When “Buddy Passes” Go Horribly Wrong

A family of four from Virginia traveling on“buddy passes” on jetBlue Airways wound up stranded in Salt Lake City International Airport for six days recently because flights to go back home were constantly booked with customers.
The family — which included a 13-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy — could not shower the entire time they were in the airport and could only afford to eat one meal per day, resulting in the boy vomiting after several days of being hungry. Fortunately for the family, assistance arrived in the form of donations of a motel room and the purchase of airfare for transportation back home.
There was nothing anyone at jetBlue could do, as they are obligated to ensure that their customers receive the transportation for which they paid.
“Buddy passes” are technically lower-end version of stand-by flights usually used by the friends or families of airline employees, and are only good when there is space available. Because of their low priority during the busy summer travel season, the family of four was forced to wait until all passengers — including requests for last-minute stand-by status — had been seated aboard the aircraft, as other customers are given higher priority. “Buddy passes” are amongst the least-expensive airline tickets you can purchase, although no frequent flier loyalty program points nor credit towards elite status are earned — appealing to a family of four on a tight budget and wanting to travel.
Here is some advice about traveling on a “buddy pass”:

  • Travel during a time of year which is not so busy. Summer and holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas are usually the busiest time of year for travel. Try booking your travel in early November or February as examples of slower times of the year.
  • Travel on a route which is not so busy or which has more frequency of flights. I once waited for several hours at LaGuardia Airport in New York for a flight back to Atlanta, only to catch the flight on which I was originally booked — and I was a stand-by passenger who happened to arrive at the airport much earlier than expected. If I were using a “buddy pass” that day, I would have never made any flight to Atlanta that day.
  • More travelers on “buddy passes” could mean more problems. What if there were two seats available on one of the flights for the aforementioned family of four? Do two members of the family get to go home while the other two stay at the airport indefinitely? Also, the odds of getting seats together decrease dramatically — sometimes to almost impossible — on full flights.
  • Elite status means nothing on a “buddy pass.” On a flight from Raleigh-Durham to Atlanta last year, I sat in a middle seat in the last row even though I had elite status on that particular airline. Oh well — looking at the bright side, at least I had no one to kick my seat from behind.
  • Be flexible. If you have to be at a destination at a certain time or day, you would be ill-advised to travel on a “buddy pass.” I just hope that no one in the aforementioned family of four missed any important appointments or meetings.
  • Have a back-up plan or two. This means having extra cash or available credit on your charge card in case you unexpectedly need food or a hotel room for the night. Have provisions, medications and toiletries available in your carry-on bag. Ensure you have the telephone numbers of anyone you know in town, as they could potentially help you avoid the scenario endured by the family of four. As a last resort, know where are the best places to sleep in the airport if you have no other option available to you.

Don’t get me wrong — “buddy passes” can be a great way to travel very inexpensively, but you must plan your trip wisely and carefully while being prepared for the worst scenario to happen…
…and it seems obvious that the family of four was not prepared for what became six days stranded in an airport.

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