Delta Air Lines gate in Atlanta
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

11 Reasons Why You May Not Want to Use a Buddy Pass When Traveling

One of the least-expensive ways to travel by airplane is on a buddy pass, which is basically an airline ticket whose nominal cost is typically little more than the taxes and fees for an airline ticket. Buddy passes are meant to be used by the relatives or friends — or buddies — of the airline employee who has an limited allotment of them as part of their perks and benefits of employment by the airline.

11 Reasons Why You May Not Want to Use a Buddy Pass When Traveling

If you are fortunate enough to have a friend or relative who is an employee of an airline, chances are that you could have access to a buddy pass; but there are some disadvantages to using one despite the low cost, according to the 11 reasons why you may not want to use a buddy pass when traveling listed below:

1. A Buddy Pass is Only Good When Space is Available

There is no guarantee that you will actually board the airplane which is being used for the flight; but you must arrive at the airport anyway — and as early as possible — to at least have a chance of becoming a passenger on that flight.

I have known people who arrived at the airport — only to find that nothing was available. A friend of mine attempted to use a buddy pass to travel to New York on one particular day to have lunch with friends. Unsuccessful, he had no other choice but to leave the airport and return home.

If you do not like the uncertainty associated with using a buddy pass, then do not consider using one.

2. You are Not Guaranteed a Seat for the Desired Flight

You cannot reserve a seat for the flight on which you want to take to your destination. In fact, there is no guarantee that you will even be a passenger on the flight, as already mentioned. You are usually assigned a seat at the very last minute.

I once traveled on a buddy pass and was assigned a middle seat in the very last row of the airplane. I was actually thankful because I did not know until literally the last minute whether or not I would even be a passenger on the flight in question. Fortunately, it was a short flight.

If the possibility of sitting in a middle seat towards the rear of the aircraft does not appeal to you — despite the low cost — then you might want to reconsider using a buddy pass.

3. There is No Guarantee That You Will Sit With a Companion Traveling With You

Because seats for holders of buddy passes are assigned at the last minute before the doors close for the flight to depart, it is not uncommon for companions to not sit together for the duration of the flight — and if the airplane is fairly full, expect you and your companion to sit separately in middle seats…

…and depending on the rules and policies of the airline, asking a passenger to trade seats with you may not be a good idea — not that anyone would want your middle seat in the rear of the aircraft anyway.

There is also the possibility that only one available seat remains aboard the aircraft for the two of you. What will you do if that happens?

Keep in mind that traveling with a companion using buddy passes can significantly reduce the odds of you traveling on a flight when airplanes are full.

If you intend to travel with companions, you are probably better off purchasing tickets or redeeming frequent flier loyalty program miles than using buddy passes.

4. You Have the Least Priority of Stand-by Status

As the holder of a buddy pass, you are at the absolute lowest priority — that is, unless your buddy pass comes from a senior employee or executive of the airline; and even then, there are no guarantees. Paying customers come first in their typical order: generally, premium cabin passengers board first; followed by passengers with elite level status; and then economy class passengers.

That order is not taking into account passengers who require special assistance; passengers with small children; passengers who have experienced irregular operations from another flight; other non-revenue passengers; “deadheading” airline employees who are traveling for logistical reasons of the airline; or any other passengers — most of whom will have priority over you in terms of being selected to board the airplane…

…that is, if there are any seats left over.

If your name is indeed called on the stand-by list and you are not present or do not claim your seat within a certain period of time, your seat will be allocated to the next person on the stand-by list — and you will be out of luck.

Speaking of irregular operations…

5. You are Not Entitled to Compensation as a Result of Irregular Operations

…if your flight experiences irregular operations — regardless of whether the cause is mechanical, weather or otherwise — you are not entitled to any compensation or benefits when traveling using a buddy pass.

This typically means that you must arrange such things as hotel reservations, alternate transportation options, meals and telephone calls wherever applicable — and also incur all of the costs thereof.

6. You are Not Eligible for Elite Level Status Amenities or Benefits

Forget about such perks as upgrades and priority boarding: even if you currently hold the highest level of elite status in the frequent flier loyalty program of the airline on which you are traveling with your buddy pass, you are not eligible to enjoy any amenities or benefits provided with your elite level status.

