It’s a moment that many air travelers have come to dread: As you wait to board your plane, an airline agent announces that they’ve overbooked your flight and will need to “bump” one or more passengers. A few unlucky travelers will be getting left behind and put on a later flight, whether they like it or not.
For some savvy fliers, though, this announcement is music to their ears.
“I was flying to Hawaii recently, and as I approached the gate they announced that they would be offering $500 vouchers to the first three passengers willing to be bumped,” recalls John DiScala, the brains behind the travel website JohnnyJet.com. “I immediately made a bee-line to the counter.”
It’s a game that many frequent fliers have down to an art. Airlines regularly overbook flights in anticipation of no-shows, but when every ticket-holder shows up looking for a seat, the airline is forced to bump one or more passengers to a later flight. Travelers like DiScala who volunteer to get bumped are rewarded handsomely for their cooperation. Airlines will typically offer hundreds of dollars in credits for a future flight (usually to be used within a year), plus meal and hotel vouchers for passengers bumped to a next-day flight. First-class upgrades and other perks may also be in the offering.
Travel agent Anthony Klang and his wife recently strung together two consecutive bumps, ultimately getting three flights for the price of one.
“We were using a totally free ticket that we had gotten via a bump, and then got bumped using that ticket to get two more free ones,” he explains.
David Meadows did the same, flying for free from his junior year of high school to his junior year of college.
“I have racked up over 20 free round trips and four $400 vouchers over the years,” he says.
At a time when struggling airlines are tacking on fees for everything from pillows to lavatory use, it may be hard to believe that they’re willing to hand out free flights like bags of salted peanuts. But the alternative — involuntarily bumping passengers — is a far worse prospect. Aside from the fact that they’re forced to report involuntary bumps to the Department of Transportation, they’ve also angered and alienated a customer. And, in some cases, bumping can create a PR nightmare.
If you’re looking to score yourself a lucrative bump, how can you increase your chances? Veterans of the “bumping game,” as Klang calls it, offer a few of their tricks.
Timing is everything. Try to book during a busy period for the airline. “If you are flexible, book flights to and from your destinations that leave on Friday or Sunday afternoons,” advises Miriam Otto, who has been voluntarily bumped from several flights. Philip Guarino, a Boston-based international business consultant, concurs. “For the best likelihood, pick a Friday outbound before a holiday weekend or a Sunday return after the holiday weekend,” he advises. He also recommends consulting ExpertTraveler.com for more information on heavily booked routes.
Get there early and get your name on the list. While DiScala found himself in a foot race with several fellow travelers eager to get their hands on $500, he typically tries to be proactive about communicating his willingness to be bumped. Others agree: “If I do not have a specific time commitment, I always go right up to the desk and offer to be put on a list to be bumped,” says Janeen Aggen.
Pack smart. “Never check bags,” says Benjamin Wright, a Texas-based attorney who frequently travels for business. “Pack light so your bags are always with you and you can change plans on a moment's notice.” And don’t forget to bring some snacks for those unexpected layovers. “Pack a bit of food so that you can handle unexpected events, like being shipped off to a hotel at midnight after restaurants and stores have closed,” he advises.
Negotiate for extra perks—but be nice. While there typically isn’t much room for negotiating on the amount of compensation, airline agents have a bit more leeway in granting perks like meal vouchers and seat upgrades. “When it’s time to get myself re-booked, I always ask them if there might be an available seat in first class on my new flight,” says Ryan Lile, who blogs at SavvyTravel.net. “The best way is just to inquire casually but directly about it, and I find that more often than not they’re happy to put you in first if there’s room.” John Wetmore agrees, and adds that it pays to be nice. “For discretionary items, your odds are better if you are pleasant than if you are demanding,” he says.
The prospects for bumpers are only getting better. USA Todayrecently reported that flights are fuller than ever, with seven major airlines filling at least 87% of their seats in the month of July. That’s bad news for travelers who miss connections and need to get on another flight, but good news for those looking to get in on the bumping game. And bumping could soon get even more lucrative: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently proposed increasing the maximum compensation for involuntary bumping from $800 to $1,300. If that happens, expect to see airlines become even more willing to open their purse strings for voluntary bumpers.
Still, not every bumper is in it for the big bucks—some are just happy to help out their fellow travelers by taking one for the team. “Most every time I’ve ever bumped, the person who took my seat had a true reason that they should get where they are going ahead of me,” says Matt Wallaert. “I've actually had people cry and hug me for giving up my seat during the holidays.”
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