You've heard the announcement before.
The flight is overbooked and $200, $500… oh, it's up to $800 is being offered if you're willing to be bumped.
You've been tempted to take the offer but it will ruin your plans.
Ah, but what if your plans included this possibility? They can and there are people making travel money/credits by planning accordingly.
Why Airlines Overbook Flights
Airlines want to maximize revenue by flying full planes as often as possible. However, if they sell 100% of the seats on a plane they may still fly at less than capacity due to no-shows, cancellations and missed connections. To avoid this they sell more tickets than there are seats.
The number of extra tickets sold is based on historical data. But historical data is not necessarily a predictor of what will actually happen. When the data is wrong and there are more people than seats, someone, perhaps many people, need to be bumped either voluntarily or involuntarily.
There is also an expense side to this picture. A plane sitting waiting for passengers to board costs big money so when an overbooking situation does arise, the airline wants to resolve it as quickly as possible.
Involuntarily Bumped? Know Your Rights
The US Transportation.gov site has an Aviation Consumer Protection section which provides detailed information on consumer rights including bumping rules. Essentially, if you voluntarily accept a bump your compensation is up to a negotiation between you and the airline. If, however, you are bumped involuntarily compensation must be legal tender, not a credit, and goes as follows:
- If they get you to your destination within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time there is not compensation.
- If your delayed arrival is 1-2 hours late domestically or 1-4 hours on international flights you deserve 200% of your one-way fare up to $650.
- If that delay exceeds 2 hours domestically or 4 hours internationally that compensation jumps to 400% to a maximum of $1,300.
- See the full details on involuntary bumping here.
Volunteer to be Bumped and Earn Travel Money
Being voluntarily bumped may be an opportunity to make a bit of money or, at least, an airline credit towards future travel.
My sister and her husband were flying home from Florida earlier this year when they accepted a voluntary bump in Atlanta. For the inconvenience of having to explore Atlanta for a day – which they loved – they were paid $1,000 each!
If only such an opportunity came along often! For frequent flyers it could. One fellow I know of flies weekly for business. Through experience he identified the one flight that tends to be overbooked. With a bit of flexibility in his schedule he books that flight on a regular basis and sometimes earns travel credits when the compensation offered reaches his threshold.
But what if you don't have an inside track like this fellow. With no data available on what flights get overbooked on a regular basis here's the accumulated wisdom I found on how to deal with, and possibly gain from, overbooked flights.
- Fly on the busiest days. Generally speaking early Monday mornings and Friday afternoons tend to be the busiest days for travel. This is when business frequent flyers are traveling and may be less motivated to accept a bump. That said, flights are usually a bit more expensive at these times. But there are days like the day before Thanksgiving that is particularly busy, Fridays in the summer months and at spring break.
- Fly the airlines that overbook the most. According to Airhelp.com Delta, United and Southwest do the most overbooking so you are more likely to be bumped on one of their flights.
- Know what your time is worth. Do you have to meet someone? Do you have a retreat booked? Is money worth taking time from your vacation? Consider all this and decide what amount of money would make compromising your plans worthwhile.
- Know before you go. Check your flight before you leave for the airport. Are there many available seats? None? It's possible there will be a bump process.
- Get to the gate early. The bump auction could happen at any time so be there early so that you can participate.
- The bump auction. When an airline has to bump passengers they want to offer as little compensation as possible. They may start by offering free meals or lounge passes. Is this good enough? You decide. Then they'll go into travel credits perhaps starting at $100 and they'll keep increasing the amount until all needed bumps are dealt with or it's in their interest to involuntarily bump someone. If you had $500 in mind as an acceptable compensation and you waited but all bumps were satisfied at $400 then you get 0. Such is the way of the bump auction. You have to be prepared to lose.
- Another strategy is to accept an early offer and ask at the desk to receive the same compensation as the last offer. Apparently this often works.
- Sit near the gate desk. When your desired bump value is reached you'll want to move quickly. Sit near the gate desk so that you can step up quickly.
- Ask for cash rather than a credit. The terms of a credit can vary and may include blackout dates. This, clearly, isn't great compensation so, if possible, get cash. If it's a credit, know the terms for your airline. Delta offer Delta Dollars. Their policy is clearly written on their site and indicates that Delta Dollar transportation vouchers are good toward the purchase of any published fare on Delta Air Lines.
- Know what the compensation includes. Does the bump mean that you have to fly out the next day? Will the credit you receive include a hotel night and meal vouchers? All this must be considered to know whether your bump is worth it.
- Don't check your bags. If you get bumped you'll want to have your bags with you. All the more reason for using a carry-on. Here's my post on Bare Minimum Packing.