For the passenger who was dragged off a United Airlines flight in April, getting bumped was a nightmare. But for travelers who have the flexibility to switch flights at the last minute, getting bumped purposely can be desirable. And if you are able to do it over and over, it can be quite lucrative—even more so if you know the best strategies to become a frequent bumpee…
VOLUNTARY VS. INVOLUNTARY BUMPINGS
When airlines need to free up seats, usually because they have overbooked a flight, they offer to bump passengers in exchange for rewards and a seat on a later flight.
To become an expert at being bumped, first you need to know the rules, which differ depending on several factors, including whether you are bumped voluntarily or involuntarily.
If it’s voluntary, which is most often the case, the airline usually offers a voucher that can be used to pay for a future flight.
Typically, the gate agent will announce that the airline is willing to give a travel voucher worth perhaps $150 to $250. Sometimes airlines, including Delta and United, ask passengers if they would be willing to be bumped when they initially check in for an overbooked flight.
If not enough passengers accept an initial offer, the value of the travel vouchers will increase—$500 to $1,000 is not uncommon. United recently said it would start offering up to $10,000 if that’s what it takes to get someone to give up a seat voluntarily—though in practice, the airline is unlikely to need to offer anywhere close to that amount.
If it’s involuntary, FAA rules now require the airline to pay the passenger twice the value of the one-way ticket, up to $675, if the new flight is scheduled to get the passenger to the destination between one and two hours after the original arrival time (one to four hours on international flights)…or four times the value, up to $1,350, if it’s more than two hours past the original arrival time (four hours on international flights). Involuntarily bumped travelers have the right to demand this payment in the form of a check or cash rather than a voucher.
Exceptions: The airline does not have to pay if it puts an involuntarily bumped passenger on a different flight that reaches the destination within one hour of the original arrival time…if the passenger is bumped because the airline substituted a smaller plane for the flight…or in certain other situations. Rules also differ on flights departing from foreign airports.
Involuntary bumpings have become rare, however—out of approximately 475,000 passengers bumped last year, only about 40,000 were involuntary, and that figure is likely to fall in the wake of the United incident.
Helpful: Consider what the travel vouchers are truly worth. If you travel on the airline frequently, its vouchers might be almost as valuable to you as cash. Unlike frequent-flier miles, there generally are no restrictions on when these vouchers can be redeemed. But if you do not fly much and/or this airline does not offer many routes you often travel, the vouchers might not be worth the trouble—particularly because these vouchers often expire in 12 months if not used.
PLAYING THE BUMP GAME
Here’s how to get the most from getting bumped…
• Check the “seat map” before heading to the airport for a flight. If there are no available seats shown for a flight on the airline website a few hours prior to departure, there’s a good chance the flight is overbooked. If you are interested in getting bumped, get to the gate at least 45 to 60 minutes before departure time to ensure that you’re there when the gate agent requests volunteers.
• Position yourself as close as possible to the gate agent. If there are more volunteers than the airline needs, the first ones to reach the agent usually are the ones who get bumped.
• Do not check luggage unless necessary. Travel only with carry-on bags if getting bumped is your goal. Otherwise your checked luggage might take the flight you miss and end up lost…or the gate agent might choose a different volunteer to avoid having to redirect your luggage.
• Evaluate how desperate the airline is. Often the gate agent will announce how many volunteers are needed. As a rule of thumb, if five or more volunteers are needed, there’s a good chance the airline will have to increase its initial offer to find enough volunteers, so the smart strategy might be to decline the initial offer. If only one or two volunteers are needed, the opening offer might be the only one. Exceptions: The airline might have to increase its offer to find even one or two takers if the flight is the last of the day to its destination…or if it’s the last day before a holiday or a major event such as the Super Bowl.
• Instead of saying, “I accept,” say, “What’s my new route and arrival time if I accept?” There’s no way to know whether the offer is worth taking until you find out how much of your time you will lose. Also: If the delay will be lengthy, confirm that the airline will provide vouchers for any meals you need to eat in the airport and/or the hotel room you will need for an overnight stay.
• If the airline needs multiple volunteers, ask for its final offer. Rather than accept the initial offer, tell the gate agent that you are willing to give up your seat as long as you receive the same compensation as the next-to-final passenger to accept, which is likely to be a better offer. Gate agents often will agree to this.
• Ask for upgrades and other perks. In addition to a travel voucher, the gate agent might be willing to give you a first-class seat on a later flight if one is available…a more direct route with shorter or fewer layovers…and/or airport lounge passes. Such things generally are at the gate agent’s discretion, so ask politely.
• Ask for compensation if you get “unbumped” back onto your original flight. This is rare, but sometimes a volunteer ends up back on the original flight after the airline discovers that it does not need to bump as many travelers as it first thought. Not only does the unbumped passenger not get the promised travel voucher, he/she often doesn’t get the original seat, either—and may end up in an undesirable middle seat. And because unbumped passengers usually are the last to board packed flights, there often is no room in the overhead compartments for their carry-on bags.
What to do: Politely request some compensation, such as a voucher or lounge passes that you can use on a future layover (though they probably are much less than you would have received if successfully bumped). If you don’t get anything, later go to the airline’s website and send a politely worded e-mail to the airline’s executives requesting some sort of compensation. The airlines are so worried about bad press these days that there’s a good chance you will be offered something.