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Want cheap airfares? Buddy up

Airline employee 'buddy passes' offer travel for up to 90% off. Got any friends in high places?

By Donna_Freedman Apr 26, 2012 12:11PM

Image: Passengers on an airplane (© Image Source/Getty Images)Next week I'll fly to Alaska to house-sit, paying about $120 round-trip. Normally that ticket would cost almost $800.

How'd I get such a cheap fare? Friends in high places.

Specifically, a friend who works for an airline. Each year he gets "buddy passes," vouchers for drastically reduced airfares, and each year he's kind enough to offer some to me.


While I wouldn't be so crass as to say "make friends with an airline employee to get buddy passes," I will say this: If you know anyone who works in that industry, ask politely whether he ever has unused passes. You might be surprised.

It's important to note that buddy-pass travel is strictly standby. You shouldn't attempt it unless your travel plans are negotiable.

Best man at a wedding? Look for the best deal you can get on a regular ticket. Retired, self-employed or otherwise easygoing? A buddy pass might be just the ticket, so to speak, if you don't mind the possibility of being bumped in favor of a full-fare customer.

Restrictions DO apply

Last year I was displaced twice. The first time they put me on the next plane. The second time I was rebooked to the first morning flight. (I went back to my daughter's.)

Flexibility is key. If I'd needed to be back at work the next day I would have had to buy a full-fare ticket, negating some or all of the money I'd saved. And if I hadn't had family close by, I'd have had to sleep in an airport chair or pay for a hotel -- again, making the voucher less of a bargain.

This eHow article suggests booking the earliest flight of the day because "people sometimes oversleep and miss flights."

Since I take public transit to the airport, an "early" flight for me is 8:30 a.m. I bring enough food for both breakfast and lunch -- bagel, fruit, a sandwich, nuts -- in case I don't take off until early afternoon.

I don't check a bag, lest it take off without me. Policies vary, but on at least one airline the "non-revenue" customers aren't eligible for free delivery of separated suitcases. Instead, the airline will hold the bag at your destination or forward it to the most convenient airport. (Post continues below.)

Your mileage may vary

Obviously this kind of travel isn't for everyone. If you have time constraints, e.g., you get only one week off and don't want to waste an hour of it, get yourself a regular ticket.

So why deal with the uncertainty? Especially since you're likely to wind up in a middle seat? See "$120 round-trip to Alaska, above."

And keep these tips in mind:

Never buy a buddy pass. Selling passes is a violation of airline policy. If you're found out, your ticket will be confiscated. (You can't claim you didn't know, since the policy is printed on the voucher.)

Don't presume. An airline employee's humorous rant, "The buddy pass bank," takes out after moochers who request vouchers mere moments after meeting him. Don't be that guy.

Behave yourself.
Don't brag about how little you paid. Don't get cranky if you're bumped. In short, don't be a jerk. Doing so will not only cause trouble for the friend who gave you the pass but may also get you eighty-sixed from future voucher travel.


Seriously: Behave yourself. Gate agents can refuse to let you on the plane if you act inappropriately.

More on MSN Money:

Apr 26, 2012 10:33PM
Why is it that some people have to put down every article that is on the internet. If it has meaning, teaches us something we did not know, enhances our knowledge of a subject or is beneficial to learn and can be passed on to others, don't put it down. We are friends with two pilots of different airlines as well as three flight attendants of three different airlines. They graciously ask if we would like a voucher for travel and we always decline and make a suggestion as to who they might ask that can not afford a full fare ticket. They feel good, the receiver is overwhelmed and thankful. The reason we decline is we are frequent fliers and have plenty of travel points. Can't we just be happy for those a little less fortunate than we are? Good grief!! Lighten up.
Apr 26, 2012 1:16PM

Recently I was chatting with the neighbor at one of my rental houses. He shared that his wife was overseas visiting family in the Orient and because he was an airline employee the air fare was REALLY cheap. He's a great guy and was very grateful that his company offered these perks which allowed his DW to visit friends and family more often. Just as you mentioned his wife was basically on "standby" but he considered that a small price to pay.

Alaska...round trip...for $120?.....WOW!

Apr 27, 2012 8:08AM
Spend the money but a ticket in advance!  Buddies are the lowest priority to board. 
Apr 26, 2012 8:02PM
Actually, I have flown on buddy passes.  They are great, with some restrictions.  First of all, don't do it at a busy airport.  You will get bumped, as the airlines tend to OVER book.  Secondly, make sure the person checking you in doesn't accidently take your ticket.  I had one in LA that did, and when the airlines said all I had was a receipt, I disagreed.  They said how do they know I hadn't already used the ticket.  I said, look - this says from SLC to LA and back to SLC.  Does it look like I'm in SLC?  They wouldn't budge.  My luggage traveled home, my son had to come resue me, with me paying for gas.  Not a cheap buddy pass.  Now I pay full air fair.
Apr 26, 2012 9:54PM
@Someone: I've flown in and out of Anchorage (in the summer, when it's tourist madness season) and from Seattle and Phoenix. As I noted in the article, I got bumped once to the next flight and once to the next morning. YMMV.

Apr 27, 2012 1:42PM
@Julie: I'll use advance purchase and look for great deals for two other trips I'm making this year. But those tactics ccouldn't get me a ticket to Alaska for anything close to $120.
I'm aware that I could get bumped, but saving almost $600 is worth the inconvenience.
Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

Apr 26, 2012 7:37PM
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.