Overbooking is a standard procedure in most of the airline industry. Where else in the marketplace can someone sell a seat twice and get away with it?
Airlines counter that refundable tickets can be canceled at the last minute, giving them no time to resell the seats. These empty spaces represent lost revenue. In the financially fragile airline industry, that is unacceptable. They portray overbooking as a necessary evil. When there are more people with paid tickets than the aircraft can seat, bumping occurs.
This process of freeing seats occurs in two ways. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to seek out volunteers before requiring someone to give up a confirmed seat assignment. One catch: the incentives these volunteers receive are not prescribed in the law. It's up to the travelers to make a good deal in exchange for accommodating the airline's overbooking mistake.
Savvy budget travelers use these opportunities to book free future travel by volunteering to take another flight in exchange for incentives. But if you're presented with this opportunity, how will you react? Look for these five concessions from the airlines before giving up your seat.
Reasonable Expectation of a Convenient Flight
Most people are willing to put up with a delay of a few hours in exchange for compensation. But if giving up your seat results in a series of failed standby boarding attempts and hours sitting in a crowded, uncomfortable terminal, your voluntary bump turns into a sour deal.
The first question you should ask is "when is the next available flight on which I can get a confirmed seat?"
The answer to that question will guide the remainder of your conversation. You're going to ask for concessions based on the inconvenience you'll be facing.
If the agent is evasive or pessimistic about finding a confirmed seat on the next flight out, and if the phrase "standby" is used to describe your status moving forward, let someone else volunteer for being bumped and keep your confirmed seat.
Meal Money and Other Short-Term Comforts
Spending extra hours away from home means additional expenses. You could be at home enjoying a meal, but instead, you're in an airport terminal because an airline overbooked your flight.
It's only fair that the airline picks up your meal tab if the delay is at least two hours. Most agents will offer a voucher that is accepted readily in the airport restaurants. Some withhold this offer unless they're asked for it, so make sure you ask.
Keep your expectations reasonable. This will not be a multi-course lobster dinner served in a five-star restaurant. The voucher is normally priced to coincide with the average cost of a meal at the airport.
Another courtesy worth seeking is a seat in the airline club lounge. These places are far more comfortable than sitting in a terminal. If you'll be spending hours waiting for your flight, the seating is better, and you'll find complimentary snacks, newspapers, and television options.
Be sure to negotiate these options in your initial discussion about the voluntary bump. Bringing them up later with a different agent could lead to disappointing answers.
Promise of a Hotel Voucher
Unlike meals and airline club passes, a hotel room is universally offered if your new flight is scheduled for the following day. You won't have to sleep in the terminal. As with the meal vouchers, don't expect luxury—it will be a business-class hotel that's comfortable but not opulent.
The major airlines keep inventories of rooms near airports to accommodate these situations, and the hotels are quite accustomed to accepting an airline voucher. They will treat it as a cash payment.
If the payment process is convenient, some of the other aspects of a hotel stay in these circumstances might not work as smoothly.
It's also fair to ask about the distance you'll travel from the airport. If the hotel isn't on the airport property, about how far away is it? A long commute adds to your inconvenience and affects the quality of your deal.
Along with the room voucher, you also should receive ground transportation. Sometimes the hotel has a courtesy van. If not, be sure cab vouchers are included in the offer.
Well-Negotiated Financial Compensation
The key ingredient in the voluntary bump for most budget travelers is the amount of free travel available. No two bumping situations are the same, although some are more urgent than others.
In April 2017, United Airlines had to clear four seats on a flight from Chicago O'Hare to Louisville, Kentucky. A crew of four needed for another United flight out of Louisville had to take seats from four paying passengers. Making matters worse for airline personnel, passengers already had boarded the plane. But the initial offer for the bump was only $400 and a free hotel room. No takers. The compensation was doubled to $800. Still, no one was interested.
What happened next was ugly. An involuntary bump ended with a passenger literally being dragged off the plane. The legal costs and the bad publicity were expensive in comparison to a few offers of maybe $1,500 for those seats.
Airlines want to fix any overbooking problem as quickly, quietly, and cheaply as possible. Unfortunately, some airline agents aren't authorized to make the attractive offers that could prevent incidents such as what happened in Chicago. United later revamped its bumping procedures.
Outrageous demands for a lifetime travel pass or $10,000 in free travel are unlikely to gain much traction, even in the most urgent of situations. But it rarely pays to accept the airline's first offer. Chances are the airline is willing to go higher.
Think in terms of the number of hours you'll be inconvenienced. It's tough to put a price-per-hour on this negotiation that fits every traveler, but think about it this way: a $200 travel voucher might be reasonable for a one- or two-hour delay, but don't spend an entire day sitting in an airport for that price.
It's important to find out if you'll be confirmed on the next flight out. If you'll simply be on standby, you'll need more money up front for your voluntary bumping.
A word about that compensation: usually it is credit that only can be spent with the airline within the next 12 months. Cash payments are offered in some situations, but they are not the norm.
Flexibility That Includes Alternative Compensation
Some travelers prefer perks over future tickets.
Is your flight more than three hours in duration? Maybe an upgrade to first class would be more attractive than the voucher. How about a club membership that will allow you to wait in comfort between flights for the next year?
It will be difficult to place a value on these considerations as you stand at the gate. Think about these things before you jump up to volunteer for a bump.
Have a strategy that fits your travel needs and makes the airlines pay for overbooking.