An Ode to the 4AM Wake-up Call and the Missed Bump

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The Much Beloved 4AM Wake-up Call

Today my tiny traveler, my parents, and myself headed West for a Spring Break trip to the mountains. Yes, even preschools get spring break. Flights the week of Texas Spring Break were quite expensive, so to keep the cost down as much as we could, we took the early flight out of Houston. Of course, booking a 7 something AM departure is always easier when you are safely months away from the flight. The actual execution of the morning flight is always quite a different story…especially when you are waking a three-year-old up intentionally before dawn. Much before dawn.  Here is what early morning security sleepy face looks like. 


We prepped her well ahead of time, so when the time came to wake her up while it was still dark she knew why. She immediately stood up in bed and said “let’s go to the airplane” and “bye Daddy”. He had to work this week so couldn’t join us. She did flawlessly with her early morning, the rest of us were a bit more groggy. If you choose to book an early departure with your toddler or young child I highly recommend you do a few things.

  • Prep them ahead of time, and get them excited about the early morning “adventure”. Even if you are dreading it, pretend it is the most exciting thing since the Disney Junior App.
  • Keep your expectations realistic and realize that even if they do great for a while, there will likely be a crash at some point (at least by you if not by them).
  • Last, but not least, have bribes ready and available. I’m not a fan of toddler bribery on a daily basis, but on a day where you are 150+ others are stuck in an airplane together after getting up at 4:30AM I am 100% in support of bribes for good behavior. I personally prefer bribes of the cookies and M&M variety. More power to you if you can bribe with healthy food like carrot sticks or apples, but we bring out the “big guns” in times like this.
  • Oh, and get yourself some coffee.


The Missed Bump

As I’m certain you know, from time to time airlines oversell their flights and then if more people show up than there are seats available then they solicit volunteers to give up their seats for a later flight in exchange for a travel voucher to use on future travel. I have not personally been on a flight that had an opportunity to bump to a future flight in exchange for a voucher in quite a long time. I knew that many of this morning’s flights out of Houston were very full. I also knew there was a good chance that our flight would be oversold.

So, it came as no shock when they announced they were looking for volunteers to give up their seat in exchange for a later flight and $300 toward future United travel. If I were traveling alone I would have given up my seat before they even finished the sentence asking for volunteers. But, I was traveling with a tiny traveler and two grandparents. We were already on-board the plane, had already been up since 4:30AM, had E+ seats together on a very busy travel day, and the flight they were offering to switch us to was reported to be delayed. Basically, it wasn’t the right time for us to throw our day into chaos for free future travel…but I sure wanted to. Of course, moments later our own flight went mechanical and the flight we would have switched to probably left before our own. $300 a pop times several of us would have added up to a decent amount of future travel.

Minus having a crystal ball knowing our own flight would end up being delayed, I know we made the right choice by staying put and passing on the bump. Sometimes the pay-off, even at $300 a pop, just isn’t worth it sometimes when traveling with a family.

That said, I’m curious to hear what you would have done.

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  1. MP-Sorry to hear that the vouchers didn’t work out. Have a great trip. I had better luck with United today. I had burned 150K pts for a BNA-Jackson Hole fly fishing trip for 4 pax later this summer. United emailed me today notifying me that one of my flights had changed and they had a 1-time offer. I was able to get 100K points redeposited and used the $1000 in travel vouchers to book the return. I came out 100K points and $400 in vouchers ahead of my original reservation. Moral of the story is, if United changes your award trip, call right away. They will override and give you flights that don’t have award seats, offer vouchers, AND let you re-book standard awards at saver levels.

  2. What would I have done?

    I always go for the vouchers if I can. My wife hates me for making her sit in airports for hours upon end, but it never hurts to have reading material and lounge access on hand in case the opportunity pops up. On the other hand, I’ve never pulled that off with our 2 yr old.

  3. Rule 1 is you never pass on a bump. Doesn’t matter what time of day or who you’re with, if you can get bumped, you take it. 🙂

  4. I probably would have only taken the bump if they guaranteed my entire party seats in first class. Otherwise, I would be sitting in my E+ seat like you. There are times that taking a bump isnt worth it. With spring break I think that is one of the times. Because if you took the bump you would not get seats together or E+.

  5. I think you were smart to pass. Perhaps not in hindsight, but that’s always 20/20. I have learned to never pass up a bump, but I almost exclusively travel solo and most of the time with no immediately pressing event.

    One of my most regretful missed opportunities was when I was offered to take an $1000 voucher + food vouchers + hotel and transportation vouchers in exchange for a seat on the next day’s flight on MAD-JFK. I declined, because I needed to be back home before the next day, but I neglected to think about asking about availability on their MAD-DFW/MIA flights, which left just hours later. I would have gladly been rerouted through MIA for $1000 in vouchers. But, such is life. Now I’m extra vigilant about being bumped and ALWAYS make sure to ask lots of questions and suggest alternate scenarios.

  6. Well, I guess (hindsight being 20/20) I would have scooted (scot?) right up to those in power and asked if my E+ (or preferably First) would be protected on the replacement flight. You’d have an easy answer based on their response. Heck, you even had a head start from your E+ seats!

  7. Off topic but I am an early childhood teacher and I applaud how you involve your child in the planning and process of travel!

  8. Too funny. that face of the child says the whole story. I don’t even volunteer for the $300 even when I am on business travel by myself.
    BTW, can we use the voucher for the award travel tax & fees?

  9. I think you were smart to pass. You were already up at early hours for the trip and it means potentially inconveniencing the traveling party (it wasn’t clear if you end up separated if you took the bump). The bump voucher is tempting (but you didn’t know your flight will be delayed) and hindsight is 20/20. If I’m traveling by myself, sure, but there are times when the inconvenience outweighs the ‘free money’.

