If you have a friend or family member who works for an airline, you may have heard about buddy passes. Or maybe you’re the airline employee and you’re a little unsure about using them. They allow non-employees to fly at a discounted rate, but it’s not always rainbows and happy smiles. Before you decide to use buddy passes, or allow someone to use your buddy passes, it’s important to weigh the benefits and drawbacks.
What are Buddy Passes?
Buddy passes are discounted airline tickets that are given to airline employees to share with friends and family members. These passes can be a great way to save money on airfare, but they often come with limitations. For example, buddy pass holders have to fly standby, meaning they only get a seat if there are extra seats available on the flight. Additionally, buddy pass holders cannot choose their seat or upgrade.
How do Buddy Passes work?
The process of acquiring and using a buddy pass will vary from airline to airline, but here’s how it typically works:
- The employee must first add the intended buddy pass rider to the internal system. You’ll need the name as displayed on the traveler’s ID or passport, birthdate, etc. In some cases, you may need to prove relationship to the pass rider. This is especially true if using an extended family buddy pass, which is a slightly better discount than the typical friends and family buddy pass.
- The airline employee will look at flight loads and list the buddy pass rider on a specific flight through their internal reservation system. This can be done several weeks in advance all the way up until the day of travel.
- The airline employee will give the buddy pass rider confirmation number, sometimes called their PNR. When it’s time to check-in, the buddy pass traveler can go through the normal check-in process. Other airlines may have a different check-in process, but most will allow buddy pass holders to check in like a normal passenger.
- The ticket will not have a seat number after check-in. At check-in, buddy pass rider will be placed on the standby list. The order of the standby list is determined by the airline’s priority ranking system. For instance, buddy pass riders will be placed below active employees in standby order. Every airline has its own rules for what determines the priority order.
- The buddy pass traveler will proceed to the airport and use their ticket to get through security. They will then proceed to the gate.
- When it’s boarding time, gate agents will assign any available remaining seats to those on the standby list. You may be called up to see the gate agent and retrieve your ticket. Or your seat may be auto assigned and you can check the app for your seat number.
- If unsuccessful, you may be rolled over to the next flight automatically. At that point, the steps are repeated.
What are the benefits of using Buddy Passes?
There are many benefits for giving and receiving buddy passes.
- Discounted rate for airfare
- Opportunity to visit any destination the airline flies – often both domestic and international options
- Ability to cancel last minute with no airline penalty
How much of a discount does a buddy pass get you?
Many factors will impact savings: destination, seasonality, travel day/time. Here are two examples to illustrate potential savings:
Flight: San Francisco to Orlando
Date: August 24 – 28, 2023
Cost for confirmed seat: $338 per person, roundtrip
Cost with a buddy pass: $232 per person, roundtrip
Savings = 31% or $106 per traveler
Flight: Chicago to Paris, France
Date: September 9 – 16, 2023
Cost for confirmed seat: $965 per person, roundtrip
Cost with a buddy pass: $366 per person, roundtrip
Savings = 164% or $599 per traveler
Note: prices fluctuate day to day, hour by hour. The savings may be higher or lower based on current airfare for the flight.
As you can see, savings will vary wildly. In this case, the international destination leads to higher savings.
It’s Possible to Get an Affordable Upgrade
Don’t go booking your flight right away because it’s not something that happens with any regularity. But it can and does happen. I’ve given family buddy passes and they went on to fly first class from the U.S. to Japan. And now a couple examples of what upgrade costs may look like – if you are one of the lucky pass holders.
Flight: New York to Honolulu
Date: November 23 – 27, 2023
Cost for confirmed seat: $4551 per person, roundtrip for first class
Cost with a buddy pass: $206 per person, roundtrip for first class
Savings = $4345
Flight: Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia
Date: December 23 – 30, 2023
Cost for confirmed seat: $5424 per person, one way for Business class
Cost with a buddy pass: $531 per person, one way for Business class
Savings = $4893
Waived Bag Fees
Bag fees are all over the place. Some airlines charge for checked bags. Some airlines charge for a carry on bag. Sometimes bags are free. But sometimes that only applies to international flights. There are just all kinds of bag policies out there.
One of the benefits with using a buddy pass is waived bag fees. Again, policies vary for every airline. Benefits could extend to a free (or two) checked bag, or a free carry on. A lot of budget fares require you to pay extra for bags, but with a buddy pass, it’s possible to get around this. Proceed with caution – if you decide to check your bags and don’t make the flight, you could be in a sticky situation.
