How to Cash In On Getting Bumped From a Flight


Even before a United passenger was infamously dragged off a plane because his flight was overbooked, most people dreaded getting bumped from a scheduled flight. And yet, there are travelers who actively try to get bumped in order to reap the financial rewards airlines sometimes offer, which is usually a few hundred dollars in vouchers for future flights.

However, airlines have been known to offer higher amounts, and cash or gift cards instead of vouchers. And now that United has rewritten its rules to offer customers up to $10,000 to give up a seat (and Delta will pay up to $9,950), there could be some real profit in the pursuit of the bump. Let's look at some tried and true bumpee tactics to learn how you can get in on the action.

Pad your travel itinerary with extra time

You've probably heard gate staff announcing that they're looking for folks to give up their seats, and then offer an escalating reward. As the numbers climb higher, you sit there kicking yourself for booking your flight the night before the wedding you're supposed to attend, making it impossible for you to take the deal.

When possible, fly in a day earlier than you think you need to. Not only does this give you the freedom to accept a bump, but it makes it less likely that you'll miss your event due to other delays.

Choose a bump-friendly airline

Some airlines bump travelers more often than others. Fortunately, this data is publicly available. The Department of Transportation records two kinds of bumps: voluntary, as in, they paid you to give up your flight; and involuntary, as in what happened to Dr. David Dao on that United plane in Chicago.

In 2016, Delta had the most voluntary bumps at 129,825, followed by Southwest at 88,628, and United at 62,895. It's impossible to say if United's new, more passenger-friendly booking policies will change this in the next year, but based on past behavior, Delta is your best bet for getting paid to give up your seat.

Delta has also been known as being particularly generous with its rewards; a Forbes columnist and her family got paid $11,000 in gift cards to give up seats on several flights in one weekend. Sure, some of it was luck, but they also had a flexible travel schedule, they were willing to give up their seats each time their flights were rebooked, and they negotiated bump compensation to get the best deals.

Choose a bump-friendly flight

While some travel experts dismiss the notion that flights at any given time are more likely to be overbooked, others advocate booking flights on those nightmare days other flexible travelers avoid: the holidays, Monday mornings, and during periods of bad weather. The biggest downside to this tactic is that flights tend to be more expensive during busy times.

Have alternate plans in mind

Sometimes I've not volunteered for bump compensation simply because I didn't have enough time to think through how a schedule change would affect my plans. But if you know the opportunity to get bumped is a possibility, you can make contingency plans.

How would you know in advance that you might get bumped? Check the day before, and before you leave for the airport, to see if the flight is full. You can find out if a flight is sold out by going through the booking process up until the part where you would pay on the airline site, or you could check the seat maps on ExpertFlyer.

Once you know your flight is fully booked, research alternative flights that would get you to your destination at a satisfactory time, warn friends and family that you might be late, and pack a snack for a possible extended wait at the airport. Most importantly, avoid checking luggage.

For most people, getting bumped means arriving late. But sometimes people give up their trips altogether, for the right offer. That columnist who got paid $11,000 originally thought she was going to be late to see family in Florida, but when the offers got richer and the family got bumped again and again, they ended up giving up their weekend altogether. For them, at that price, it was worth it.

Request the bump the right way

This is perhaps the most important step of all. Some airlines, including Delta, allow you to indicate when checking in if you'd be willing to give up your seat for compensation, and for how much.

For other airlines, your best bet is to arrive at the gate early, luggage in hand, and let the gate staff know that you'd be interested in being "voluntarily denied boarding." If you have already researched an alternative flight, tell them about it. If they have multiple volunteers, staff are more likely to choose someone who makes the rebooking process easy for them. Then, stick close to gate area so you don't miss any announcements.

Negotiate well

So you've been chosen for voluntarily denied boarding! The work isn't over yet. Before agreeing to go ahead with the deal, ask (nicely) for these things:

  • A good seat on the rebooked flight of your choice.

  • A higher amount. They offered $500? It doesn't hurt to ask for $800.

  • Meals and lodging during your delay.

  • Cash instead of vouchers.

Vouchers have expiration dates and other restrictions that can make them hard to use. Most airlines offer vouchers as a default; so ask if you can get cash or gift cards instead.

If the airline is asking you to fly the next day, it will probably also cover your hotel and dinner for the night. If the delay is less than a day, you should be able to get meal vouchers to use at the airport. (See also: 7 Best Websites for Last-Minute Airfare Deals)

Understand that it's never a guarantee until the plane takes off

Even after planning ahead and negotiating a bump, chances are you'll end up on your original flight anyway. Usually gate staff gathers a list of volunteers, but it's not a done deal until the flight boards, because if anyone misses the flight, they won't need to bump you after all. With this in mind, make sure to let the staff know you want to retain your seat assignment and boarding pass while you wait.

And however it ends up, don't forget to thank the gate staff who worked with you! Smart frequent travelers even carry gift cards or chocolates to thank staff members who get them bump offers.

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