Airfare Q&A: Are the perks of bumping worth the inconvenience?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on September 30, 2004. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Jessica Labrencis.

We frequently receive questions about airline bumping, ranging from the general "What is bumping?" to the specific "What kind of compensation will I receive for an involuntary bump?" Read on for our answers to your questions about airline bumping.

Q. What is bumping?

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When an airline overbooks a flight, as it does often, (particularly during high-traffic periods like holidays), it will ask for volunteers to be “bumped” off their original flight and moved to a substitute flight. If no passengers volunteer, the airlines will choose several passengers to involuntarily bump. Bumping occurs most often during busy travel times, particularly during the holidays.

Q. Is it better to be bumped voluntarily or involuntarily?

While the compensation for being bumped involuntarily is often more than a voluntary bump, in general, both airlines and passengers prefer voluntary bumping. If you aren't in a hurry to arrive at your destination, it's not a bad idea to volunteer to be bumped. If, however, you’re trying to catch a connecting flight, traveling for a business meeting or other time-sensitive event (a wedding, funeral, etc.), the inconvenience of being bumped will likely outweigh the potential benefits.

Q. What kind of compensation will I receive if I am bumped?

If you volunteer to be bumped, compensation is not regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT), so the airline will negotiate compensation with you. Compensation can range from a mutually-acceptable amount of money, free travel vouchers, or other benefits.

Compensation for involuntary bumping is regulated by the DOT. Airlines are required to give involuntarily-bumped passengers a written statement outlining passengers' rights and explaining how the carrier determines who will be bumped. Passengers who are involuntarily bumped are often entitled to an on-the-spot payment of denied boarding compensation. The airline must also arrange for alternate transportation for bumped passengers. The alternate transportation will determine compensation.

  • According to the DOT, if substitute transportation is scheduled to arrive at your destination within one hour of your original flight, you will not be compensated.
  • If substitute transportation is scheduled to arrive at your destination in one to two hours after your original flight's arrival time, or between one and four hours for international flights, the airline must pay an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination ($200 maximum).
  • If substitute transportation is scheduled to arrive at your destination more than two hours after your original flight's arrival time, or four hours for international flights, or if the airline does not arrange for substitute travel, the compensation will double (200 percent of your fare, with a $400 maximum).

Compensation rules do not apply to charter flights or for flights on planes that hold 60 or fewer passengers. And, if the airline substitutes a smaller plane than the plane it originally intended to use, compensation is not required. Intra-Europe flights, or flights inbound to the U.S., do not have the same rules.

Q. Is there any fine print I should be aware of before accepting compensation?

Before you accept a free ticket for a future flight (one of the most common perks of bumping), be sure to ask about restrictions on the free travel. Ask if the free ticket has an expiration date, if it is restricted by blackout dates during popular travel times (especially holidays), if is valid for international travel, and how far in advance you can make a reservation, if at all.

Before you volunteer to be bumped, be sure to ask when the substitute flight is scheduled to depart, and if the airline will provide free meals, accommodations, phone calls, ground transportation, and other services if the flight isn't until the next day. If the airline will only compensate you with a free flight and/or cash, it might not be worth the money you'll spend waiting for your next flight.

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