As you may know, if you have read my About me page, I’m a simple girl. Grew up a small town, worked my ass off to be able to survive, had a rough time, but managed to get on top of things and become successful – this is how I see myself right now, yes. But I have never dreamed I would be able to fly almost for free one day, using staff travel benefits, while I was cleaning tables in a bar or working in a casino.
I have come a long way since that time. First of all, I flew the first time to Rome, I left Europe and went to Indonesia and discovered the world, I even managed to get myself hired in an aviation related field. How’s that for a simple girl from (almost) the countryside? Not too bad, I tell you.
But, at the same time, I’m still a bit anxious about traveling. I’m passionate and fearful at the same time. Add (almost) free plane tickets to this, with a side of risk for every flight, and you have a cocktail that can either go well or bad. So, to make all of this work for me, I became a specialist in flying using airline benefits.
What is staff travel?
At least, this is what I call it, based on a site I’m using to do the reservations. Maybe other airlines call it differently, I don’t know (but promise to find out), but this is how I will refer to all airline benefits I get to use.
In simple words, staff travel is a way airlines enable their employees to travel at very low prices. Like some employees from large retailers have a discount perk they can use to buy clothes cheaper than usual customers, airlines give their employees the same benefit, but in a more complicated way.
And this is mostly due to the volatile aspect of the product delivered by airlines. A plane seat, once the plane has departed, cannot be sold or used anymore. It is useless forever, and it will never be used in its intended purpose (but people on that flight will maybe enjoy a full row to themselves).
So, in this case, airlines cannot just give you a discount and you just “buy” plane tickets like there’s no tomorrow. It just doesn’t work like that. Adding to this the fact that any airline is in an alliance, and the whole industry is in some sort of a partnership, the benefits system cannot be easy to use and understand either.
Who gets these benefits?
Everyone working in the aviation industry. I know people think that only flight attendants and pilots work in this industry, but this is the most shallow idea of them all. And I’m not even referring only to airlines, I said (wrote) AVIATION INDUSTRY, not airlines.
For example, I don’t work for an airline. I work for a former subsidiary of an airline, now an independent company, that produces a very important product that can be sold to all aviation-related companies. Other people work for airports, airplane repairing and maintenance “garages”, regulation enforcing entities or even verification centers for airplane parts.
And this is only outside airlines. In an airline, you also have IT, HR, sales, marketing, trainers and probably a huge amount of managers. Yes, all of these people are being paid for from the price we pay on a plane ticket, and all of them have industry-specific discounts they can use.
What types of tickets can you use?
Enough with the talking, let’s cut to the real deal, right? OK, so the types of tickets available for you to use will probably depend on your benefits system, but most often, these are your options:
- Standby vacation ticket
- Firm booked
- Full fare tickets bought with a discount
You probably also have the option to bring other people with you on a flight or to directly buy tickets for them to use. These are usually called buddy passes and it’s a cool thing you can use with friends and family.
What is the priority for each ticket?
There are many rules to establish who has a priority over whom, and what type of tickets gets you an edge in priority, and here I will only touch a few of them. The full set of rules you can find using an internal tool provided to you by your company. The very basic things you need to know are listed below.
- Commercial passengers have priority over staff.
Always. No matter your ticket and your status, if someone will get bumped off the flight, it’ll be you, the employee. In the end, you’re part of the family, you won’t sue.
- Firm booked / full-fare tickets have a higher priority than the standby tickets.
Basically, who pays more, risks less.
- Duty travel has a higher priority than private travel.
If you travel for work, you have a higher priority than everyone traveling for fun.
- Employees of the company operating the flight have a higher priority than the ones in other companies.
Like in the mob, everyone cares about their own family more.
- Employees that were hired earlier have a higher priority than the ones hired later.
You always respect the elder, or, in this case, the one that is part of the family for longer.
What are the risks of each ticket?
A good rule of thumb is that if it’s cheaper, it’s riskier. What you’re not paying in money, you’re paying in risk. And no, there’s nothing cheap and risk-free in this world, so you’ll have to learn how to use these perks and to decide based on a risk assessment procedure you have to develop first (or read mine, whatever works for you).
Standby tickets give you a seat on the flight if there is one available right before the door closes at the gate. Nothing else matters: the estimated number of passengers, the checked-in passengers, how far away is the destination, if it’s Christmas time and everything is overpriced or if it’s the peak season in Japan. If you’re not getting in, you have to take care of yourself.
