel standby passenger. Come morning, the available seats had shrunk even more and I was still last on the list.

Adam and I went to the airport and went through security. The staff at the counter couldn’t tell me if I was any closer to getting on the flight. Eventually, they stopped making eye contact and then they shut that big door to the airplane. I was still standing in at the gate… not seated on that flight (we bypassed this issue for Adam, and booked him a direct flight home originally… teacher schedule doesn’t work well with erratic flight schedules).

Figuring out my game plan after that was smooth, and kudos to Alaska Air for being so easy to work with. I didn’t catch the flight and neither did two or three others. The staff offered to roll us onto standby for the next direct flight, leaving that evening and boy, was it tempting – one more day in PDX! But alas… there were negative seats available for standby and I do have a job and employers who appreciate it when I show up. So, I canceled standby and booked a flight to ANC with miles, arriving home about 10 hours after I had originally hoped.

A coffee, beer and magazine later – I was on my way home. Here’s what I can tell you about flying standby:

  • book as close to your travel dates as possible, for the most accurate seat count
  • don’t travel on a holiday weekend. Duh.
  • know your pressure point and have a backup plan (how much wiggle room do you have to wait around?)


“too blessed to be stressed”. Lounging in the sun at a quiet gate in the PDX airport



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