Air Travel Tip: Free Flights – Win the Bump Game

The holidays are the season to earn free flights.

Especially the day before Thanksgiving and Sunday after Thanksgiving, flights are cramped and often overcrowded. There is even a slight chance that you will be knocked (bumped) off your flight.

There is also the opportunity to get free flights. It’s all about how you play the game–the bumping game. Some people intentionally book Wednesday flights, knowing the flights will be overbooked. These savvy people know that they will earn free future flights; I know one serial bumper that “earned” four free flights in one day. The rest of this post will describe how to make sure you are not bumped and miss your flight. It will also describe how to maximize your chances to get bumped and earn free flights.

sitting in a small airplane at Western Museum of Flight
things to do in Torrance: Western Museum of Flight

Below is an excerpt from my book, Winning the Airfare Game.

Airlines regularly sell more tickets than the number of available seats. Imagine that happening in another industry! Historical data models show that some ticketed passengers will not show up for a flight; the actual number varies for each flight. Occasionally, not enough reservations are canceled, there are too many passengers, or the flight switches to a smaller aircraft. Whatever the reason, when there are more passengers than seats, the flight is overbooked.

When a flight is overbooked, the airline first asks for volunteers to take a different flight. The airline rebooks bumped passengers on the next possible flight—to the passenger’s final destination—and compensates them with a combination of travel certificates, upgrades, cash, free meals, or hotel rooms. The amount paid to volunteers—called voluntary denied boarding compensation—depends on many factors, including additional time needed to get to the final destination, demand for seats, airline policy, and volunteer’s negotiation. Compensation also varies between domestic and international flights.

In rare instances when there are not enough volunteers, the airline chooses which passengers will be bumped. Involuntary denied boarding passengers usually include those not checked in (late arrivals) or not in their seat (late boarders). Passengers that do not confirm international flights according to the airline’s policy—usually 48 or 72 hours prior—are also potential targets. Involuntarily bumped passengers receive involuntary denied boarding compensation, which is less negotiable than the voluntary type.

Most overbooked flights occur during holiday and peak periods or on introductory and fare war routes.

Bump‑able situations include:

  1. Holiday flights. The busiest travel days are usually the day before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Flights around other holidays can also be overbooked. Many flights for various routes are overbooked on these days.
  2. Peak leisure routes. Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas flights on Friday nights and flights to Florida during Spring Break are very popular and can be overbooked.
  3. Peak business routes. San Francisco-to-Los Angeles, New York-to-Chicago, and other popular business routes can be overbooked on Friday afternoons—when travelers are returning home—and other times.
  4. Introductory routes. Airlines overbook flights when entering a new market and establishing new routes. They offer low fares to entice consumers but sell too many tickets. I was bumped twice from one airline’s introductory flights between California and Japan. One time I was bumped from a Tokyo-to-Los Angeles flight. Another time the Los Angeles-to-Hawaii segment of a flight that continued to Tokyo was overbooked. For details, see the story following Chapter 6.

To avoid being bumped, confirm travel plans, check in early, remain in the boarding gate area to hear any announcements, and board as soon as possible to claim your seat; in most double-booked seating assignments the first occupant keeps the seat. If you are involuntarily bumped, negotiate the best possible compensation package.

McCool Rule: How to Avoid Being Bumped

1. Confirm and Reconfirm Itineraries

2. Check In Early

3. Stay in Boarding Area to Hear Announcements

4. Board as Early as Possible

To increase your chance of being bumped, volunteer early, check in periodically with the gate agent, look professional, and be pleasant. When checking in, ask if the flight will be full. If the agent says the flight is expected to be full, ask if it will be overbooked. Request to be listed as a volunteer at that point. Say “my travel plans are flexible” rather than “I want to be bumped.”

Volunteer to be bumped for all flight segments when checking in for your first one. A connecting flight may be overbooked and you will already be listed as a bump volunteer before getting to the connecting airport. After being listed, stay in the boarding area and pay attention to all announcements. Occasionally ask the gate agent if volunteers are still needed or if you should board the plane.

Some people predict overbooked flights and fly specifically to be bumped. In other words, they buy tickets on busy flights expecting to be bumped and receive compensation.

McCool Rule: How to Get Bumped

1. Volunteer Early

2. Be Professional and Pleasant

3. Confirm Status

4. Buy Seats on Overbooked Flights

When bumped from a flight, request a travel voucher instead of a free travel certificate. Flights discounted with a voucher earn frequent flyer points while free flights do not. Before accepting a compensation package when being bumped, make sure you are assigned a confirmed seat on the next flight. If the airline cannot guarantee a convenient alternate flight, request a seat on another airline’s flight. If an alternate flight has no Coach Class seats, ask for a First Class seat.

Bumped passengers are entitled to compensation other than what is offered. Request meal or hotel vouchers, passes to the airline’s club lounge, or free telephone calls. If the flight is very overbooked and there are not enough volunteers, try to negotiate additional or better compensation—including cash, frequent flyer points, or travel vouchers. For instance, the compensation for an overbooked holiday flight should be more than for a Friday evening leisure route.

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