Firm booked tickets, if confirmed, give you a seat on the flight. You still have a chance of being offloaded, but it rarely happens. Two good cases when this happens is if the flight is overbooked and all passengers show up, or if a previous flight got canceled and other passengers have been rebooked or rerouted. If you’re not getting in, the company takes care of you.
Holiday or vacation tickets are something in between. They are standby, but you have a higher priority than the usual standby, but you still travel on a seat availability basis and have to take care of yourself if you’re not getting on the flight.
How it works from buying the ticket to getting to the destination?
I could have named this chapter “A novel”, because it has so many quirks and possible variations, that God knows how it might turn out in the end. But I’ll try to split in in bite-sized chunks and add an infographic for it at the end. Yes, you will be able to download it for future use as well. You’re welcome.
- Make the reservation on the website, with the corresponding ticket (standby or firm booked).
- When the check-in opens for your flight, use the booking confirmation number to check-in online. See the tips below for more information about this.
- Take the boarding pass with you (printed or in an app), which may or may not have a seat assigned.
- If you have to check-in a bag, go to the check-in counter at the airport at least 2 hours in advance.
- Go to the gate.
- Get boarded (hopefully)
6a. If you don’t get boarded, ask the staff at the gate how to proceed to get your luggage back and exit the airport.
- Enjoy your flight!
A few tips
While there will be more super helpful tips to come in the next episodes, I also created a small list of teasers, to keep you close-by. The following guides are more specific, but these tips will help you with any journey you’ll take as a staff travel passenger.
- Don’t leave the gate until the plane is getting away from it
Even when they tell you that everyone is checked in, don’t leave until you see them INSIDE the plane. I know at least 2 cases when people have either lost their passports after the passport control point or got carried away in the duty-free area and lost the flight. So, don’t leave until there’s no chance left.
- Use vacation tickets to get your priority high
If you have some vacation tickets left off by the end of the year and they will expire, use them to get a higher priority even on short-haul (for Christmas, for example). You normally don’t use them for a 2-hour flight, but since they’re expiring, why not use the priority and low price to your advantage?
- NEVER wait to check-in until you get to the airport
Also, try to always check-in as soon as it opens up. Even if you have a firm booked, remember that in case of overbooking, you’re the first one being kicked out. So even if the check-in opens at 3 in the morning, set an alarm, wake up, and check-in for your flight. You’ll sleep better knowing you have a better chance of flying the next day.
- Buy a firm booked ticket once in a while
If you see there are 2 seats available, but the standby list is huge and your priority is crap, buy firm booked. Even if it’s not confirmed, you are still going to get boarded before everyone on that standby list. You’ll pay more, but you’ll fly.
- Use the discount codes to buy full fare tickets
If you think you won’t be able to make it otherwise, buy a full ticket using a discount code. Now you’re like a full paying passenger, with all the rights that come from this.
- Always keep the downgrade paper slip
And if you don’t get one (maybe the printer is broken at the gate), still ask for your downgrade refund, but right after your trip. They can still access the flight information one or two days later, that’s why you have to hurry. It’s not always possible to do this without the paper slip, but it never hurts to try.
- Always have your badge with you
I know people that have been denied boarding over this. The gate staff has the right to do so. And if they have to ask for a jump seat or cockpit seat for you, they feel more comfortable doing so if they know who you are and that they can check everything about you.
- Use the app or the website
And whenever possible, use it from your laptop instead of your phone. You can see a better overview of days/times/options, you can move easier between tabs, and it takes you less time to reserve a ticket. This can mean, in some cases, that you’re getting to that last-minute boarding just in time.
- Always buy business class
Even if you travel for 2 hours and you don’t care about the business class, do it anyway. It gets you an edge since passengers rarely buy business class. Also, you can easily be downgraded if there are no seats available in business class, but it’s difficult to be upgraded if you have tickets for economy class and there are only seats available for business. And you will pay for the class you have flown anyway, so it’s no risk for you.
Working in aviation is super awesome, especially for people like me, that have always dreamed of discovering the world. You have to learn the quirks of flying standby, and you have to be OK with risking it once in a while, but if you’re using my super helpful, actionable tips, you’ll be able to use your benefits more and more every year. Staff travel is not easy to plan, but it’s worth it!