One of the perks of airline employment is the ability to travel for free. It isn’t always what it seems, but when it works out, it’s marvelous. There are some tricks and tips you can use to maximize your enjoyment of your flight benefits. In no particular order, here are some of mine:

Have the time off. If you’re going to travel for fun, make sure you have the days off you need, and give yourself time to get home. Most companies will cut you some slack and give you one freebie if you get stuck somewhere, but they won’t give you more than one, and they won’t buy you a seat home. In the same vein, make sure you return to work rested. You owe your employer that much.

Go off season. This is especially true of hot spots and beach destinations. We all want to get a few days on the beach in January, but the people who pay our paychecks—the passengers—book their trips months in advance, and the airplanes are usually full. So, if you want to go to Hawaii or Florida, go in September/October. School has just started, and people aren’t clamoring for a vacation just yet. There are usually a handful of flights that will have a bunch of open seats, and you can come and go fairly easily.

Check the discounts. All airlines have negotiated discounts with various travel vendors, including hotels, rental cars, or resorts. You may need to get some help from your company’s travel department to get a proper employee verification letter (Disney is a stickler for this), but the legwork is worth it, as some of the discounts can be substantial. Also, ask around for advice. There are a few car rental discount websites you can use that will net huge savings—I rented a car through Thrifty on one of these sights in Hawaii that saved me over 50 percent. On another trip to Hawaii, my company discount saved me 70 percent.

Be willing to keep it short. My wife and I found out that our favorite restaurant in Honolulu was going out of business in a few weeks. We decided to manipulate the calendar a bit, and we went out for two nights. We had one full day to enjoy Oahu, and having been there before, it was easy to decide how to make the most of our time, but the trip really was about going to dinner. That remained our focus, and we had a great time.

Know your options. There are several avenues you can use to get accurate passenger load information on flights for almost any airline in the world. Be willing to get creative. If you’re married, make sure your spouse is OK with getting split up. That means making sure your spouse knows how to (quickly) buy a discounted ticket on another carrier if necessary. You may need to ride on the jumpseat, even on a long flight. It’s often a seat of misery, but hey, it’s free, so don’t complain. And remember, the more people who are involved, the more complicated it gets.

Watch the loads. You may need to cut your vacation short and leave early if flights are filling up. Cancellations, equipment changes, and weather can wreak havoc with your plans. Stay flexible, and be ready to leave or early or spend a few extra bucks to stay late. Here’s an example of the unexpected: My family and I were enjoying some days off in St. Petersburg, Florida, when the Tampa Bay Rays won the American League Championship Series to reach the World Series, which was to start a few days later. The next day, flights began filling up rapidly. We had to leave a day early and take a bit of a circuitous route home. Such are the breaks.

The jet-setting lifestyle is a bit of a misnomer, but when it works out, it’s a great perk. Be smart in your planning, and, as with an IFR flight, always have an out. And when it doesn’t go your way, find a way to make the most of it.—Chip Wright