If you have not already earned elite level status, you are most likely not missing anything; but some people would rather pay for a ticket for a chance to enjoy the amenities and benefits which they have already earned than save money traveling on a buddy pass.

7. Buddy Passes Can Only Be Used for Leisure Purposes and Not for Business Activities

Buddy passes are intended to be a perk for airline employees for leisure travel; and just as management of an airline would frown upon their employees using their benefits for business purposes outside of the scope of the interests of the airline, so are the use of buddy passes for business purposes highly discouraged, as you can only use them for leisure travel.

Imagine how you would feel if you owned a business and offered a deep discount to your employees — only to have them abuse that privilege and save money when operating their side businesses…

8. No Earning of Frequent Travel Loyalty Program Miles or Points

Traveling on an airplane using a buddy pass cannot earn you any frequent travel loyalty program miles or points. I know of no exceptions to this policy.

I have known people who have turned down the offer of using a buddy pass for this reason, believe it or not. If earning frequent travel loyalty program miles or points is that important to you, perhaps you should not consider using a buddy pass.

9. No Earning Credit Towards Elite Level Status

Traveling on an airplane using a buddy pass cannot earn you any credit towards elite level status in the frequent flier loyalty program of the airline on which you are a passenger. I know of no exceptions to this policy either.

I have known people who have turned down the offer of using a buddy pass for this reason because they are concentrating on earning elite level status for the next year and are willing to pay for the benefits and amenities associated with said elite status. If you are one of those people, perhaps you should not consider using a buddy pass.

10. Behave in an Appropriate Manner

You must be on your best behavior when traveling using a buddy pass. This includes — but is not limited to — not losing your temper when a situation irritates you; not being inebriated in any way, shape or form; and not harassing fellow passengers.

Because employees of airlines are ultimately responsible for how buddy passes are used, any inappropriate behavior on your part while using a buddy pass could result in disciplinary action by the airline against the employee who gave it to you to use — including termination of employment.

As an example, here is a document offered by Delta Air Lines which details the proper business etiquette when traveling while using a buddy pass.

If you tend to easily lose your temper or happen to be a DYKWIA — a person with an over-entitled attitude of self-importance who asks others Do You Know Who I Am?” — then buddy passes are not for you.

11. You Must Dress at the Appropriate Minimum Standard as Set Forth by Airline Policy

Do not even think about wearing clothing which is considered ratty, filthy, unkempt, sexually provocative or sports profane messages. Wearing comfortable casual clothing in a neat manner is acceptable — although some airlines might require business casual as a minimum dress code when traveling using a buddy pass.

Ensure that your personally hygiene is minimally acceptable as well. Do not look like a slob or emit offensive odors, for example.

If the dress code does not appeal to you — or if you feel that it interferes with your appearance, which reflects your personality — then do not consider traveling using a buddy pass.


Traveling using a buddy pass can be an excellent way to see the world while saving a significant amount of money — as long as you are willing to abide by the strict rules and policies of the airline which issued the buddy pass; and as long as you are extremely flexible about the entire process.

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

  1. This might seem kind of obvious, but now that airlines are running at very high load levels , the odds of you getting a seat are the slimmest they have probably ever been. That makes points 1 and 2 even that much more critical.

    1. It depends on the route and other factors as outlined in the article, Captain Kirk. Some flights are still known to be relatively easy to procure seats with buddy passes…

      …but for the most part, you are correct.

  2. I love flying with buddy passes! I’ve flown to Europe twice on them and got first class both times.

    My friend who used to be a flight attendant but has now retired has 6 available passes for her friends to use since her family uses the companion passes. If delta didn’t want them to be able to help their friends travel they wouldn’t give them that many. Yes your article has a few good points but for the majority I never experienced what you talk about here. I’m always treated like everyone else, champagne and all ;).

    If you are a fellow traveler looking to see if buddy passes are worth it- YES! 672 round trip to Japan vs 1600. I think that’s worth getting on the plane last.

  3. And I forgot to add that your flight attendant can see on the back end how full flights are, as well as the stand by list. So you can have a general idea of if you will get on the flight or not. I got on the plane to Barcelona once and the flight said it was full. Some people just don’t show up for their flights.

