Posted by: Korry | September 12, 2011

The Truth About “Free” Travel

Whenever people find out that I’m a pilot, inevitably one of the very first questions they ask is whether or not I get to fly for free on my days off. The short answer is yes. The long answer is, well, much longer…and full of a lot of “buts”. I guess I should start off by giving you a bit of background on this “free” travel.

While I know it sounds amazing to think that airline employees get “free” travel, don’t kid yourself…the only free part of “free” travel (officially known as non-revenue travel) is the opportunity to travel for free.

Truthfully, it’s not totally free…there are taxes and fees that apply, but it is still a great deal. Most airline employees and their immediate families are eligible for non-rev travel benefits although specific benefits vary by airline. That said, there is one very important distinction about non-rev travel that I must clear up right from the start. These “free” tickets are not confirmed seats; rather, they are “space available” tickets. That means that only after every single paying passenger gets on board does a non-rev traveler have even the opportunity to travel for “free”. And even then it’s no guarantee because there may be several employees hoping to get those precious few open seats. Some airlines award open seats to employees based on time of check-in, but more often companies use the employee’s length of service with the company, known as seniority, to award seats. That works great for senior employees and their families, but not nearly as well for new “junior” employees. With time, a junior employee gains seniority and will have better and better luck with non-rev travel, but at the start those travel benefits aren’t nearly as helpful. The bottom line is that non-rev travel works great when it works, but as a junior employee it’s often hard to find one open seat let alone multiple seats for spouses or kids.

But life’s an adventure, right?

My wife, Jen, and I love to travel as much as we can. Being relatively junior with my company has taught us to search for the best flights with the most available seats and, most of all, to get creative. Not so long ago, Jen used her travel benefits to come with me on one of my work trips to Oslo, Norway. On the flight to Oslo, Jen soaked up the amazing service and amenities that came to her in first class. (Tough life, right?) Two days later, Jen enjoyed the sinking feeling that comes from watching my plane push back from the gate while she was sitting in the terminal having missed the flight by just ONE seat.

After I was back in the U.S., the task turned to getting Jen home. Unfortunately, the seat availability (or “loads”) looked terrible for the next several days, so another pilot friend of mine and I got creative in figuring out a plan to get her home should she miss the next day’s flight. Our plan required Jen to take a train to the other Oslo airport. Then she would catch a flight to Dublin and hop on an all-night bus ride across Ireland to Shannon Airport on the west coast. From there, she should be able to get on a flight with much better loads back to New York City. Surprisingly, Jen was not impressed with our travel agent abilities. My friend and I, on the other hand, were mostly disappointed we couldn’t get a ferry or boat of some sort into her itinerary so she could use all modes of transportation. Luckily, Jen made the direct flight from Oslo to NYC the next day. I still think her Oslo “adventure” would have been a great story.

Recently, however, the non-rev system was working beautifully for us. Jen and I had planned a whirlwind trip into a long weekend. We would leave the NYC area and fly to my favorite city, Chicago, to visit some friends. Later, we would fly to Georgia to see my sister. So on Thursday evening, we checked in, went to the gate and were promptly cleared onto the plane. Two hours later, after no delays at all, the wheels touched down at O’Hare.

Our Chicago adventure had just begun.



  1. […] excited this year because Jen (my wife) is using her non-rev travel benefits to come join me in Seattle where I have a long overnight! It will be our first […]

  2. […] hotel room? Forget about it! And with passenger loads as full as they are these days, flying stand-by can be more stressful than […]

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