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Take a holiday travel week and throw in some storm systems that have cancelled flights, and you will likely have a scenario in which there are planes that are going to be overbooked. For some travelers this is a nightmare scenario. Truthfully, with my whole family in tow this could be a nightmare scenario, but if your plans are flexible, getting voluntarily bumped from your flight may be your golden ticket to future free travel.
Many frequent flyers are quite familiar with the ritual of trying to get bumped from your scheduled flight. If you are willing to take a flight later that day, or sometimes the next day, you will often be rewarded with a voucher for several hundred dollars towards future travel for your troubles. In the event an overnight stay is required while you wait for the next available flight, those expenses are typically covered as well. I know many travelers who rack up hundreds, or even thousands of dollars in credits per year by volunteering to get bumped from their flights. I used to do this quite frequently when I was flying back and forth from grad school in New York City to see family and friends in Texas. I was young, I was flying by myself, I didn’t check bags, and I often had a flexible schedule. It was awesome. Now it isn’t always practical for me to voluntarily take another flight, but here are a few tips in case your plans are flexible and you are itching for some free travel vouchers.
- Don’t check your bags. This is kind of a cardinal rule of trying to get bumped. Just have carry-on luggage and let the gate agent know that you only have carry-ons.
- Volunteer at every point along the way. For example, it seems every time I fly Continental these days the check-in kiosk asks me if I would be willing to be bumped. If you are willing to consider it, tell the machine yes. You aren’t locking yourself into anything at that point.
- When you get to the gate, politely tell the gate agent that you and your party (or even just certain members of your party) would volunteer to be bumped if necessary. I also like to inquire as to whether or not it looks likely that they will need volunteers so that I can start making some contingency plans.
- Stay close to the gate. Don’t wander off too far if you are looking to be bumped. You need to be able to go right up to the gate agent if/when they call your name.
- Be aware of other flight options to get to your destination. If the gate agent tells me that it looks likely they will need volunteers, then I hop on my iPhone and start looking at what some of the later flight options look like. I want to be fully informed of my options if/when the time comes.
- Make sure the pay-off is worth it to you. The voucher amounts I have found are not always set in stone. Sometimes I have seen the amount offered go up if no one bites at the first offer. I wouldn’t play chicken waiting for that to happen because it may not happen, and others may take the lower offer leaving you with nothing. However, especially if you are traveling with a family, it can be a lot of effort to wait around for a later flight. Make sure that the amount being offered really is worth it, and that everyone is on-board before committing. Obviously this would be easier when you are traveling with older kids. How long you have to wait until the next flight plays a very large factor for me in determining if the amount offered is “worth it”. I would likely not take a voluntary bump right now with Little C – at least under most circumstances, because it would just be more trouble than it is worth.
I do have one extra warning for those of you who want to try to get bumped from a Southwest flight. Since they don’t have assigned seats, it has happened that the person who is hoping to get bumped does not board the plane, only to find out after the plane is boarded that their seat is no longer needed for a voluntary bump. This means that person is now boarding last and will certainly have a middle seat, and there will possibly be no overhead space left for carry-on bags (though the carry-on issue can happen on any carrier when you are one of the last to board…) There is no perfect solution for this problem, but if it is important to you to have a “good” seat, then propose the idea of boarding and let them know you will be happy to get off the plane if your seat is required.
I wish all of you whom are traveling this week smooth flights and happy bumping. 😉