    Also always try to fly outside of pique season and you’re golden!

  4. Leslie Neff, airline stewardess, Delta airlines informed us today that her husband,Ted has been placed with Hospice. in Miami, Fla. There are 5 of us who would love to be with her. (Playcast of “Steel Magnolias”) Don’t know when we would need to go or when we would return. /we do not need to fly together… Just arrive together as much as possible. What do you suggest? Asheville to Miami
    She is always offering the “buddy passes” but I don’t think any of us ever took her up on the idea. Now, we NEED to.
    Thank you, Kay Sinclair

  5. Ehh points 1&2 and 8&9 are the same and 10&11 apply to anyone that is flying. Also, yes there are some good points but they don’t outweigh the price advantages. Flying to Turkey was $22. Philippines-$17. Rome-$43. Mexico-$50. Portugal-$45. Hong Kong-$20 Colombia- $32. That’s round trip ticket prices. I take some airport stress for that.

    1. There are plenty of people who would agree with you, Castanza

      …but as you point out, there is always a trade-off; and that is dependent on the preferences and the tolerance levels of people — some of whom would rather avoid the potential travails of travel using a buddy pass. This article is for those people.

  6. Brian, you pretty much nailed every requirement for Buddy Pass travel. Been a flight attendant for 29 years now, and when I commute to work, don’t know if I will get on. (even though I check the loads–ya never know) Once had a friend of mine(no longer) who used one of my buddy passes, and I always explained the rules to anyone I gave them to. She became irate when they couldn’t get her on, so they denied her any travel, and I got a call from my company. My passes due to her were suspended for 6 months. I could only fly(commute) to work and no family members (who don’t need buddy passes could not even fly during the 6 months) Needless to say I don’t give passes to anyone anymore.

    1. What an awful story and an abuse of what is considered a privilege, scott.

      Thank you for sharing it and expressing your point of view pertaining to buddy passes.

  7. Can you explain why an agent would say the plane was full and roll over a buddy pass to the next flight when their travel companion who had been split up from them said there were 4 open seats left on the plane?

    1. I am not sure there is enough information for me to speculate on answering that question, Edie.

      For example, did the airplane actually leave with four empty seats; or were they filled at the last minute by four non-revenue passengers with higher status without you knowing about it?

    2. In reply to Edie,
      My friend is a supervisor for Delta and he explained that some aircraft have to leave a few seats empty because of weight restrictions, that’s probably what happened.


      1. Good post, and many appropriate cautions and warnings….. Happens I’m a regular traveler, yet new to Delta’s family pass set up (thanks to family member) — and we recently got stranded out on the west coast (SFO & OAK) just as Delta’s computer meldtown hit. (with over 2,000 flights cancelled over several days) As your cautions would anticipate, those of us hoping to fly standby had little to no chance…. each time we thought we found a long haul flight with promising #’s of open to seats to get back home (and we could readily see/ check via delta’s in-house travelnet), it would either get cancelled an hour before departure, or another flight just ahead of it would get cancelled — and its regular revenue customers then sent scattering to find seats…. and there again would go availability…. After 3 days of trying, we gave up and cobbled Southwest flights to get home to east coast.

        Ordinarily though, it seems a great perk — for those with the flexibility to fly low peak demand times — and loads of backup plans/places to stay if you get stranded at a hub. (like Atlanta)

        1. Alas, should have posted this at end of thread….

          Moreover, my experience with “family” pass (as parent) of employee could be distinct from the “buddy” (or friend) pass…. the former ordinarily has “priority” over the latter…. and yet in many instances, most especially like the recent meltdown, all “standby” pass categories are precarious. (and of course, best behavior/attitude presumed; no complaining, no taking up regular employee time with questions…. for the sake of the one who earned the benefit in the first place. understood.)

  8. How many passes do retired pilots receive a year. What is difference between family and buddy passes?

    1. I believe that both of your questions depends on to which airline you are specifically referring, Lynda Collier.

      As there are readers of The Gate who are both currently and formerly employed in the commercial aviation industry, can you please be more specific with your request?

