Updated: Nov 25, 2018
Although off topic, a lot of my clients and friends are digital nomads. And many use flight benefits from companies such as Delta. But flight benefits are not always beneficial.
The Desperate Guide to Flying Non Revenue or Standby in Amsterdam
About 3 days into my journey I figured out the system. About 6 days in, I started helping others figure it out. It also meant that I was stranded in Amsterdam for 6 days. This was an extreme case. I had used Buddy Passes for the previous 4 years with no issues, but this time there was the perfect storm of issues causing hundreds of people to be stranded.
As an FYI, a Buddy Pass is a flight given by a Delta employee to a friend for a one-time use. The pass users are given a priority order based on the employees’ seniority at Delta. It is much better to get a pass from someone who has been at Delta for 30 years than someone who has been for 2, who is retired, or who is inactive.
Three Tips for When and How to Use a Buddy Pass
1. Don’t travel during the busiest month of the year, July. The summer is busier in general but July is the absolute worst for Buddy Pass travelers. It’s also important to factor in large scale events, music festivals and national events, especially their end dates. The World Cup had just ended so many people were flying through Amsterdam on their way back from Russia.
2. Factor in the amount of flights coming to and from the United States. It doesn’t matter what your final US destination is, when you are desperate, take any open flight back to the states. Amsterdam has the most flights going to and from the US so it is a popular place to fly. That is good and bad. It’s the most popular choice for travelers but you have the best odds of making it out.
3. Weight restrictions exist so if the flight load optimized, you have much less of a chance at getting on. That means they will choose luggage over you. Look at flight cancellations in the US and avoid those flights, as passengers rollover to the next available flight.
If you happen to get stuck in Amsterdam, the flights are operated by KLM and additional patience is needed.
7 Tips for Navigating the Standby System
1. The first thing I recommend is staying positive throughout the process. If you are stranded somewhere you will experience every emotion possible all the way from complete powerlessness and hopelessness, to anger, to discouragement, to disappointment, to impatience, to hopefulness, to optimism, to total excitement, to joy. You may think this is an exaggeration but have you ever stood at the DMV for 8 hours? Try doing that 6 days in a row.
2. Once you are listed on a flight, all you have to do is hand your ticket to the gate attendance and say you are on standby. Don’t explain anything to them. They don’t care and don’t want to hear a sob story. If you have been there a few days, it helps if they recognize you and you know their names. It creates curiosity.
3. Most airlines have a monitor which shows which number in the standby list you hold. KLM operates the Delta flights in Amsterdam and the communication between systems is inaccurate. They don’t show the standby lists on a screen so you can politely ask for it within 1 hour before the flight takes off, which is when the gate closes and they have final numbers. Knowing this is really only so you can gauge your number in line. If you figure this out, you can determine how long you may be waiting for a flight home.
4. Once they close the gates, don’t leave. They will sometimes find one or two more seats on the flight so be patient and let them know that you are “hopeful that an extra seat will magically appear” as politely and comically as possible so they aren’t bothered by you. The nicer you are to them they better. They will not be nice to you. They have so much to do in the closing process and the last thing they want to do is hold the entire plane up for one person. It doesn’t matter. You have to remain positive.
5. If you don’t get on the flight, go straight to the transfer office. Ideally your Buddy Pass friend is awake and can rebook you, but generally it is the middle of the night in the USA. Every airport should have a place to rebook passengers. It is generally a room labeled Delta staff only. Delta staff generally fly standby so you qualify. They will be able to rebook you to the next available flight but it is up to you to determine which flight to choose. Look at the list of available flights and choose the flight with the most available seats and the least amount of non-revenue passengers listed for standby. This list changes constantly so ask for the most up to date standby number. You then weigh the open seats with the standby list. I found, it is better to choose a flight with many open seats, even if the standby list is long.
6. They list you on the flight and give you a receipt but no ticket. You then have to go to a transfer scanner and print the ticket or find a transfer woman to print for you (T4). In Amsterdam they have a single gate, D1, which is an extra security check for all passengers going to America. They don’t list American gate numbers on the screens, only D1. You don’t need to keep going back to D1 once you get the sticker. In order to find out your gate you must ask a gate attendee or the transfer attendant for your gate number.
7. If there are large amounts of people flooding the standby list, you will need to try every single flight possible starting at the earliest morning flight. Try every city. You have to list on the flight at least 1 hour before they take off so choose your path wisely. In Amsterdam you can get listed up to 4x. Once the last flight leaves, have your Buddy Pass friend relist you for the next day. The transfer office closes at 2:30.
You will eventually make it. Tuesday and Wednesday at the best days to try. Go to the city, have fun, and enjoy the process. By the end of this I made a ton of new contacts, people were offering to buy me food and drinks, someone invited me to a side trip in Iceland as a last resort, and I eventually made to back to America.