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5 Lessons I Learned from Flying Non-Rev

United planes
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The recent United Legging-gate episode reminded me of my days as a non-rev pass traveler. An acquaintance who worked for an airline usually had a few extra vouchers every year. As a young professional with a small income and a big curiosity, I gladly accepted the nearly-free passes.

And as glad as I was to have them, they came with a lecture. Every time.

The lecture was about how to behave before and during the flight. It was about what to wear, what to say, how much (or more accurately how little) to drink, and generally how to comport myself.

The recent interaction between the United gate agent and the non-rev passengers in Denver violated what I was lectured about before each and every flight I ever took.

It’s true, the young ladies travelling that day were being held to a higher standard. But no matter what you’ve heard or think you know, this wasn’t a sexist thing. It wasn’t misogyny or ageism either. It was that the young women failed to understand that they voluntarily traded their right to wear anything they wanted in exchange for free or nearly free travel.

Really, all the things I learned apply to being happy and successful in all of life. Here’s what I was told, what I internalized, and why this matters to everyone in every situation.

Be Nice to the Gate Agents

Always smile and be polite. The gate agents control whether you travel or not. Literally, whether you get on the plane or not is at their discretion. When you speak with them, surrender the idea you need to control the situation and instead recognize that being nice will increase your chances of getting on the plane. This doesn’t mean being artificially kind or cloying – you should be genuinely respectful. It helps me to pretend I’m speaking with my grandmother. “Yes ma’am” and “sir” will earn you a lot of goodwill.

Check Your Ego at the Uber

Bluster and an inflated sense of self-importance will do little to help you create and maintain a positive relationship with the gate agents and other airline employees. You may be the fearless leader of your business, your home, or your stamp-collecting club but at the airport traveling non-rev, you are just another customer. And a non-paying one at that.

Dress Nice, No Matter What You’re Doing

It’s always a good idea to look nice. This doesn’t mean you need to go overboard on clothing, jewelry, or makeup but looking nice is always in style. You will probably never be denied a boarding pass for wearing business casual.

This is not the time to make a fashion statement! Although these young ladies were probably not trying to make a statement, they should have known better than to wear leggings or yoga pants. This is not the time to resolve “the way it should be.” This is the time to simply accept “the way it is.”

Patience is a Virtue

When you are paying for a ticket, you have a right to make reasonable demands regarding service level and have a higher expectation for responsiveness from the gate agents. When you are flying non-rev, you give up some of that. This is a good opportunity to recognize that patience will pay dividends in all your daily activities, not just travel. The agents are most likely to respond positively to those who are calm, rational, and smiling.

Prepare to be Flexible

I’ve written before about taking a flexible approach to travel and how that is beneficial in all of life. A Zen-like attitude will not only help you at the terminal but in every aspect of your daily life. Tranquility and peace will serve you well when the carefully scripted schedule gets thrown out the door. Expect the unexpected and you won’t be disappointed.

Remember, you’re not only benefiting from low-cost travel but you are representing your benefactor. How you act reflects on them as much as you. As the United incident illustrates, erring on the side of caution will always be the best bet.


  1. I grew up flying non-rev on several airlines. Even as a kid I wore business causal and a sport jacket. Not sure if the airlines required/preferred it or my mom was just tricking me into dressing up.

  2. Of course being nice to people is always a good rule. Gate agents obviously fall into that group. However, unless you have a reason to speak with a GA, you really don’t even interact with them other than handing them your ticket to scan. If you speak to them about the upgrade list, a seat change, etc. then to treat them poorly means you must really be a dope.

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