When people learn what my dad does for a living, it usually goes something like this:
Me: My dad is a pilot.
Other Person: Do you get to fly free?
Me: It’s not totally free, but we pay a very small percentage.
Other Person: That must be the best.
Me: Yeah, well the catch is you have to fly standby so you don’t always get on a plane.
Other Person: Still, you’re so lucky.
But when I was growing up, it didn’t feel like I had won the travel lottery. Flying was a production for my family. We had to conform to the dress code set by the airline, which meant we arrived in skirts and collared shirts while the rest of the kids got to stumble on in overalls and leotards. The other kids got to leave for vacation at normal hours, while we left in the dead of night. We often celebrated Thanksgiving on a Friday or Christmas on the 22nd of December – because it was easier for us to get on a plane on the actual day of the holiday.
One year my family went to Hawaii over spring break. I’m not sure why we were traveling then since it broke the first cardinal rule of standby travel: Never travel when everyone else is. The trip out was uneventful – we flew from Denver to L.A. and on to Honolulu. A couple of days into the vacation, my dad checked the flights and decided we should head back a day earlier than we had planned because the plane loads looked heavy.
After four nights in Hawaii, we went to the airport and checked our bags for a flight back to San Francisco. The gate was swarming with people and we were sitting off to the sidelines — it didn’t look good for us. In the end, our luggage was the only thing to get on the plane. So we tried for a flight to Los Angeles, and got on.
After the five-hour flight we went to the gate for Denver, and watched another full plane take off without us. So we were faced with spending the night in L.A. – but suddenly my dad got an idea. Why stay in L.A. when we could fly to Vegas? I had never been to the City of Sin and thought it sounded like a good idea too, but when we arrived I realized it’s more like the city of envy when you are only 20.
The next day we dressed in the same clothes we had worn the day before and returned to the airport. But the flights were so oversold we couldn’t even buy full fare tickets home, so we bought tickets back to L.A. instead. When the flights to Denver looked bad again, we flew to San Francisco where we were reunited with our luggage before finally boarding a flight home. We had spent four days in Hawaii and it took us 48 hours on five different flights to get back. When I tell people that story they say, “Yeah, but you got to go to Hawaii. That’s lucky.”
My standby benefits ended when I graduated from college. Back when I was still getting “free” flights I spent a lot of time thinking about how great it would be to cross over to the other side. The side where you got to wear whatever you want and knew you would actually be traveling to your intended destination that day. I knew travel was stressful for paying passengers too — I had seen them losing their marbles with gate agents – but still, I couldn’t totally sympathize. Paying passengers got meal vouchers and hotel rooms if they missed a connection.
Of course, when I did start buying my own tickets I realized that it’s not always easy on the paying side. Flying is expensive and in order to get cheaper flights you still end up flying at odd hours with unnecessary stops.
I still use buddy passes to travel sometimes. I avoid flying during the holidays and don’t use them for trips on tight timelines. When I go standby I practice patience, no longer concerned about the dress code since I’ve built up a steady supply of business casual clothing. But when I get on the plane with a ticket I’ve bought, I walk on in flip-flops and stroll happily down the aisle to my reserved seat, and sometimes think to myself, I really am lucky now.