Traveling just got much cheaper. And much more stressful...
A friend of mine offered me a large quantity of United buddy passes, so my travel for the foreseeable future--if I so choose--will be cheap and likely in premium cabins on international flights. But my first experience flying standby, a trip to Chicago last weekend, makes me think that I might just end up buying tickets. Flying standby is not as glamorous as it may seem.
The plan was to meet up with a couple colleagues from Frankfurt in Chicago on Thursday evening, then drive to our buddy's house in Green Lake, Wisconsin for the weekend. I booked myself on an afternoon Philadelphia-Chicago flight at 4:31p (getting to the airport is quite a story...but I'll save it for another post) and made it to the gate just before boarding had started. I looked up to the upgrade waitlist and saw:
Ha! No problem--as long as I got the economy class seat. (you standby directly into first class on United Airlines, but with the complimentary domestic upgrade benefit for UA elites, standbys rarely get into a premium cabin).
But with the flight checked in full, I was still number 9 on the standby list! I hung around until the end of boarding, when two more standbys got on, but I still wasn't close. With the next and last flight of the day to Chicago oversold, it looked like I wouldn't make it.
Unless I connected.
I checked loads and flying via Cleveland looked more promising than via Newark or Washington Dulles. The Cleveland flight was departing shortly, so I made my way over to the gate and was issued a boarding pass for the flight.
No lounge access in Cleveland, but the wi-fi internet was complimentary and fast and I found an electrical outlet to plug in my laptop at the gate to my Chicago flight. It felt like I was a kid again...
There were three seats left on the Chicago flight with two on the standby list, so I got the seat--Economy Plus on a CR7. I made it to Chicago a little later than planned, but it worked.
Last night I had to play the game all over again. The first flight to Philadelphia was operated by a CR7 and I was number 7 on the waitlist. Five eventually cleared, but I was left without a seat.
Next flight was a 757-200, booked even, so my chances looked good. I walked over to the gate and found the flight was delayed 30 minutes due to a late arriving crew. Soon enough, the crew walked up led by Captain Denny Flanagan! Captain Denny walked right up to me, shook my hand and greeted me by name. I am actually pretty good at remembering names, but Denny never forgets a face! Last time I had the chance to fly with Captain Denny I gave up my seat for a bump; this time I was just hoping for an economy class seat on the flight so I would not have to wait three hours for the next flight.
I made it onto the flight...an exit row middle. Smooth flight, good crew, and I made it back to Philadelphia only 10 minutes behind schedule.
Summing up my first non-rev experience on UA: exactly what I expected.
I won't say how much I paid, but it was a much, much, much better deal than buying a revenue ticket. On a shorthaul route like Philadelphia-Chicago, flying economy and missing a flight is not really a problem, but going forward I will be paying the $300-400 for a revenue ticket to California and back when I 1.) earn miles and 2.) typically get an upgrade to first class.
Flying internationally is a more difficult issue. Fares are great, but taxes are high. With base fares as cheap as $79 on many transatlantic UA flights, I am really looking at choosing between flying business class and earning no miles or flying non-upgradeable coach and earning miles. That's a tough choice...and I lean toward the coach option, or better yet spending a bit more and upgrading.
I look forward to seeing what sort of travel I can squeeze into the next several months, but as you can see, the choice to use non-rev benefits is not quite as easy as it may seem. But still a welcome dilemma!