Ah yes, the wonderful world of non-rev travel. It's one of the biggest perks of working for an airline, and indeed is the only reason many people continue to work in the airlines. Most people outside the airline world aren't familiar with how it works, though.
"Non-rev" is short for non-revenue passenger, but is also used as a verb to describe traveling as a non-rev, i.e. "I'm non-reving to Sydney next week." Non-revs are typically airline employees, parents, spouses, children, and guests. Airline employees traveling on company business aren't considered non-rev, since they are guaranteed a seat. Non-revs travel standby, so they only fly if there's a seat left for them. Once all regular passengers, employees on company business, and revenue standby passengers have boarded, any remaining seats are given to non-revs according to a pre-determined "priority list." A priority list might look like this:
- Employee, parents, spouse, child: According to employee's date of hire.
- Non-revs from closely related airlines, ie United Express employee on United.
- Persons traveling on an employee's guest pass.
- Employees (and parents, spouse, children) from other airlines with pass agreement - priority determined by check-in time.
Traveling solely on one's own airline or even close codeshares would be pretty limiting, so most of the world's airlines have worked out pass agreements with each other. We purchase non-rev tickets on these airlines through our own airline's ticket counters. The cost varies with each pass agreement. Many tickets, like on United, are "ID90." This means that you pay 10% of the full walkup fare, which can get pretty expensive. You can often find deals on Expedia or Hotwire that are cheaper than ID90s - for a ticket that's positive space! A number of carriers have a flat service charge, which is usually $30-50 (plus tax) for domestic roundtrip travel, around $60-80 for Hawaii or Mexico, and $120-200 for Europe or Asia. Another type of pass that's becoming increasingly popular, especially with foreign carriers, is ZED (Zonal Employee Discount). The cost of a ZED pass depends on the distance traveled, and is the same price for all airlines that accept it. For example, a segment of 4080-5000 miles costs $60 plus tax. It's much cheaper than ID90's and most service charges, and once fully implemented it'll be much more flexible, since passes will be interchangeable among carriers.
Of course, the tax man will always take his due. When buying non-rev tickets on other airlines, you'll have sales tax, airport use fees, and security fees added on. For international travel, most countries add an exorbitant departure tax - $40-80 is common. You pay this even on your own airline, which usually takes it out of your paycheck.
After purchasing the ticket, you need to research which flights to take. I regularly download current timetables for about 30 airlines on my computer; many employees keep them on their PalmPilots or Blackberries. When direct flights aren't feasible, I'll try to connect through the hub city with the most options. For example, if I was trying to get from Portland to Cleveland, I'd probably connect through Chicago, because then I'd have AA, AS, and UA to Chicago, and AA, UA, and DL to Cleveland. Early morning flights sometimes have lighter loads, but afternoon flights may have seats opened up by misconnecting passengers. Eastbound redeye flights used to be a good option for non-revs but have become very popular the last few years. Fridays and Sundays are very bad days to travel standby; Tuesday and Wednesday are best.
Your next step is to see what the load factors look like. On your own airline or a close codeshare, the company often provides a phone number or website where you can check loads. If it's another carrier, a friend at that airline can be a great resource to check loads for you. No friends? Call the airline's reservations line and identify yourself as a non-rev. Some res agents will give you the exact loads, while others will play coy ("it looks okay." What's that mean!?). It's best to check a day or two before the flight at the soonest. If it's seriously oversold, find something else. If there are a few seats left or it's only slightly oversold, you can still try for it, but come up with a good backup plan or two. If 10% or more of the plane is open, you should be fine unless cancellations screw up your plan.
Before showing up at the airport, you need to list yourself, ie get yourself in the airline's reservation system. At your own airline there's probably a website and/or phone number for this; at other airlines you'll do it through their reservation hotline. Once at the airport, you'll go to the check-in counter or kiosk to check in like a regular passenger. You'll get a pass to get through security. At the gate, the agents will assign remaining seats to non-revs towards the end of the boarding process. Just wait for your name to be called. Be ready to go as soon as it is, or they'll give your seat away to the next non-rev on the priority list.
Whether traveling on your own airline or another, there is a code of conduct for non-revs to follow. First, you're expected to dress up. No sandles, no halter tops, no holey jeans or t-shirts, no sweatpants, no ratty sneakers, certainly no pajamas. In other words, don't dress like 50% of today's passengers. If you want any chance at first class, business casual is a minimum. Secondly, don't be a jerk to the gate agents, even if they're rude to you. Be polite and undemanding, and don't ask about open seats every three minutes. If you don't get on, don't protest. If you do get on, introduce yourself as a non-rev to the flight attendants and let them know where you're sitting if they need your help. Don't consider yourself home free until the cabin door is closed and the plane is pushing back; I've had gate agents run onboard at the last minute to replace me with a paying passenger. When the flight attendants offer you a meal, make sure there's enough for everybody first. And when the flight is over, help the flight attendants clean up if that's one of their duties (ie Southwest, jetBlue, most regional airlines, etc).
These days, the U.S. airlines are flying around with some very full airplanes; how they continue to lose massive amounts of money is beyond me. It makes it pretty tough to be a non-rev. The key is staying flexible. Accept that you're not going to get on all the flights, and have a good backup plan. Buy plenty of backup passes on other airlines; they're all refundable if you don't use them. Leave plenty of time in your plans for travel, and don't be surprised if you spend some significant time waiting in airline terminals. I've even spent the night in a few airports. Usually, though, by monitoring the loads, traveling at non-peak times, and making good backup plans, you can get around with a minimum of fuss.
So you don't work for the airlines, but your sister's friend's third cousin does. Can they hook you up? Sorta. Most employees get a certain number of guest passes (or "buddy passes") per year that they can give to anyone they please. These are valid only on the employee's airline, and they're usually ID90's. Remember, that's 90% off the full walkup fare, so it can still involve significant cost. Most employees are reluctant to give these to anyone they don't know very well just because if the guest makes a nuisaince of themselves, the employee will hear about it. So if you are given a buddy pass, be on your best behavior.