What Is Non-Rev Travel? Breaking It Down for Newbie Standby Travelers

Woman boards a Lufthansa flight as a non rev passenger

If you’re new to the airline industry, you’ll quickly find these terms thrown around everywhere. What is non-rev travel? How does flying standby work? We’re breaking everything down for all our newbie standby traveler friends. We’ve been at this non-rev travel thing for several years and want to share what it’s like for any beginner non-revvers out there.

First, what is non-rev travel?

Let’s start with the basics. What is non-rev travel? The term stands for “non-revenue”, which means you only pay a fraction of the actual ticket cost, if any. In many cases, the ticket may be free. The airline is not making money from non-rev tickets. In some cases (especially international) you may pay a small amount for taxes. Non-rev is a benefit of airline employees. And the term is used to describe how airline staff travel.

Who can take advantage of non-rev travel benefits?

Non rev travel day | family hanging out at the airport while on a layover

A long list of people. If you’re not an airline employee, don’t count yourself out. Non-rev or staff travel benefits often extend to spouses, children, and parents, often called “pass riders”. Even family and friends can use some portion of the benefits. It may be slightly different airline to airline, but for us, spouse or domestic partner, kids under the age of 26, and up to two parents qualify to receive the non-rev travel benefits. Sometimes family and friends can also receive perks, using a buddy pass.

What are buddy passes?

For friends and family who want to use employee travel privileges, they use a buddy pass. Employees are typically given a certain allotment of buddy passes every year and they can disperse them to close friends and family. I say close, because it’s VERY against the rules to sell them or give them to random people who you don’t consider close friends or family members. Buddy passes cost more than what employees (or employee immediate family) pay, but they are a way to extend some airfare deals to family and friends.

What’s the catch?

Mom with two kids on an airplane during non rev travel

It sounds a little too good to be true, right? Flying around the world for free (or very close to free). Well, it does come at the price of convenience. Flying non-rev means you’ll also have to fly standby. Another fun term. Flying standby means you don’t get a seat on the plane…unless there are leftover seats after all paying customers have boarded. Unoccupied seats can come from the flight not selling out, or people missing their flight. And standby life is not for the faint of heart.

It’s like a game. A twisted game. The Hunger Games. You’ll likely be able to access your own airline’s flight loads to get an idea of how many seats are open. But additional seats sell the day of travel. Sometimes people miss flights and seats become available. Sometimes the airline oversells flights. It’s really really hard to predict what will happen when you arrive to the airport. And that’s why non-rev travel can be a guessing game. And you may want to come prepared with a backup plan…or ten.

We created another article on flying standby about how we choose our destinations. It also has some videos of our standby experiences.

Two kids meet two female pilots in an airplane after landing

Can you fly non-rev international or on different airlines?

I don’t want to provide a blanket statement here because it could vary for every airline. But I’ll talk about our particular experience. The answer to both questions, for us, is yes. You can fly international and on different airlines.

Dad and son on a long haul flight to Buenos Aires

Flying non-rev internationally

Flying non-revenue on international flights works largely the same as domestic except you’ll likely have to pay international taxes. You still put yourself on the standby list and you still only get to fly if there are empty seats. In our experience, international flights are bigger and often are easier to find empty seats. And from a cost perspective, international taxes and fees don’t run very high so it’s still pretty affordable. We’ve traveled non-rev to Paris, Brussels, Buenos Aires, London, Cancun, Tokyo, and Barcelona to name a few. And for each person, international taxes are usually only $100-$300. Not bad for international!

Flying non-rev on other airlines

Woman boards a Lufthansa flight as a non rev passenger

Reasons for flying on other airlines:

  • Your airline doesn’t fly to a particular destination
  • Your airline looks pretty full on the day you want to travel

Many airlines have agreements with each other to extend non-rev travel privileges. So you can fly on other airlines. And other airline employees can fly on your airline. The downside? The cost is usually a bit more expensive than flying on your own airline. And you may not be able to access the flight loads, which makes planning difficult. Luckily, there are sites like Staff Traveler that can help with finding seat availability on other airlines.

How does the non-rev process work?