The Opportunity to See the World
Sure, a buddy pass isn’t going to make or break your ability to travel from Denver to Las Vegas. But it could open up other doors. Traveling to islands in the Caribbean is generally pretty expensive. As is traveling to remote places. Or even traveling long distances, like from the U.S. to Bali, Greece, or the Maldives. For some, the high airfare costs can make certain destinations inaccessible. Especially if you are traveling with more than one person, it adds up. Buddy pass discounts can create opportunities for you. The savings you’ll receive may allow some historically expensive locations to now fall within your budget.
What are the limitations of using Buddy Passes?
While buddy passes can be a great way to save money on airfare, there are some downsides to keep in mind.
- The availability of buddy passes is often limited. Airline employees typically have X amount they can give out and this amount varies. That means if you have a family of 5 and you want to travel from New York to Tahiti, it will involve multiple stops and many buddy passes.
- You are never guaranteed a seat. Unquestionably the biggest drawback is that you may or may not get on the flight. Unlike travelers with a confirmed ticket in hand, your ticket won’t have a seat number. And you won’t know if you have a seat until boarding. The stress and uncertainty can deter some people from using buddy passes.
- You can’t pick your seat. If you do end up getting on the flight, you’ll be assigned a seat. You may get an upgrade. You may be split from your travel companions. You may sit by the bathroom. You may get a middle seat. Or you may get an aisle. There really is no predicting where you’ll end up, so you have to be ok with sitting in any seat you’re given.
- It may be a long day. You may not get on your first try, or your second, or your third. You might, but you might not. Unpredictability is the trend here. Using a buddy pass means you could get out on the first flight or you could be sitting in the airport all day waiting for an open flight.
- Logistics planning, like hotels, is tricky. Because you don’t know if you’ll get on a flight, you’ll want to play it safe and book a hotel with free cancellation. Also, booking rental cars, airport transportation, or activities at your destination can be an added challenge.
Is the discount worth the hassle?
I don’t love the answer of “it depends”. It’s not particularly helpful and often leaves you with more questions than when you started. But in this case, that’s the only correct answer. It truly does depend on you.
I’ve seen everything from the best standby travelers to those that just can’t hack it (you know who you are). It depends entirely on your individual situation and personality. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if buddy passes are worth it for you:
If I get stuck waiting all day at the airport for a flight, will my trip be ruined?
Did you book a non refundable hotel? Would sitting in the airport all day destroy your mood? Would you not have fun at your destination because your flight experience didn’t go as you hoped? If the answer to these questions is yes, buddy passes probably aren’t right for you. If the answer is no, you may be ready for standby travel. Go for it!
If I get stuck waiting all day at the airport for a flight, will I be stressed out the whole time?
It’s up to you whether you want to put yourself through the stress of flying standby. Some folks are a hot mess. They think negatively about their odds. Or they complain if they don’t get a flight. They may blame the airline employee. Those folks are not cut out for standby life. And in that case, buying a confirmed ticket is the best option.
But then there’s the other class of people. Those that say, “YOLO. If I don’t get on this flight, it’s not the end of the world. I can always try for the next one. After all, I’m only paying $50”. If that sounds like something you would say and the uncertainty wouldn’t bother you, the buddy pass savings are likely worth it for you.
If I get stuck waiting all day at the airport for a flight, am I going to make life hard for the airline employee?
It’s a delicate relationship – the one between an airline employee and a buddy pass rider. As the airline employee, you want to help your family and friends out. And as the buddy pass rider, you want to save some cash on your next trip. It could very well be the most beautiful relationship. Or it could crash and burn.
When you are the buddy pass rider, it’s ok to ask for updates, but don’t overdo it. Poor buddy pass riders are those that ask for an update every 30 seconds. Or depend on the airline employee to get them to their destination. Or bother the hell out of the gate agent. That’s a real quick way to never see a buddy pass again.
Airline employees get it. We travel standby too and we share similar risks. But know the risks going in and keep your expectations in check. You are never guaranteed to get on a flight. You are never guaranteed to get to your destination. And you have to be nice. Those are the rules.
Do the benefits of using a buddy pass outweigh the risks?
Are you happy to endure uncertainty in order to save money? And when you read through the list, do you feel that you would make a good standby traveler? Or if deciding who to give you buddy passes to, does the person make a good standby candidate? If you find the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, a buddy pass is a great option. They can allow a person to travel places that otherwise may not be possible.
We would choose to endure the chaos every time if it means getting to see the world. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing and we easily make our desired flight. Other times we spend failed nights in Newark, then San Francisco, and finally three days later we make it to Japan. Embrace the adventure and buddy passes can create some wonderful memories.
If you have flexibility in your travel dates and don’t mind potentially waiting for a flight, the discount offered by buddy passes can be worth it. However, if you need to travel on specific dates or want a more comfortable travel experience, it may be worth it to pay full price for a ticket. Additionally, it’s important to consider any additional fees or charges that may come with using a buddy pass.