Try flying stand-by as an airline employee

A lot of folks, upon hearing that we enjoy some nice benefits being part of an airline family, comment (with envy), “Ohhh, you must get to fly everywhere for free! How awesome!” And yes, there are definitely some perks being airline employees who can fly on our own airline for “free” and many others for a pittance. But make no mistake, many of our #SAtraveladventures (SA, or “space available,” is code for “You might get on, you might not, but either way be prepared with a backup plan and NEVER lose your shit when you don’t get where you were hoping to go”) are just that–adventures.

Last year, we went to Costa Rica on our own airline, which, on an international flight, means we pay the mandatory taxes for the flight (but not much else). Awesome right? Yes. It was. When we finally got there. But let me open the kimono a bit on how getting there actually works out when you’re a family of four travelling to a warm destination when lots of other paying customers (i.e., “revenued passengers” or “PAX”) want to go there too.

We drive from our home in Northern California to San Francisco airport. Flight loads (or how many rev PAX, are booked, confirmed, checked in for the flight) look good. But something happens in the 2+ hours it takes us to drive to the airport (in this case, another carrier canceled a flight and rolled their PAX to the flight we were hoping to get on, which, coincidentally, was the last flight of the day to LAX–where we were connecting to our Costa Rica flight). Uh-oh. That means, as we check loads again when we are driving up to the airport parking lot, we see equates with NO seats available on our necessary flight to LAX. Upon checking in with the agent at the departures area, we learn that, as we suspected, there’s no chance in h**l that we are getting on that flight to LAX. And it’s nearly midnight, so no other carriers have a flight to LAX that will get us there in time for our connection to Costa Rica.

We walk away from the check in area, which is complete mayhem because the other paid PAX are reeling from this news and frantically trying to ensure they, too, get on that flight…. and begin to figure out how to course correct. The new plan? We frantically book a one-way rental car (before the rental car agencies close for the night at midnight) from SFO and DRIVE to LAX. (We can’t drive our own car there because we were supposed to fly back to SFO and need our car here for the drive home). Yes, drive ALL NIGHT after being up all day, driving 2+ hours to SFO, and hope to get on the early morning flight out of LAX (around 8am) to Costa Rica. Here goes nothing!

While the kiddos sleep, hubby and I haul booty down the I-5 South to LAX, checking traffic all the way and hoping we beat the morning LA traffic. We scream into the LAX rental car return center, rush to the check in area, get through security, then sit and hope we get on the Costa Rica flight (which incidentally has also gotten full overnight, Murphy’s law). And in the miracle of all miracles, we GET ON. WOOT!

This year for spring break, I decided to get smart and book “positive-space” tickets on our own airline to get to Mexico. This time, I think, “No way I’m chancing my one opportunity to get to a beach since last year.” While I was, by miracle, able to get us confirmed seats on the Seattle-Puerto Vallarta leg of our trip, I wasn’t able to get PST (positive space tickets) for the short hop from our hometown to Seattle. No biggie! (I think). There are enough flights for that short hop, it’ll be no problem. *Famous last words.*

Saturday, as we are prepping the house to get out of town, do all kinds of last-minute things that need doing and, oh yea, packing for the trip, we check the loads and discover that oh shnikes, the flights from SMF-SEA are horrendous. So we look at every other possibility to get to Seattle. (and I mean every other possibility)—like: SFO, SJC, OAK, Santa Rosa, San Diego, hell, even driving to Medford (Oregon) or Redman (Oregon) –both 5-7+ hour drives from home, to get a flight to Seattle. We check the loads and decide to just go a day earlier (TODAY, Saturday) and pack frantically–throwing things in suitcases, yelling out instructions to the kids to help us get on the road, because we need to leave for the airport 2 hours after checking the loads!

Scene at the airport a couple hours later: We are at the gate, the flight is boarding, and it is becoming increasingly clear that many other non-revs have been at the airport all day and are desperate to get this last flight to Seattle tonight. There were 24+ non-revs listed for the previous flight and only 3 got on. So in addition to the 10+ people that were listed for our 8 pm flight, we now have the other 20+ people waiting for the flight we need to make our connection to Seattle. You can see where this is heading, right? We discuss the option of splitting (when the loads are bad, hubby and I discuss which one of us will go, and with which kid, if there are only 1-2 seats available). This, of course happens. Except the option this time is hubby can ride “jumpseat” (or JAX in airline lingo)–he can ride in the cockpit with the pilots and our older kid can ride as an unaccompanied minor in the back (i.e., in a regular seat by himself). Said older son is NOT happy about this option. And hubby points out that unless I’m willing to drive half the night to Redman with my younger son and go for the early morning flight to SEA, I’m probably not going to make it to Seattle in time. So, we decide to let that last seat go to a single non-rev and stick together. Ride or die baby!

The Seattle flight closes and now all the rest of us non-revs are waiting for the VERY last flight out of the night, to Portland (PDX). It’s, once again, becoming clear that there aren’t enough seats to accommodate all of us (the plane is smaller than the Seattle flight and almost sold out). The gate agent tells us the best option is to buy 4 of the 6 remaining seats, but they are well over $300 each. For coach. One way. UGH. Frantic searching ensues. Hubby, once again, suggests we rent a car and just drive all night to Oregon and hop on the morning flights out of Medford or Redman to Seattle. I stay strong, I’m NOT doing that again. It was miserable last time (Costa Rica) and I don’t want to go through that again. So…. we suck it up, justify the costs to ourselves again and hit “Purchase” on those 4 (first-class) tickets to PDX. The cost is insane, but at least we know we will get to PDX and can drive the relatively short 2-3 hours to Seattle in the morning. Plus, we can catch a few zzzs at the PDX airport hotel and not be completely ruined the next day. So, that’s what we do.

Us purchasing those 4 tickets meant that most of those non-revs didn’t get on (and never had a chance)… but c’est la vie. Sorry guys! We’re flyin’ by the seat of our pants right now.. and hilariously, our youngest catches this and asks us, “Daddy, do we know where we are going? What are we doing?” HAHAHA. No kid, we don’t. Get used to it.

As we board, we ask the in-flights (flight attendants) where the closest crew hotel is, google it, and call them just as the airplane doors are closing to see if they have a bed for us tonight. In the first bit of good news, they say “Sure! No problem, just show up when you land.” PHEW. Hubby races to rent a one-way car from PDX to SEA, the door closes and devices go off.

The rest of our travels go relatively smooth. We fall asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow at the Shilo Inn at PDX, we get up a few hours later and get on the road. (You know its early when the only people at the local Starbucks are the Sheriffs). We cruise up to SEA, drop that rental car off like its hot and hoof it to the gate. Board our flight to PVR and boom, curtain closes.

We were exhausted by the time we get to Puerto Vallarta? HELL YES. But was it worth it? YUP.

Hubby claims that he likes the “adventure” of it all–not always knowing where we’re going, when we’re going to get there, how it’s all going to shake out. He also has this unshakeable optimism that it’ll all just “work out.” Good thing because one of us needs to be the cheerleader when the rest of our crew is falling apart. The other one will keep on putting together impossible itineraries and #doingthethings because inevitably, that’s how we roll.

Until the next adventure! But for now, some tacos, cervezas and the beach are calling us . . . .