I absolutely love that airlines overbook flights. I’ve scored hundreds of dollars worth of airline vouchers from voluntarily denied boarding compensation (“being bumped”). That’s adds up to free flights and more travel for me!
However, for every person out there that loves being bumped, there’s someone out there who had a rigid schedule and can’t afford to end up on a different flight. Here’s the skinny on denied boarding compensation – and how to handle it based on where you fall on the love/hate spectrum.
Bumping is the action of removing a passenger from a flight even when the passenger holds a confirmed ticket for that specific flight.
Every single day, airlines overbook flights to account for no-show passengers. These “no-shows” are more common than you think, and might include someone who cancelled last minute due to extenuating circumstances, an elite flyer who was able to standby on an earlier flight, or even someone who is significantly delayed due to weather. Since an airline doesn’t want those no-show seats to fly empty, it will book more tickets than it has seats for, in hopes of having a plane at exactly full capacity in order to maximize revenue. However, this backfires when everyone actually shows up, which is why an airline sometimes has to bump passengers.
There are two main types of bumping:
- Voluntary Denied Boarding (VDB): When a passenger gives up their seat out of their own free will, usually in exchange for a seat on an alternate flight as well as additional compensation, such as free flight tickets, airline “cash” vouchers and/or upgraded seats.
- Involuntary Denied Boarding (IDB): The act of bumping a passenger without the passenger’s consent.
Obviously, the airline will look for volunteers before bumping someone involuntarily. I love to be that volunteer!
How to Handle Involuntary Bumping:
- Make sure you have a seat assignment. This one isn’t foolproof, but usually holding a seat assignment means you’re more likely to get onboard. Choose a seat at the time of booking (if possible) and/or choose a seat when you check in. If you still don’t have one when you check in, get to your gate early and politely let the gate agent know that you still need a seat assignment.
- Check in with time to spare. Checking in online 24 hours before your flight is simple, but even if you have to check in at the airport, don’t do it 30 minutes before your flight!
- Get to the gate early. Don’t spend too long in those airport lounges; if you don’t arrive in time to board (usually 10-30 minutes before your scheduled flight time), your seat can be given away, with no compensation due to you.
- Know your rights. If you do end up being bumped, ask the airline for a copy of DOT regulations for reference, but keep these general guidelines in mind (for travel within the USA): if your alternate flight gets you to your destination within an hour of the originally scheduled flight, you will not receive compensation. If you arrive between 1-2 hours after the original arrival time, you’ll receive compensation equal to 200% of your one-way fare (up to a $650 maximum) and if you arrive more than 2 hours later than scheduled, you’ll receive 400% of your one-way fare ($1300 maximum). If you’re headed from the USA to an international destination, there’s no compensation for a one hour delay, 200% on delays of 1-4 hours, and 400% on delays of more than four hours. You’re entitled to cash, not just vouchers, so keep that in mind.
- Be polite. I know you’re probably frustrated if you end up being bumped, but instead of yelling at the agent, be polite and then request a few extras. An agent might be able to hook you up with free calling cards, lounge passes, meal vouchers, or other goodies that make the wait until the next flight a little more bearable.
How to Handle Voluntary Bumps:
- Determine which flights are more likely to be overbooked. Business travelers tend to no-show more often than leisure travelers, so look for flight times that attract anyone on a business trip, such as Monday mornings, and “happy hour” flights (Monday-Friday between 4-7pm). Nonstop transcontinental flights also have a tendency to be overbooked compared to flights with a connection partway through. Booking these heavy no-show flights could increase your chances of a VDB (and conversely, avoiding these flights can help you avoid involuntary bumping). Sometimes it’s dumb luck, though, if a mechanical or weather problem leads to flight cancellations and a huge influx of new passengers trying to get on your flight.
- Don’t check a bag. For one thing, it’s easier for an agent to switch you to a different flight if they don’t have to retrieve a bag meaning you might beat someone else to that travel voucher. However, if you did check a bag and switched to a different flight last minute as part of a bump, you don’t want that bag on its original flight.
- Ask questions. Before you commit to a bump, be sure to ask about whether you have a confirmed seat on a different flight, what the new flight schedule is, and if there are any restrictions on your compensation (such as an expiration date on your voucher or black-out dates on your free flight).
- Know your options. Use your laptop or cell phone to check for alternate flights if your original flight is oversold. Taking a bump doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wait for the next scheduled flight on your route. See if you can switch to a routing through a different connecting city, take an extra connection, or fly into an alternate airport at home. Sometimes these options will open up possibilities to get you home earlier that an agent might not have time to search for.
- Be polite. Getting to the gate with time to spare and letting the agent know you’re willing to volunteer can get your name first on the list if they end up in an oversold situation. Just remember not to be a pest (gate agents are busy!), so just let them know once with a smile and along with “please and thank you”.
There’s a lot to consider before volunteering for a bump, but when the stars align you can often get lucrative bonuses just for being inconvenienced by a few hours. There are certainly times when I haven’t volunteered on a bump since my schedule wasn’t flexible, but more often than not, I’m ready to volunteer.