Here's When It's Worth Giving up Your Seat on an Oversold Flight

What would it take to relinquish your seat?

Passengers lined up at the airport to check in their luggage.
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How much money would you be willing to take to give up your seat on a flight?

On a recent Delta Air Lines flight, the airline offered passengers a whopping $10,000 each to sacrifice their seats on an overbooked flight from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Minneapolis.

Jason Aten, a tech columnist at Inc. magazine, had already boarded the plane when a flight attendant announced that the airline was looking for eight volunteers to rebook their journey—in exchange for a handsome sum of money.

"If you have Apple Pay, you'll even have the money right now," the flight attendant said, according to Aten.

Todd McCrumb, another passenger on Aten's flight, told Fortune that the flight crew had started the opening bid at $5,000, but continued to increase the offer as passengers were boarding. In the end, it took 20 minutes following Delta's second announcement of a $10,000 offer before enough volunteers took the deal.

Aten shared with Fortune that his group of eight didn't accept the offer due to a misunderstanding. "The reason we didn't jump on it was because they didn't initially say how many volunteers they needed," he said. "Had we known it was eight, we would have gotten off. By the time that was clear, four or five people had already left."

Overselling flights is a common practice due to the possibility of no-shows—but how often do airlines need to bump passengers from their flights? While being offered $10,000 in cash is extremely rare, being bumped, or denied boarding, is becoming increasingly common—especially as airlines and airports are currently facing an overwhelming number of staff shortages. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) latest Air Travel Consumer Report, 10 major airlines (including Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, and Southwest Airlines) oversaw 75,627 voluntary "denied boardings" from January to March 2022—that's up 452 percent from 2021. (On the flip side of the same coin, there were 7,333 involuntary denied boardings during this same time period in 2022, up 883 percent from last year).

If you ever find yourself being asked to relinquish your seat, here's how to know whether it's worth taking the offer—and when it's not.

What to Know Before Giving Up Your Seat

Before you commit, you must first know what you're getting yourself into. "If you're offered a voucher for future travel, make sure to get all the details in writing," Michael Dean, travel guru and founder of family travel site Family Vacayer, told TripSavvy. "This includes the expiration date and any restrictions on where and when you can use it. Vouchers are often not as valuable as they seem, so it's important to know what you're getting before you accept."

Delia Joyce, chief marketing officer of Startups Anonymous and a former airport staff member, says that accepting the offer may sound too good to be true. "There are usually stipulations in place for those who accept an offer, such as blackout travel dates and some money being taken out due to taxes," Joyce told TripSavvy.

If the airline is offering a reduced rate ticket, free ticket, or voucher, the DOT says that asking these questions will help you decide whether getting voluntarily bumped is worth your time:

  • When is the next flight that you can book me on?
  • Will you provide free meals, a hotel room, and a free transfer between the hotel and the airport?
  • Does this ticket or voucher expire?
  • Are there any blackout travel dates with this ticket or voucher?
  • Can I use this ticket or voucher to travel internationally?

How to Increase Your Compensation

There are ways to up your chances of getting more bang for your buck when you agree to give up your seat. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), "There is no limit to the amount of money or vouchers that the airline may offer, and passengers are free to negotiate with the airline."

When an airline is looking for volunteers to relinquish their seats, it may offer a monetary or flight voucher; however, Thomas Sentosa, flight analyst at Tom's Cheap Flights, said that passengers are "entitled" to receive cash. "All you have to do is mention the Passenger's Bill of Rights and negotiate with the agent that you want [cash] compensation and not a voucher."

"If they need multiple volunteers, make sure you politely request that your compensation amount be the same as the final volunteer's," said Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert of Scott's Cheap Flights. "You don't want to volunteer at $300, only for the final person to get $1,000."

As previously mentioned, do ask for meal and hotel vouchers—especially if the airline will rebook you on a flight scheduled for the next day. Other amenities to ask for include lounge access and business class seats. "Desperate airlines take desperate measures to find volunteers, especially when they need more than a few," said Keyes.

Can I Still Get Paid If I'm Bumped?

If you decide not to give up your seat voluntarily, there's still a possibility that you will get bumped if not enough passengers offer up their place. Each airline has its own set rules regarding who to bump, with criteria ranging from a passenger's check-in time and frequent flyer status to the amount of money they paid for their ticket.

For those who are involuntarily denied boarding, you will be eligible for compensation if you meet some criteria: "You have a confirmed reservation, you [checked in] to your flight on time, you arrived at the departure gate on time, and the airline cannot get you to your destination within one hour of your flight's original arrival time."

The amount owed to you will depend on several factors, including the ticket price and delay duration. According to the DOT, "most bumped passengers who experience short delays on flights will receive compensation equal to double the one-way price of the flight they were bumped from, but airlines may limit this amount to up to $775."

Head to the DOT website for more information on travelers' rights.

Article Sources
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  1. Inc. "On This Flight, Delta Just Did Something Unheard Of. It's How Every Business Should Treat Its Customers." June 28, 2022.

  2. Inc. "On This Flight, Delta Just Did Something Unheard Of. It's How Every Business Should Treat Its Customers." June 28, 2022.

  3. Fortune. "Delta Air Lines Offered Passengers $10,000 Each to Get Off an Oversold Flight." June 30, 2022.

  4. U.S. Department of Transportation. "Air Travel Consumer Report." Page 49. June 2022.

  5. U.S. Department of Transportation. "Bumping & Oversales." Accessed July 6, 2022.

  6. U.S. Department of Transportation. "Bumping & Oversales." Accessed July 6, 2022.

  7. Scott's Cheap Flights. "How to Make the Most of an Overbooked Flight—and Get Cash." June 9, 2022.