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

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?

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.

Also, it’s important to make sure you are eligible for compensation before you volunteer to be bumped. You must have a confirmed reservation, and you must have met the airline’s deadline for buying your ticket. Plus, you must have checked in before the airline’s deadline (usually 10 to 30 minutes for domestic flights, but sometimes an hour or more; international flights can have a deadline of up to three hours). If you miss the airline’s deadline, you could potentially lose your reservation, and along with it, your eligibility for compensation.

Q. How can I avoid being bumped?

Arrive at the airport early to ensure you meet the airline’s check-in deadline. Then, proceed to the boarding area. Airlines are more likely to involuntarily bump late passengers.

Q. How can I increase my chances of being bumped?

If you want to take advantage of the opportunity to earn monetary compensation or free travel, you can take steps to increase your chances of being bumped. The day before your flight, call the airline or your travel agent to ask if your flight is overbooked. If it is, your chances of being bumped are much greater.

Arrive at the airport early, at least 90 minutes before your flight is scheduled to depart. Arrive at the gate before the scheduled boarding time and ask airline personnel if the flight is overbooked, and if the airline is seeking volunteers. If volunteers are needed, ask about compensation, and take a minute to ask the necessary questions listed above. If you decide that the compensation is worth the inconvenience of waiting for another flight, volunteer.

For more information about bumping, visit the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division website .

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