This is the start of Thanksgiving week here in the US, which is one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. If you’re one of the millions of Americans flying this week, there are decent odds that you’ll show up to your departure gate, only to hear an announcement from the gate agent soliciting volunteers to take a later flight in exchange for some compensation.
There are two types of denied boarding — voluntary and involuntary. As the names suggest, a voluntary denied boarding is when you choose to give up your seat on a flight in exchange for some kind of compensation (typically a voucher), while an involuntary denied boarding is when you’re forced to give up your seat because a flight is oversold and they couldn’t find volunteers. The former is a good thing (since both parties are happy), while the latter is a bad thing (since you had a confirmed seat on a flight, but aren’t allowed to fly on it).
With that in mind, if you’re someone who does have some schedule flexibility, here are some tips for maximizing your odds of being bumped off your next flight in exchange for some compensation:
Understand there’s no guaranteed bump
A lot of people will claim that certain flights are more likely to be overbooked than others. Generally that’s not the case. Airline inventory management has gotten really good, so there isn’t a single “type” of flight that gives you significantly better odds at being bumped:
- If you’re flying early in the morning, it’s more likely that people will oversleep
- If you’re flying in the evening, it’s more likely that passengers will misconnect
Airlines factor in historical no show rates when deciding how much to oversell flights, and a vast majority of the time they get things exactly right. In other words, a 7AM flight that’s oversold by three people might need volunteers, while a 7PM flight that’s oversold by 10 people may not. Or it could be the other way around.
The point is, a bump can happen anytime, even when you least expect it.
Do your research ahead of time
Before you go to the airport, find out if the airline is still selling seats on your flight. If they’re still selling plenty of seats, chances are they won’t be oversold. However, if the flight is sold out or close to being sold out, odds of them needing volunteers are better.
Keep in mind that how full a flight is booked could change from one minute to the next, so it could be that the flight is sold out and then a few minutes later they have a dozen empty seats (since a lot of people may be missing their connections), or it could be that the flight shows as being wide open, and then that all changes when the flight before gets canceled.
Show up at the gate early & volunteer
Different airlines have different policies as to when they start soliciting volunteers. For example, Delta will sometimes ask when you check-in, while American typically won’t. No matter what system they use for soliciting volunteers, typically only the gate agent will process the list. So be sure you show up at the gate early, ideally up to 30 minutes before the flight’s scheduled boarding time.
When you notice that the gate agent isn’t too busy, go up to them and say “any chance you’re oversold and need volunteers today? I have some flexibility in my schedule.”
Ideally they’ll say “yes,” and will hold onto your boarding pass.
Have an alternative ready
If your flight is oversold, chances are pretty good that other flights will be oversold as well. As a result, you may sometimes have a hard time finding another flight with availability. Gate agents are busy, and might not be all that creative when it comes to finding you an alternative routing.
That’s why it pays to do your own research. Either use a website like ExpertFlyer or browse the airlines’ website to see what they have available. Don’t be afraid to get creative in terms of the routing, especially if it’s what gets you to your destination quickest. Then you can save the gate agent some time by suggesting a good alternative to them.
Sometimes you can even negotiate an upgrade to first class as part of the compensation, especially if first class is all that’s available.
Gauge how oversold a flight is
Gate agents usually have some leeway when it comes to voluntary denied boarding compensation. That’s because the airline wants to do everything they can to avoid involuntarily denying people boarding.
So to figure out how much leverage you have to negotiate, get a sense of how oversold the flight is. If they don’t ask for any other volunteers in the gate area, chances are that they’re only over by one or two, and you don’t have that much leverage. However, if they’re making announcements asking for many volunteers, or if the alternative routing they’re offering leaves a big delay in your travels, you have a lot more room to negotiate.
Make the gate agent’s job easy
Once you’ve volunteered, don’t be annoying. Gate agents in the US are ridiculously overworked, so once they ask you to hang around, just say “I’ll be sitting over here.” Make sure that seat is close to the podium so you can observe what’s going on, and so they can easily call you over if there are any updates.
If they do bump you and they’re still busy, just make sure you get the compensation from them, but consider then going to an airline lounge or customer service desk to get boarding passes, seat assignments, etc., for your new flight.
Understand it’s not over till the door closes
This is an important point in terms of managing your expectations. You can go through the whole process of volunteering, agreeing on compensation, having them protect you on the next flight, etc., and still not get bumped.
Things change last minute, so when you volunteer you may find yourself in a situation where 30 seconds before departure they ask you to board the plane, as I recently had happen. That’s one of the risks of volunteering, so be ready for it.
It’s extremely common for flights to be oversold around the holidays, so make sure you take advantage of any schedule flexibility you may have. If you play your cards right, you may make it to your destination with only a small delay and hundreds of dollars in airline vouchers in your pocket.
If you end up on an oversold flight this holiday season, please report back with your experience!