7 Tips For Getting Bumped Off Your Next Flight

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

This is the start of Thanksgiving week here in the US, which is one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. If you’re one of the millions of Americans flying this week, there are decent odds that you’ll show up to your departure gate, only to hear an announcement from the gate agent soliciting volunteers to take a later flight in exchange for some compensation.

There are two types of denied boarding — voluntary and involuntary. As the names suggest, a voluntary denied boarding is when you choose to give up your seat on a flight in exchange for some kind of compensation (typically a voucher), while an involuntary denied boarding is when you’re forced to give up your seat because a flight is oversold and they couldn’t find volunteers. The former is a good thing (since both parties are happy), while the latter is a bad thing (since you had a confirmed seat on a flight, but aren’t allowed to fly on it).

With that in mind, if you’re someone who does have some schedule flexibility, here are some tips for maximizing your odds of being bumped off your next flight in exchange for some compensation:

Understand there’s no guaranteed bump

A lot of people will claim that certain flights are more likely to be overbooked than others. Generally that’s not the case. Airline inventory management has gotten really good, so there isn’t a single “type” of flight that gives you significantly better odds at being bumped:

  • If you’re flying early in the morning, it’s more likely that people will oversleep
  • If you’re flying in the evening, it’s more likely that passengers will misconnect

Airlines factor in historical no show rates when deciding how much to oversell flights, and a vast majority of the time they get things exactly right. In other words, a 7AM flight that’s oversold by three people might need volunteers, while a 7PM flight that’s oversold by 10 people may not. Or it could be the other way around.

The point is, a bump can happen anytime, even when you least expect it.

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 they’re still selling plenty of seats, chances are they won’t be oversold. However, if the flight is sold out or close to being sold out, odds of them needing volunteers are better.

Keep in mind that 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 they have a dozen empty seats (since a lot of people may be missing their connections), 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 & volunteer

Different airlines have different policies as to when they start soliciting volunteers. For example, Delta will sometimes ask when you check-in, while American typically won’t. No matter what system they use for soliciting volunteers, typically only the gate agent will process the list. So be sure you show 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.

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. Either use a website like ExpertFlyer or browse the airlines’ website to see what they have 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.

Sometimes you can even negotiate an upgrade to first class as part of the compensation, especially if first class is all that’s available.

Gauge how oversold a flight is

Gate agents usually have some leeway when it comes to voluntary denied boarding compensation. That’s because the airline wants to do everything they can to avoid involuntarily denying people boarding.

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.

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 till 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 them 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 they ask you to board the plane, as I recently had happen. That’s one of the risks of volunteering, so be ready for it.

Bottom line

It’s extremely common for flights to be oversold around the holidays, so make sure you take advantage of any schedule flexibility you may have. If you play your cards right, you may make it to your destination with only a small delay and hundreds of dollars in airline vouchers in your pocket.

If you end up on an oversold flight this holiday season, please report back with your experience!

  1. I’ve got a work trip this week and intentionally booked my flight out for Sunday mid afternoon for this exact reason. Don’t really need to be at my destination until Monday evening.

    Expertflyer currently showing my flight F0Y0 and remaining flights Sunday also appear to be sold out. Looking forward to a $1200 voucher.

  2. If you’re confirmed in J but J is oversold and all they can offer you in Y + voucher, does that count as an involuntary?

  3. If your alternate flight is a few hours away, don’t forget to ask for a lounge pass as part of your compensation for volunteering. Unless of course you’ve got status access to the lounge already.

  4. My favorite “bump” story was a very unlikely involuntary bump on Alaska when I was flying the short PSP-SFO route.

    I was a MVP Gold at the time and had confirmed, upgraded seats in First… and somehow I was bumped. I suspect they gave my seats to someone “high and mighty” but don’t know for sure.

    As the flight was completely full, they gave me vouchers for a free non-stop anywhere they fly (upgradable) … and sent me over to United. However, the UA flight to SFO was also full, so we went back to the AS gate. Turns out there was a no show, so we ended up with two seats in Y for the short flight *AND* the free voucher (which we used to fly to Juneau – upgraded!).

  5. @ Jay — Not if you’re voluntarily accepting the bump. If you’re involuntarily bumped and downgraded then it would, but ultimately when you are voluntarily denied boarding you’re agreeing to all the terms in exchange for the compensation.

  6. One time I was offered a 500$ voucher from Lufthansa in exchange for a downgrade into economy from premium economy. After denying and telling them I had a reserved seat, I was told that that’s fine, but they would pick one person randomly at the gate. Are they allowed to do this? And would they still give you compensation?

  7. Shating my experience I knew from research that Emirates flights from DXB to my home city in India are overbooked from the last week of May through September as it’s the time when all the Indians living in US visit India for summer holidays. So Emirates gives preference to the pax originating from US rather than pax who check in on these flights from DXB, they usually offer a return ticket valid for 1 year if you volunteer to get bumped off.

    This past May I was booked from DXB to my home city along with my family. We were total 4 and if we get offloaded EK will offer us tickets worth US$2000/- plus a free night stay in DXB with all meals and transfers.

    So I had kind of planned this well though I reached the airport early I did not goto the check in counter. BTW I always do online check in. This time on purpose I did not do that either. Just before the check in closing time I approached the check in counter. As expected the agent said there are no seats for us in this flight so we need to go to another counter where they will give us options. I was all happy as this was working out to plan.

    At the other counter the agent said the flight was oversold by 8 seats and whether we would volunteer to go on a later flight. As I wanted the free stay as well I asked wether I could take the flight the next day. She said yes and asked us to wait till 30mins before departure when they would confirm whether we are getting bumped or not. They offered us Costa Coffee vouchers.