      1. Former airline employee here who is married to a retired flight attendant. What I’m saying here applies to US airlines as these rules are almost completely dependent upon the US Tax Code. There really are only two categories of passes.

        Category One: Employee/Retiree — This category is tax advantaged. The employee (which includes a retiree), the spouse, dependents (generally have to be at least full-time students under 26), and the employee’s parents do not have to be taxed on their flights under the tax code. US airlines generally provide this group unlimited travel. It’s generally “free” or at a nominal charge. This group also generally has the highest travel priority among NRSA travelers with retirees and parents sometimes having a lower priority. Airlines sometimes include a “travel companion” in this category for unmarried employees in place of the spouse. This travel companion will be given unlimited travel at the same priority but their travel will be taxed. You cannot have both a spouse and a travel companion.

        Category Two: Buddy Passes / Family Passes. Airlines generally grant a limited number of these to employees or retirees – e.g., 8 roundtrips per year, though the number can vary. Some airlines allow the employee to give them to anyone; some limit who you can give them to. They could be given to older children of an employee who don’t meet the definition of dependent under the tax code, for example, or a neighbor who had a death in the family. There is either a service charge for them (paid by the employee) or the employee is charged imputed income. The employee can seek reimbursement of the service charge or the amount of imputed income from the traveler but cannot sell the pass.

        This is general information only as these vary between airlines. Foreign airlines offer similar benefits too.

        1. I appreciate you taking the time to provide that extensive amount of information, Brian.

          Thank you very much.

  9. My sister is a retired flight attendent from Delta. I have used buddy passes for over 25 years .But i must say i am glad they have relaxed the dress code.I was flying to Rome and had on a deim shirt with a tie a blue double breasted jacket. The flight attendant refused to let me board the flight. Lucky there was a mens store right behind me.Dashed in bought a shirt boarded.flight. whew.

  10. This is really a pointless article that could have been summed up in one point. Sure you are not guaranteed a seat but anyone with common sense will check loads before going to airport. Arriving early doesn’t make any difference as you aren’t called until just before boarding. Even rev passengers can be bumped due to overbooking so why not creat a top 11 reasons for not booking a paid ticket?

    1. My kids and I flew a couple of times on buddy passes when our friend worked for one of the airlines. When booking the flight using the passes I could see how many people were on the flight, how many people were already on standby and their “priority” in the standby line. I could log on at any time and see the status of all of the above. Getting to the airport earlier does not help your chances of getting on a flight as stated, however, with the airline we flew, the earlier you checked in the better your chances. So, as soon as I was able to check in online, I did. I did not have problems using the system. I will admit there was some stress sitting at the airport waiting when I knew the flight was almost at capacity and I needed three seats. On a side note related to checked luggage. I was able to check luggage for free. I was reading on another site that it is a hassle with checked luggage if you don’t get on the flight because they have to move it etc. When I asked the woman what happens to my luggage if I don’t get on the flight because I am standby she said “your luggage goes and the airport will keep it for you until you get there.” So that would be something to inquire about if planning on using a buddy pass and flying standbym

  11. So what happens if you are flying standby (buddy etc.) and you don’t get on that flight? Is your “boarding pass” for the flight you tried for good for the next possible flight or do you need to go out and back through security with a new one?


    1. I have not had to experience that personally, Kenneth Deardorff; but passengers with a buddy pass are usually of the lowest priority — so unless there is a seat available on the next flight after all other standby passengers have boarded the airplane, the passenger with the buddy pass will have to wait flight after flight. This could even carry over to the next day and each subsequent day if the flights are that crowded.

      More importantly, the answer to your question is that no boarding pass is issued to a passenger holding a buddy pass unless and until there is an available seat aboard the airplane.

  12. Only get buddy passes from “gate agents” that can help you as they see the horrors of nieve buddy pass users everyday getting denied boarding because the fligh is full. We gate agents know the best times to stand by for flights…….time of the year, time of the month, what days are the best, alternative ways to get to your destination, and the best time of the day. It may not be your first choice and the most convenient but it will increase your odds immensely. Pilots, flight attendants, ramp agents, bless their hearts, I love them, but they do not deal hour to hour, flight to flight with the carnage of standbys.

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