What It's Like to Fly for Free

I have only ever flown on one airline. It’s all that I know because, for my whole life, my family has been blessed with some perks.

My grandmother started working in cabin service for this airline in 1977 before retiring 28 years later. As a part of her employee perks, family members can get various discounts on flights with a buddy pass or as a non-dependent child. But the Holy Grail of discounts is the companion pass.

Each employee can name one person as their companion, and the two of them will both enjoy free flights. Usually, this person is a spouse, but it can be anyone the employee chooses. My grandmother chose me because I go to school so far from home.

Though I wasn’t named a companion until a few months ago, I’ve been flying on buddy passes my whole life. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

You fly a LOT. 

The average person takes 2.1 trips on an airline per year. By the end of this year, I will have taken 17 flights. When you have such an incredible gift as discounted flights, you want to make the most of it. Most of my flying is between home and school but I try to make a few extra trips when I can. For instance, I’ll be going to Texas for a weekend soon to take senior portraits for my sister.

You’re not guaranteed a seat.

Airlines value their paying customers, and would rather sell a seat for the full price than give it away to a discounted or “non-revenue” passenger. When I fly on my companion pass, I get put in a standby queue. This means that I only get on a flight if there are still available seats a half-hour prior to departure. If the flight is full, I have to find another way to get where I’m going.

Getting booted off of a flight sucks.

Though it doesn’t happen too often, I’ve been booted off several flights. In 2015, a two-hour layover in Atlanta turned into 30 hours as we failed to make eight different flights. Most recently, I spent three days trying to get from home to school before I finally gave in and bought a ticket.

You’re more likely to get upgraded.

If I do make it on a flight, it will sometimes be in first-class or comfort class. Most people fly coach so seats tend to be open in these higher classes. 

It’s hard to find people to travel with. 

Flying can get really expensive so I have to understand that others fly sparingly. This makes it challenging when you want to split the cost of lodging with someone or travel in groups for safety. I’d love to travel and explore new places, but I usually only fly where I know people. 

It’s helped me go to some amazing places.

This summer I traveled internationally for the first time since I was a baby to visit a friend in Greece. She had been begging me to go for years and it was only after I got my companion pass that I could finally finance the trip. My pass has also been a key factor in allowing me to go to college so far from home.

It's not the only way to get discounts on flights.

If you don't have a family member working for an airline but want to travel, there are still ways to get some pretty sweet discounts. See if your airline has rewards programs, such as credit cards, opportunities to earn miles, or companion certificates. There are lots of people out there who have traveled the world based on miles they earned through their airline credit cards. If you plan it out correctly, you could fund your next trip without spending a single dollar more than what you normally spend.

Flying for free, like flying in general, has its ups and downs (pun intended). I’m beyond thankful for the experiences I’ve had flying on a companion pass, but I’m especially thankful to my grandmother, whose hard work has made all of this possible. I’m dedicating this article to her because I believe the best travel agent is the one you can also call grandma.

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