The World According to Rachel: On Traveling Standby

Rachel Ruecker, Senior Editor

Author’s Note: First of all, this is a week late because I forgot to write it last week. I am only human. Leave me alone. Second, this is extremely niche content, even more so than usual. Bear with me.

This spring break, I visited my friend and freshman year roommate Katrina who is studying at NYU Berlin this semester

But I almost didn’t.

If you’ve ever travelled standby, you know that as you sit there, watching person after person, family after family board the flight you so desperately want to get on, you pray — sometimes to a god that you don’t believe in — that someone will miss the flight so you’ll get on.

I have flown standby for my entire life. That’s just how it is when you’re an airline kid. My mom’s a flight attendant — my dad worked on the ramp. Air Canada effectively pays my tuition. I even worked for them over the summer last year. They also get me here every year on that sweet Vancouver-Newark direct flight. I have few complaints about Air Canada.

Freshman year, for American Thanksgiving, my mom and I decided to go to Disney World. The only way for me to get there on Air Canada would’ve involved flying to Toronto first and then down to Orlando, which didn’t make sense, so my mom booked me on a direct flight from Newark on United Airlines. At that point, I had only flown on another airline once in my life — for a class trip to Quebec in sixth grade. This was new territory for me.

So I left class early that day and made it to Newark Liberty International Airport just in time for the flight. But it didn’t matter. It was full. The next one was at 7 p.m., but it had been delayed until 11 p.m. The only other flight was at 10 p.m., and that one didn’t look great either. So there I was, hanging out at the oh-so-glamorous EWR for five more hours. Lucky me. I had a peach Snapple and one of those Sabra hummus and pretzel things for dinner and it cost me like $12.

My mother had long been in Orlando, and so she was just waiting for me at the airport because our hotel was too far to justify driving there and then returning to the airport to get me.

At last, I got on the 11 p.m. flight. Happiest Place on Earth, here I come.

Fast forward to the end of the week, when I was headed back to the Big Apple. My mother’s flight back to sweet, sweet Canada was earlier than mine and so I was left to just hang out at the airport once again. And once again, the first flight was full. And the second. There was a brief moment of hope for the second when the agent thought a family hadn’t arrived yet and it was getting close to departure time. But his colleague corrected him that the Smiths HAD in fact shown up and were happily onboard. If I didn’t get on the last flight, I was going to be alone for the night in Orlando. I was going to have to get a hotel alone. And I don’t know about you, but Florida’s not really the place I want to be stuck in these days. Panic had set in.

Alas, I got on the last flight. I made it back to New York only four hours after I was supposed to. In the grand scheme of my standby travel career, that’s nothing. One time my family was trying to get to my grandmother’s house in New Brunswick — the Canadian one — for Christmas and spent an entire day stuck in Toronto due to weather. Late on Dec. 23, after spending over a day hanging out at Toronto Pearson International Airport, we just decided to get on a flight back to Vancouver. We decorated the house in a day and our luggage with our Christmas gifts inside was God-knows-where, but anything’s better than the Pearson Airport at any time of the year — let alone the holidays.

My point is, while I sat at gate C71 at the Newark Airport two weeks ago, though I had told all my friends I was going to Berlin to visit Katrina over break, I knew there was a very real possibility I wouldn’t make the flight. In fact, even when I checked in the agent told me it was full but “you never know.” It was only a misconnected passenger from Albany that saved the day and freed a seat.

The way back was even more stressful. With flights cancelled during the week due to the snow storm, I feared the domino effect. Passengers keep getting moved due to cancelled and delayed flights — A standby passenger’s worst nightmare. Luckily most people don’t come back from spring break on Fridays and all was not lost.

As for when I have to fly home for summer? Who knows. Catch me struggling through the Newark Airport once again, carrying about a thousand ostentatiously Canadian suitcases, hoping upon hope I make it on the 7 p.m. flight to Vancouver.

Email Rachel Ruecker at [email protected].