    I once was so tired after flying an international segment and I was experiencing severe jet leg on my return. I was so tired and sleepy/droopy while I was waiting for my connecting domestic trip home that no amount of voucher would force me off the plane. The idea of even dragging my tired self to a hotel was …too tiresome. I just want to sit on the plane and sleep until I get to my destination and that was mostly what happened. I even had to set my alarm so I won’t accidentally snooze off while waiting for my connecting flight (how sleepy I was) and no amount of reasonable vouchers could have changed my mind or convinced me to take another flight. I crashed as soon I got onboard.

    Your kid is a total trooper for waking up so early! (I once had an early flight to Miami like yours and it was painful. I literally did not get much sleep the night before, having been up at 3-something AM to get ready to go to the airport. Never again. I’m willing to pay a little bit more for a better flight time) so I’m better rested by the time I get to my destination.

  10. I don’t get it; you were already ON the plane, and they were asking for volunteers? The only times I’ve heard an announcement about bumping was prior to boarding. What a pain it would be, having to gather all one’s stuff, walk off the plane and wait again, all for a few measly dollars.

  11. I did the “bumpertunity” (thnx Delta Points for the new vocab) once when traveling from SFO-EWR, Continental back then, with my wife and toddler under 2. They gave us $400 voucher each and 3 first class seats at a later flight from SFO-EWR. The vouchers came in handy when we traveled to Europe. I won’t do that again now that I have 3 rascals to deal with… 😀

  12. Two years ago I would have said you were crazy for passing over the bump. Now with a two year old of my own, though, I would have passed it up as well. I always remember that no matter how good things with my daughter are going at any given moment, there could always be a meltdown right around the corner, especially when she is tired… And more time in an airport just increases the odds.

  13. For those who are saying that you never pass on a bump, you must have never traveled with toddlers. I have passed on many bump opportunities when taking our now 2 and 4 year olds all over the planet. We have flown to Europe 5 times, across the US many times, and even to South America…and had plenty of opportunities to take bumps only did once because it was a huge benefit.

    For a successful flight with the toddlers it is all about getting them in the proper mindset, trying to make sure they are either 100% rested when they walk onto the plane or are about to pass out and sleep. If your little ones aren’t wide awake or about to sleep, the flight has a much better chance of being a miserable experience for you. On our dozens of flights, we have had one or two where we couldn’t get our little one settled down and it is the most helpless feeling in the world. You are doing everything in your power to settle them down, everyone is starting at you…but nothing is working. Every time we are getting on the plane with our child (always the last ones on, never get on early), I always feel like I am in a rodeo where I am just trying to hang on for dear life for the duration of the flight.

    Most bumps are going to alter this schedule that you have been preparing for and just increase your opportunity for armageddon…especially if you are already on the plane.

    We have taken one bump and that was just because they offered to push our flight from Washington DC to Frankfurt from 6 to 9:45PM…which I would take 100 times out of 100 because the later the flight…the more my kids sleep = win for everybody. I always try to book the latest flight possible, but when using reward miles unfortunately it doesn’t work that way all the time. My only question when boarding at 9:45 was…Are you sure we can’t delay that flight another few hours Mr. United Gate Guy?

    Travelling with children is amazing, and so rewarding…however the flights are by FAR the worst part. Anyone saying that they would always take the bump need to try taking a few connecting flights across the US and finally a 8+ hour transatlantic flight with a 1 and 3 year old before they say “You ALWAYS take the bump!” 🙂

  14. -We were already on the plane when they called for volunteers…though I suspect they had tried to get some at the gate (we arrived to the gate just before boarding started as we spent our time in the family room at the United Club).
    -I think they would have paid at least 3 of us to move. I’m not sure that they needed the 4th, but I can’t swear to that as I didn’t inquire as we weren’t going to do it.
    -So interesting to hear the “Always Take the Voucher” camp vs the “No Way in Heck with Toddlers” comments. Love it – thanks to everyone for sharing!

  15. @Petra -I love it! We call our kids “the rascals” too!!
    @MP. I would not have taken the bump. Neither my husband or my dad would’ be up for a bump in almost any situation. But even if it was just me, mom and kids I don’t think we’d have gone for it when we were already on the plane. Too much chaos. I’d have been tempted though.

  16. Not a chance, once you were already seated on the plane. Before I had a kid, I was always one of the first to ask the gate agent if the flight was overbooked, to get my name on the volunteer list. But now, with a 2.5 year old, it would have to be a very lucrative offer to get me to accept. The potential for a catastrophic meltdown, or merely several extra hours of grumpiness and frustration, requires thoughtful consideration of the benefits offered.

  17. Good call.

    I was travelling United during the spring break. My wife and I missed our connection in ORD to DCA. In spite of frequently flights between these two cities, everything was oversold that day, and it took us 8 hours for our stand-by to clear. I don’t know if you were being offered confirmed tickets on the next flight, but even if you were, given that the next flight could have been delayed and you were with a toddler and older parents, you made the right call. But if I was travelling alone, I’d not have hesitated a moment to take the bump.

  18. Let’s see…traveling with a little one who is short on sleep and excited to be on her way…hmmm. No issue there. I think passing up the bump was a very wise decision.

  19. This was a set-up, right? “Let’s see just how nuts these FTers are for the free stuff. How’s this-I’ll say I have 2 grandparents and a 3 year old and I’m wondering if I should have us all hang around the airport for hours to get a bump. Oh wait–toss this in too: We all got up at 4 am”.

    There’s someone on FT whose signature includes “If Pavlov came back, he wouldn’t need the dogs. He could just use Flyer Talk”.

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