    Unfortunately just about 30mins before departure my name was called and told we are going on this flight itself as some seats opened up! All the planning failed. EK offered a voucher of US$100 (for 4 pax) to be used in duty free shop inflight for delaying our check in process. When we were getting checked in I saw another family who were also on hold guess they got the free tickets instead of us!

  8. What is a good starting point for negotiations? I imagine a small regional flight would offer much less than say a flight to Hawaii.

  9. @Tommy Trash

    It really depends! I was flying on Delta Connection from MSP to YYZ yesterday and scored an $800 Amex prepaid card for volunteering. They seem to do it auction style, raising the value of the compensation every 5 mins or so until someone gives up a seat.

  10. Once I volunteered to fly on a later flight on SWA. However, I told the agent that I might withdraw that, because if I am not needed, than I would not have the preferential boarding at around A20, but a middle seat left. She said “OK, if we do not need you, I will still give you a $100 voucher”. I said thank you – and waited. They did not need me in the end, and got the $100 voucher!

  11. United will sometimes as you if you want to volunteer to be bumped when you check in to the kiosks at some airports I’ve noticed. I’ve never pursued it through the Kiosk as it wasn’t doable for me on those flights so I don’t know what the starting offer is through that method.

  12. Step 8. Bitch, moan, and piss off other passengers who didn’t try to game the system by demanding they move from their upgraded seat. Then relax and feel smug about how wonderful of a person you are.

  13. I’ve once had( I think 5 years ago) 3x 800 US Dollar in vouchers for catching another plane from NY to BXL with American Airlines , we where the 3 of us so they ask us to change the flight with another one leaving 6 hours later, but then via LONDON , for 2400 dollar you bet we took the deal.We also get 20 dollar on vouchers to choose from one of the rstaurants on the airport

  14. B6 (JetBlue) doesn’t oversell flights…so if you’re looking for bumpage, look elsewhere. They still do have some misconnect traffic here & there and the occasional IRROPs, but I find VDBs to be very few & far between with them.

  15. I had tried to use my United miles for a n/s flight in F AMS-BOS, but found no availability. I booked a less desirable flight in F through EWR . In AMS I was called to the counter by the gate agent and asked if I had carry on luggage only. I did, and I was told they were oversold and I was being bumped to another flight. I was getting a F seat on the original n/s flight I wanted. I asked what compensation I was getting for being bumped and was told “You get a n/s flight that gets in 3 hrs earlier”. Kind of funny, actually. I didn’t complain.

  16. I got downgraded on AA from LAX-LHR F to J [got the award ticket originally LAX-DFW-LHR but an equipment change permitted the 3 of us to get the nonstop 777-300 on an award] so I alone got bumped to business and accepted under protest an $800 voucher. AA makes it a pain in the ass to use an AA voucher btw. But so long as you use the voucher once before it expires, the new voucher is also good for a year…

  17. if you voluntarily get bumped, can the credit card insurance of flight delay/cancellation be used as well?
    as we know that some credit cards offer you a lot of compensation of the flight you fly getting a delay or cancelled.

  18. Tip #8: Don’t fly JetBlue. They’ve had the lowest IDB rate in the industry, like 1 bump per 1 million passengers. Always wondered why they don’t overbook “safely” like just 1 or 2 for routes that have historically had, say, 3 or 4 cancellations.

  19. I’ve given up volunteering. Every time, I sit by the side and they end up not needing to bump me and I board last when there is no room in the overhead. And one time I list my aisle seat, too!

    Also, I was told by more than one DL agent that they “never” give lounge vouchers to bumpees.

  20. Had a light 2 weeks ago from FRA to DXB with Lufthansa. It was really heavy overbooked (about 20 pax to much).
    They had to downgrade a lot of guy’s, was quite fun to watch all the Senators freaking out for getting 1000€ compensation and a seat in PremiumEco.

    Gate operator was super stressed and I was just standing there and waiting/watching. Some guys also went home, I said that I’m quite flexible and he was really happy to hear that and put me on Qatar via Doha in Business and First. He said that this is usually not possible as I was booked in PremiumEco, but he said that he will try out some “tricks” and we’ll see if it works. And it did! so in total I was in Dubai with a 7h delay but had 600€ compensation on my credit card, plenty of time to try out the AirFrance Business Lounge and nice seats in the new A350. Overall, can not complain, LH service was really nice!

  21. My bump story was on a trip from White Plains NY to Atlanta on AirTran. I asked if they needed volunteers and they said they might. I hung around until the last few were boarding and the gate agent called my wife and I up to the desk. This was my first time being bumped and I had read what to ask for beforehand, so when he asked if we still wanted to be bumped, I read off everything I wanted, a hotel room for the night, dinner vouchers, and 2 ticket vouchers (one for my wife and one for me).

    He seemed a little peeved but reluctantly gave what we asked for. When we left the gate I realized that we would need breakfast for the next morning and didn’t specify that we would like vouchers for that too, and he said “too late, you should have asked for that before” and gave us our paperwork.

    As we left the gate, I looked in the packet and my wifes and saw 2 ticket vouchers. I thought that they were each 1 way vouchers x2 = a roundtrip if used together, but upon looking more closely, they were 2 roundtrip ticket vouchers for EACH OF US! So we scored 4 round trip vouchers!! So he understood when I said I wanted 2 tickets, it was for each of us, when I really meant for the both of us! This was really a blessing because we had moved and I didnt have a job in ATL yet so I had to go to CT to find work so this was perfect! No wonder he was a little peeved…
    I haven’t been bumped since.. 🙁

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