View from an airplane window getting ready to land in Chicago

Now that you know what non-rev travel is, let’s talk about how it works in practice. You’ll have an employee system (often pass riders can access this system). Once you determine your destination and flight time, you put yourself on the standby list. You’ll get a standby ticket to get through airport security. And then you show up at the airport like a normal passenger. At this point you cross your fingers and hope the gate agent calls your name.

There are many, many factors that contribute to standby success. We won’t go into too much detail as it varies wildly from airline to airline. But there will be a prioritized list of all the non-revvers trying to get on the flight. Your priority on the list will be determined by things like how long the employee has been with the company, if you’re traveling with the employee, if you’re a buddy pass rider. Other airlines do it differently and base priority by when you listed for the flight. There are also dress codes for some airlines.

And a story about our first non-rev experience

That was a lot of information thrown at you. So, it’s time for a little fun. This is the story of our very first non rev travel experience.

It was about 2 months into working for the airline. And we were anxious to start using travel benefits. One Friday at work, I called up Nick and said “what do you think about going to Brussels?” Yes, Belgium. After a few seconds of silence, I followed up my original question with “also, how fast can you pack our bags?”

Nick went home on his lunch break, packed our bags and passports, and went back to work. About 5 hours later, the workday was over and we were making our way through airport security. I had noticed earlier at work that Brussels was wide open. Being our first standby flying experience, we wanted to wait for a flight that was a sure thing (or at least as close to it as you can get as an airline employee). Brussels fit the bill, so there we were. Waiting and not really sure what we were doing. One of the coolest parts of non-rev travel is you can decide last minute to take a trip, pack your bags, and go.

There were only a few people ahead of us on the list, so we got on the flight. Not only that, but first class seats were open. So we shelled out a bit of additional money and had one heck of a luxurious first non-rev experience. We got so filled up, we almost had to turn down an ice cream sundae. Almost. Yes, that sounds snobby AF. And I’m only saying it here because most of you reading this have access to the same experiences with your travel benefits. So I don’t feel that guilty. Also, I was pregnant at the time so I didn’t get to partake in the adult beverages.

Sundae dessert on a long haul flight to Brussels
I wanted to pass, but my baby belly did not. Baby belly won.

Once we got to Belgium, it was Saturday morning and we were there less than 24 hours. We had to come back on Sunday so we could be back at work Monday. We booked our hotel using the secret hot rate hotels on Hotwire. When we got there, the hotel was closed so we had to roll our bags around everywhere for several hours. We had some Belgium chocolate. Waffles. Mussels. And since it was December, we visited the Christmas market. Ok, so we ate the whole time. I was pregnant and hungry.

The next day, we went to the airport and were cleared once again from the standby list. Like I said, we made sure before we left the flights were very wide open. At first, we were super terrified to take any risks. But that’s no longer the case.

How’s that for satisfying a chocolate pregnancy craving?

Family on Standby

That story painted kind of a rosy picture. But most times, it’s nothing like that. Especially adding kids (and extra travelers) to the picture. If you’re still appalled by the ice cream comment and flying first class, here are some of our other non rev travel experiences that didn’t go quite as smoothly:

4 year old hanging out in the airport while waiting for a standby flight
  • We once sat at the airport for an entire day after trying 7 different destinations and didn’t board a single flight. We tried flying on President’s Day.
  • When flying home from Barcelona, there was an unexpected taxi strike. We had to find a public bus last minute and just barely made it to the airport on time.
  • Flying home from Buenos Aires, it took us 3 flights, an Uber in between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and a surprise overnight hotel stay. Sometimes that happens.

At the end of the day, whether lounging in first class or sleeping on the airport floor because you can’t get a flight out, non-rev travel is an adventure. And it comes with some hilarious, fun, and bittersweet stories.

Are you new to non-rev travel? Or do you have your own story?

Economy cabin from a United Airlines flight

Let us know where you are in your non-rev journey! We love hearing stories from other non-rev travelers. And if you have your own interesting non-rev travel experience, we want to feature your story. Tweet us at @FamilyOnStandby, leave a comment with your story below, or send us an email to hi (at) familyonstandby.com so we can feature you!

If you don’t yet follow our Youtube channel Family on Standby we film all of our standby adventures. The good and the bad.

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