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How to travel for free by giving up your seat

Mention the word “bump” to my mother, and she grits her teeth, remembering getting stranded in an unfamiliar airport after being denied boarding from her flight. But you can also volunteer to be bumped, and walk away from the gate with a seat on the next available plane, plus free tickets or travel vouchers that will help you save on your next trip.

You might be denied boarding, or bumped, for a variety of reasons, but it’s usually because the airline has sold more tickets than it has seats available. Airlines generally oversell their flights by 10 to 15 percent to account for passengers who don’t show up, especially business travelers with fully refundable tickets.

Sometimes, however, too many passengers arrive, competing for a limited number of spaces. That’s when airlines start looking for volunteers who are willing to take the inconvenience of being bumped in exchange for compensation.

The rewards of giving up your seat

Airlines are not allowed to bump anyone from a flight without asking for volunteers first, and the standard practice is to offer substantial incentives. Typical awards for voluntary bumps include travel vouchers worth $200 or more, or free tickets for a future flight, in addition to a seat on the next available plane to your destination. Free tickets often have the same seat limitations and blackout dates as frequent flyer award tickets, but if you’d rather have more flexibility, you can instead ask for a voucher, with a cash value that can be applied toward a future trip. Both free tickets and cash vouchers usually have an expiration date of one year from the date they’re issued.

If your missed flight occurs during a meal time, you can get extra compensation in the form of food vouchers. Generally, you can expect $5 for lunch and $10 for dinner. If the flight you’re bumped to doesn’t leave until the following day, you can ask for hotel accommodations, unless you live in the city where you’re waiting overnight.

How to get bumped and maximize your benefits

With the holiday season approaching and more people taking to the air, here are tips to increase your chances of being rewarded for giving up your seat:

  • Travel at peak times: Fridays and Sundays, as well as Thursday nights, are often the busiest travel times. Planes also tend to be more crowded on mid-morning and early-evening flights. In short, take all the advice you’ve read about avoiding hassles and delays and do just the opposite.
  • Find out if your flight is overbooked: Call your airline before you go to the airport and ask if your flight is overbooked. Airline employees don’t have to volunteer overbooking information, but they have to answer if you ask them for it. This will give you a good idea of your chances of being bumped, since overbooked flights are more likely to need volunteers.
  • Research flight schedules: Check the schedule of flights to your destination on other airlines, print them out, and bring them to the airport. That way, if your airline can’t find a seat for you on one of its departures, you’ll be prepared to make alternate suggestions.
  • Check in as early as possible: It may seem counter-intuitive to arrive early when you don’t want to make the plane, but voluntary bumps are often given on a first-come, first-served basis. Most airlines request that you be at the gate at least 15-30 minutes before departure; to increase your odds, you’ll probably want to check in two hours before your flight is scheduled to take off.
  • Volunteer your seat: When you check in, let the airline agent know that you’re willing to give up your seat if the plane is too full, and ask to be put on the volunteer list. Also let the employees at the gate know that you’re happy to take a later flight in exchange for compensation, and stay in earshot to hear if they start calling for volunteers.
  • Confirm the airline’s offer: If you’re asked to give up your seat, confirm that the airline will be able to guarantee you a seat on another flight, and find out how much you’re being offered in compensation. Don’t worry that you’ll be charged the standby fees on airlines that charge one, such as Delta or US Airways; both airlines’ contracts of carriage specify that bumped passengers will be transported at no additional charge.
  • Don’t get short-changed: Keep in mind that you’re doing the airline a favor by giving up your seat, so you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for more than what the employee is offering. Don’t get greedy, but be firm. It might also be worthwhile to ask for a first-class upgrade on your new flight, meal vouchers if there’s a long delay, or even hotel vouchers if an overnight stay is required.

The odds of being bumped

No matter how prepared you are, the odds aren’t high that you’ll be bumped. But now is a good time to try, because planes have been more full over the last few months than they were earlier this year. For example, American’s percentage of occupied seats (an industry statistic called load factor) climbed to nearly 80 percent in August, up from 67 percent in January. Planes are fuller not just because more people are traveling, but also because many airlines have cut their schedules due to weak demand, so there are fewer available seats.

If you decide that you’re interested in the rewards of being bumped, you can check your airline’s bumping history. The Department of Transportation (DOT) keeps track of the number of passengers who voluntarily give up their seats on each major airline. See the table below for the five airlines with the highest number of passengers who were voluntarily bumped between January and June of this year:

Airline Total passengers Bumped passengers Percent bumped
America West 9,974,800 28,473 0.29%
US Airways 19,019,023 45,891 0.24%
AirTran 5,499,693 11,593 0.21%
United 29,515,407 58,568 0.20%
Northwest 22,710,860 44,055 0.19%

These numbers show that only a fraction of a percent of passengers got bumped, even on the airlines with the highest figures. On some airlines, giving up your seat for compensation is next to impossible; JetBlue only bumped 10 passengers out of the more than four million travelers who flew the airline during the first half of 2003.

Before you rush to be bumped from your next flight, keep in mind that no matter how crowded it seems, there’s usually a good chance that the airline will be able to fit everyone on the plane. That means you’ll be stuck in a full-to-capacity flight, traveling at a peak time.

But you do have at least one new option: to postpone your trip to a less busy time by taking advantage of the relaxed rebooking policies that most of the major airlines are now offering for nonrefundable tickets. Otherwise, you can take your originally scheduled flight; just think of my mom and be glad that you got a seat at all.

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