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Goodbye seat, hello free flights!

Bumping, in the context of air travel, refers to “denied boardings” for travelers with tickets on an oversold flight. In many cases, it can be an annoyance. It can also be an opportunity to gain free perks—including vouchers for free flights—from an airline.

One reader writes, “I travel once per month for leisure, usually with a very flexible schedule. I know that when airlines overbook their flights, they coax volunteers to be ‘bumped’ by offering them monetary rewards, vouchers, or free trips. Since I live close to a major airport, I would be more than happy to show up for my flight, find out it’s overbooked, and take the next flight out with maybe a first-class upgrade or cash (which could possibly pay for my trip or hotel at my destination). Do you know which big lines overbook more than others?”

The Department of Transportation (DOT) publishes data on “denied boardings,” including both “voluntary” and “involuntary” bumps. Most airline comparisons focus on the involuntary cases, when travelers are seriously inconvenienced. But if you’re looking for opportunities to be bumped, what you want to know is the likelihood of a voluntary bump. Here’s now nine large US lines stacked up in voluntary bumps per 1,000 passengers for the first quarter of 2005—the latest available reporting period:

  • American: 0.9
  • Delta: 0.9
  • Southwest: 1.1
  • Continental: 1.5
  • United: 1.5
  • Alaska: 1.8
  • US Airways: 1.8
  • Northwest: 1.9
  • America West: 2.0

This data, of course, is for each airline’s entire system. It does not necessarily apply to any given airport. Still, it’s the best guide you’re likely to find. As far as I can tell, airlines do not publish rules about the specific bumping benefits they offer, or how those benefits might vary depending on the circumstances. However, most industry watchers seem to agree on some ground rules for travelers looking to be bumped.

1. If you have a choice, go for cash (unlikely) or a voucher that you can apply toward future travel. Your target value should be at least $300. And make sure the value can be applied to any airfare, including the very lowest, without any limitations beyond those of the base ticket.

2. While “free” trips sound enticing, reports I’ve heard indicate that those tickets are usually for seats drawn from the same inventory as frequent flyer seats or some other equally limited inventory—which means you’ll have a really tough time actually getting your free trip to any popular destination.

3. Try to game the system—go for bigger benefits when you see a lot of unhappy travelers worried about being bumped or no competition for the award; be satisfied with a lesser award if lots of other travelers are competing with you for bump benefits. On really busy days you can even try for a “double play,” getting bumped off of two or more flights on one trip.

4. If the airline appears to be in a real crunch, hold out for a larger-than-usual benefit—cash, a bigger voucher, a bunch of frequent flyer miles, an upgrade certificate, or a confirmed upgrade seat on your alternate flight. If you go for an upgrade, however, make sure it covers a positive space upgrade from any base fare, including the lowest available sale fare. If not, your upgrade priority will probably fall below that of elite frequent flyers and travelers on expensive coach tickets—again meaning that your chances of actually using it are slim to none.

5. Make sure the airline offers you an acceptable alternate flight.

6. Make sure that any voucher or ticket you accept is valid long enough for you to make use of it. If you don’t travel much, a travel benefit that expires in three or six months could be worthless.

7. The people I know who shoot for bump benefits tell me that they arrive at the airport early (today’s universal advice about almost everything to do with air travel) and “register” with the boarding agent as being willing to accept a bump ticket.

Business travelers are more likely than leisure travelers to book multiple reservations for the same trip or no-show because of last-minute schedule changes, so airlines are likely to overbook more seats on flights that are popular with business travelers than on other flights. That means better opportunities to fish for bump benefits on early morning or late afternoon flights, especially on Monday, Thursday, and Friday.

On average, the volunteering system works pretty well. During the first quarter of 2005, the number of voluntary bumps—where travelers willingly gave up their seats for some benefit—was more than 10 times the number of travelers who were forced off their flights against their wishes.

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