If you purchase a ticket, you might think that you’ve reserved an actual space on the flight you’ve booked. Occasionally, though, your airline might ask you to give up your seat. If that happens, you can expect to be rewarded with a free ticket or vouchers for hundreds of dollars worth of travel?and you can even volunteer to get the benefit.
You might be denied boarding, or bumped, for a variety of reasons, but most often because the airline has sold more tickets than it has seats available. Airlines usually oversell their flights by 10 to 15 percent to account for passengers who don’t show up, especially business travelers with fully-refundable tickets.
Still, you probably won’t be bumped from a flight unless you volunteer. On average, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT), 19 out of every 10,000 travelers gets bumped, and less than one in 10,000 are bumped involuntarily. Also, airlines will generally make it worth your while to give up your seat, by offering everything from cash to free tickets to travel vouchers. Even at a time when airlines are becoming increasingly frugal, you may be able to sell your seat back for hundreds of dollars, and still catch the next flight home.
Volunteering your seat
Airlines are not allowed to bump anyone from a flight without asking for volunteers first, and the standard practice is to offer substantial incentives. Typical awards for voluntary bumps range up to $300 or more in cash, vouchers, or free tickets.
If your missed flight occurs during a meal time, you can get extra compensation. Generally, you can expect $5 for lunch and $10 for dinner. If the flight you’re bumped to doesn’t leave until the following day, you can ask for hotel accommodations, unless you live in the city where you’re waiting overnight.
Typical awards, according to Bump Tracker, a voluntary service for people to submit their bumping experiences:
- Delta and US Airways will most often offer an open round-trip ticket. Delta also tends to give away food vouchers more freely.
- United will often offer flight vouchers in increments of $100 per hour of your delay, up to a maximum of $300.
- Continental will generally offer a domestic round-trip ticket, or a credit that can be used toward any Continental flight.
- America West, American, Southwest, and Northwest generally offer from $150 to $300 off another ticket; sometimes these awards are given as untaxed “dollar-denominated” vouchers. Generally these awards are in the $300 range, but American has been known to give away as much as $1,000 in vouchers.
One thing to note is that some travelers prefer vouchers over free tickets; free tickets cover an entire trip, but vouchers are treated as cash by the airline, and allow you to upgrade and accrue frequent flyer miles.
Losing your seat
If you do lose your seat, the airline will book you on their next flight that has space available, or on a flight on another airline that better suits your needs.
If you’re bumped against your will, airlines are required to give you $400 in compensation if they can get you to your destination within four hours of your originally scheduled arrival, and $200 if it’s within two hours. The only time you’re not entitled to this compensation is if the government reserves your space, or if the airline downgrades to a smaller plane for safety or operational reasons.
How to up your chances of getting bumped
If you have dollar signs in your eyes, and you want to maximize your chances of a voluntary bump the next time you fly, here are some tips:
- Ask if your flight is overbooked, either on the phone with the airline’s reservations desk or at check-in. Airlines are required to supply a yes or no answer to this question, but not to give any other information. An oversold plane has a higher chance of bumping passengers, but you won’t know for sure until the plane starts boarding.
- Arrive at the airport as early as possible, about 90 minutes before departure for domestic flights. If you don’t arrive within 15 minutes of the scheduled flight time, you won’t be eligible for compensation if you’re bumped.
- When you’re checking in, and when you get to the gate, make it known that you don’t mind being bumped.
- Check the flight schedules for your route on other airlines. That way, you’ll know your choices for getting to your destination as quickly as possible.
- Before agreeing to give up your seat, confirm the details of what the airline is offering you.
Although these tips may help you, there’s no way to guarantee that you’ll be bumped. But remember that you’re doing the airline a favor if you agree to give up your seat, and you’ll be more likely to get a free ticket or a cash voucher. Be firm but polite, and you’ll be able to maximize the compensation you’ll get in return for your generosity.