I’ve written about how airlines frequently oversell flights, which could lead to overbooking situations. This happens when there are more passengers booked on a flight than there are seats. The concept of airline overbooking made global headlines back in 2017, when David Dao was dragged off a United Express flight for refusing to give up his seats.
Now, odds are that when most people think of airline overbooking, their goal is to avoid getting bumped. However, for many of us into miles & points, getting bumped can be exciting and lucrative.
After all, in overbooking situations, airlines are supposed to solicit volunteers to take another flight, before involuntarily denying boarding to anyone. This can be a win-win, since a traveler with a flexible schedule can pick up some credits toward future travel in exchange for their time.
With that in mind, in this post I wanted to share seven tips for maximizing your odds of getting bumped on your next flight, while also managing your expectations. In no particular order…
Understand there’s no guaranteed bump
Airlines have incredibly complex algorithms that they use to decide by how much they should oversell flights. They use historical data to determine no show rates, and sell flights accordingly. This differs based on the time of day, day of week, month of the year, route, etc. There’s a lot that goes into this.
A vast majority of the time, airlines nail it, and don’t need volunteers. However, sometimes they don’t get things right (since you can only do so much to predict future human behavior), and that’s when volunteers are needed.
What’s my point? Don’t think that booking a trip around Thanksgiving will necessarily give you much better odds of a bump than just booking any other flight during the typical business rush. Airlines are much less likely to significantly oversell a flight on the day before Thanksgiving than on a Friday afternoon on a business route. Always have an open mind, because bumps could happen when you least expect them.
Do your research ahead of time
Before you go to the airport, find out if the airline is still selling seats on your flight. If the airline is still selling plenty of seats, chances are the flight won’t be oversold. However, if the flight is sold out or close to being sold out, odds of volunteers being needed are better.
How full a flight is booked could change from one minute to the next, so it could be that the flight is sold out and then a few minutes later there are a dozen empty seats (since a lot of people may be misconnecting), or it could be that the flight shows as being wide open, and then that all changes when the flight before gets canceled.
Show up at the gate early to express interest
Different airlines have different policies as to when they start soliciting volunteers. For example, some airlines will start asking for volunteers during online check-in, though this is generally non-binding. Rather they just add your name to the list so that in theory you could discuss this possibility with a gate agent if it becomes necessary.
I feel like every other American flight I take has a message asking if I’m willing to volunteer, but I don’t know the last time they actually needed volunteers. This process is generally taken care of at the gate, so I recommend showing up at the gate early, ideally up to 30 minutes before the flight’s scheduled boarding time.
When you notice that the gate agent isn’t too busy, go up to them and say “any chance you’re oversold and need volunteers today? I have some flexibility in my schedule.” Ideally they’ll say “yes,” and will hold onto your boarding pass, or discuss what is being offered and what alternatives may be available.
Have an alternative ready
If your flight is oversold, chances are pretty good that other flights will be oversold as well. As a result, you may sometimes have a hard time finding another flight with availability. Gate agents are busy, and might not be all that creative when it comes to finding you an alternative routing.
That’s why it pays to do your own research. Use either the website of the airline, Google Flights, or ExpertFlyer, to browse what other options might be available. Don’t be afraid to get creative in terms of the routing, especially if it’s what gets you to your destination quickest. Then you can save the gate agent some time by suggesting a good alternative to them.
Figure out how much you can negotiate
Gate agents usually have some discretion when it comes to voluntary denied boarding compensation. That’s because airlines want to do everything they can to avoid involuntarily denying people boarding, since that’s counted against them by regulators.
So to figure out how much leverage you have to negotiate, get a sense of how oversold the flight is. If they don’t ask for any other volunteers in the gate area, chances are that they’re only over by one or two, and you don’t have that much leverage. However, if they’re making announcements asking for many volunteers, or if the alternative routing they’re offering leaves a big delay in your travels, you have a lot more room to negotiate.
Sometimes you can even negotiate an upgrade as part of the compensation, especially if first class is all that’s available.
Some airlines have a policy of giving all volunteers whatever the highest compensation given to any individual is. Even if that’s not officially the case, if you have some leverage, you should be able to negotiate that without issue.
Make the gate agent’s job easy
Once you’ve volunteered, don’t be annoying. Gate agents in the US are ridiculously overworked, so once they ask you to hang around, just say “I’ll be sitting over here.” Make sure that seat is close to the podium so you can observe what’s going on, and so they can easily call you over if there are any updates.
If they do bump you and they’re still busy, just make sure you get the compensation from them, but consider then going to an airline lounge or customer service desk to get boarding passes, seat assignments, etc., for your new flight.
Understand it’s not over until the door closes
This is an important point in terms of managing your expectations. You can go through the whole process of volunteering, agreeing on compensation, having the agent protect you on the next flight, etc., and still not get bumped.
Things change last minute, so when you volunteer you may find yourself in a situation where 30 seconds before departure the gate agent asks you to board the plane. When this happens, it could be that there’s no more room for carry-ons, or in some situations they may have even assigned your seat to someone else. This is a risk to be aware of, so be ready for that to possibly happen.
Airlines regularly overbook flights, and every so often volunteers will be needed to take another flight. If you’re a savvy and flexible traveler, this can work in your favor so that you can score some compensation. The above are the things I’d recommend considering before doing so.
If you’ve ever voluntarily been bumped from a flight, what was your experience like?