Nothing gets my heart racing (well almost nothing) like a free trip somewhere. This is a fun topic for me, because I enjoy this benefit of frugal travel so much. Enter “The Bump” – Voluntary Denied Boarding.
Airlines sell more seats for each flight than the plane will accommodate. Why? Because some people won’t show up for their flights. Others actually fly on expensive refundable tickets. Some invoke the “spare tire” rule, effectively allowing them to fly a later time on the same day. And sometimes with irregular operations or maybe weather, the airlines just sell more seats than they can accommodate. There are numerous situations that justify an airline “overselling” a flight. From the airlines’ perspective, if a seat goes out empty, it means lost revenue they can never recover.
Airlines are mandated by law to compensate those passengers that are denied boarding because a flight is oversold. If 102 people show up for a flight capable of carrying 100, two people will not get on that plane. They will either volunteer to give up their seat or the airline will chose who stays behind.
A frugal traveler with flexible travel plans will volunteer to take a later flight in return for just compensation. A smart frugal traveler will understand the system in order to increase their chances of The Bump.
The keys to success are:
- Have flexible travel plans. Don’t be in such a rush. Make the travel day a travel day.
- Take carry-on luggage only. The airlines are more apt to pick you if they don’t have to unload your bag.
- Pick flights that are full or close to full. For example Friday, Sunday and Monday generally provide the best opportunities to Bump. Also, the days around holidays or major events will be terrific opportunities to Bump. There will be hundreds of denied boardings around the Super Bowl and the Final Four Basketball weekend.
- If possible, schedule travel well in advance to take advantage of schedule changes. Example: your flights for six months from now will probably have a schedule change, and the airline will call you to reconfirm. You can now pick the fullest flights for that route, increasing your odds of being Bumped.
- If you are travelling with others in your party, decide beforehand if you are willing to split up and have one or two stay behind, depending on whatever the airline needs in terms of volunteers.
And most importantly, be the first one to volunteer. I take two steps to make sure this happens.
- When I leave my departure city I check with the ticket agent to see if I can volunteer for all segments of my itinerary. I have a real leg up on the competition if I can volunteer at 7 a.m. for a flight later in my itinerary that departs at, say, 4 p.m. Most of the other travelers have not even checked in at this point.
- I’m first at the actual departure gate. Most gate agents show up an hour before scheduled flight time. I get to the gate at an hour and 15 minutes before departure and read the local paper or use my computer right at the podium until they show up. I stand at the counter and patiently wait for the gate agent to arrive and do his/her initial computer start up. I offer to volunteer by asking if they will be needing volunteers, or if the flight is oversold. If “yes” or “maybe” is the answer, tell the agent your name and ask to be put on the volunteer list. This is not a commitment to volunteer, but puts you in first place when it is time to negotiate the compensation. The agent may ask if I have checked baggage and the city of my final destination, information I gladly provide. Then I leave the agent alone.
I check back with the gate agent about 15 minutes before departure to see if he/she wants me to wait to board the plane. If the answer is “wait,” I ask what the compensation will be if I’m needed. The last few minutes before departure are fun for me, as I wait to see if I’m going. I have a list of alternate flights that I can use, and have a general idea of the compensation the airline will be offering for denied boarding.
Before I accept the denied boarding compensation, and for sure before the flight actually leaves, I find out which alternate flights I will be given a confirmed reservation on, and the actual compensation offered.
In our example, the agent tells me to wait and I actually do get The Bump, I’m going to be compensated for my flexible travel plans. Most airlines will offer you a voucher good for future travel and a seat on the next flight. A typical offer would be a $400 voucher, good for future travel anywhere on that airline. If the delay until the next flight is a long one, the compensation offered will be increased. If they are way oversold, it will take more money to get people off the flight and they will up the offer of compensation. You should always demand the same compensation as the highest paid volunteer. You’ll get it. Also, the longer the delay, the higher the compensation the airlines are required to provide you.
If you are being delayed a long time, you can ask for an amenity pack which will include a phone card, food vouchers and maybe a few frequent flyer miles. If you are forced to stay overnight, the airlines will pay for your accommodations and meals. If they forget to offer, remind them. And my favorite is to ask to be moved up to first class on the later flight. If they have the seats, you’ll get one. If the agent is hasty when reticketing you, sometimes they code that seat as a purchased first class ticket and you get the class of service bonus miles as well. The airlines need your seat and you can bargain, but be courteous and appreciative of the agent’s efforts on your behalf.
So how lucrative can this be? One afternoon I arrived in Atlanta at 4 p.m. for my connecting flight to Savannah, Georgia. I was bumped off the 5 p.m. flight, 7 p.m. flight, 9 p.m. flight and the 11 p.m. flight before it even arrived in Atlanta. I was also bumped off the first flight in the morning and finally (darn it) boarded the second flight the next morning. My compensation for an 18-hour delay was eight domestic tickets, good for anywhere in the USA. I was given food money and a hotel. The value of those eight tickets, if used properly, was $2500+.
On a recent trip to Anchorage, Alaska, I had paid $400 for the round trip ticket and received four $400 vouchers for successive Bumps along the way. I actually flew to Alaska and made $1,200 for my effort.
On a return flight from Hawaii, we arrived in Chicago to find an oversold flight to Savannah. The next flight offering confirmable seats was more than four hours later. Hence, we were entitled to increased compensation and the gate agent knew his stuff. We respectfully stayed out of his way and let him board his flight before dealing with us. He gave us a total of $1,200 in vouchers($600 each). We then asked if he could put Katy on a flight to Columbia South Carolina to be with her daughter and he put her on one leaving in less than an hour later. He then proceeded to put me on the standby list for the next flight to Savannah, which left in less than two hours. I made that flight as well. I was compensated $1,200, saved myself driving three and a half hours to get Katy in Columbia and only waited two extra hours to fly home.
International denied boarding can really pay off. It is not unusual to be offered $750-$1,000 in vouchers for denied boarding. Add that up for a family of four bumped off flights two or three times in succession — you will be flying for free for a year.
A few final tips on Bumps:
- Always ask. Never miss the opportunity to get paid to wait. I have received bumps flying mid-day, mid-week from Chicago to Jacksonville, of all places. You have no control over weather, excess baggage, and other cancelled flights that may oversell your flight. You will not be compensated unless you ask. Be proactive in volunteering.
- And lastly, in hot or humid weather, the airplane’s ability to “lift” is affected and not as much weight can be carried. Flights are booked to capacity, but weight restrictions require the off-loading of passengers and freight. Darn it, we get paid again.
Bumps happen all the time. If you have flexible plans and can take multiple consecutive bumps, you may earn enough in vouchers or free tickets to fly for free the rest of the year. Agents will work with you if you are courteous, patient and knowledgeable.