I’ve written about how airlines often oversell flights, which could lead to overbooking situations. This happens when there are more passengers booked on a flight than there are seats. The concept of airline overbooking made global headlines in 2017, when David Dao was dragged off a United Express flight for refusing to give up his seat.
Now, chances are, when most people think of airline overbooking, their goal is to avoid getting hit. However, for many of us in miles and points, being displaced can be exciting and lucrative.
After all, in overbooked situations, airlines are supposed to ask for volunteers to catch another flight, before inadvertently denying anyone boarding. This can be a win-win, as a traveler with a flexible schedule can earn some future travel credits in exchange for their time.
With that in mind, in this post I wanted to share seven tips for maximizing your chances of getting bumped on your next flight, while also managing your expectations. In no particular order…
Understand there is no guaranteed hit
Airlines have incredibly complex algorithms that they use to decide how much to oversell flights. They use historical data to determine no-show rates and sell flights accordingly. This differs based on time of day, day of week, month of year, route, etc. There are many things that go into this.
The vast majority of the time, airlines pull it off and don’t need volunteers. However, sometimes they don’t get it right (since not much can be done to predict future human behavior), and that’s when volunteers are needed.
What is my point? Don’t think that booking a trip around Thanksgiving will necessarily give you a much greater chance of having a hit than simply booking any other flight during the typical business rush. Airlines are far less likely to significantly oversell a flight the day before Thanksgiving than it is on a Friday afternoon on a commercial route. Always keep an open mind, because potholes can happen when you least expect them.
Unexpected opportunities often come when you least expect them.
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 the airline continues to sell many seats, the flight is not likely to be oversold. However, if the flight has sold out or is about to sell out, the odds are better that volunteers will be needed.
Booking a full flight can change from one minute to the next, so it could be that the flight sells out and then a few minutes later there are a dozen empty seats (as many people may be tuning out), or it could be that the flight shows as fully open, and then everything changes when the previous flight is cancelled.
Check how full your flight will be in advance
Show up at the door early to express interest.
Different airlines have different policies as to when they start soliciting volunteers. For example, some airlines will start soliciting volunteers during online check-in, although this is generally not binding. Rather, they simply add your name to the list so that, in theory, you can discuss this possibility with a gate agent if necessary.
I feel like every other US flight I take has a message asking me if I’m willing to volunteer, but I don’t know when was the last time they really needed volunteers. This process is usually done at the gate, so I recommend showing up at the gate early, ideally up to 30 minutes before your flight’s scheduled boarding time.
When you notice the gate agent isn’t too busy, walk over and say, “Is there any chance you’re oversold and need volunteers today? I have some flexibility in my schedule.” Ideally, they will say “yes” and keep your boarding pass, or discuss what is on offer and what alternatives may be available.
Show up at the door early if you want a hit
Have an alternative ready
If your flight is oversold, it is very likely that other flights are also oversold. As a result, you may sometimes have difficulty finding another flight with availability. The gate agents are busy and may not be as creative when it comes to finding you an alternate route.
That’s why it pays to do your own research. Use the airline’s website, Google Flights or ExpertFlyer to explore what other options might be available. Don’t be afraid to get creative about your route, especially if it’s what gets you to your destination the fastest. You can then save the gate agent time by suggesting a good alternative.
Maybe you don’t want to take the most direct route home!
Calculate how much you can negotiate
Gate agents often have some discretion when it comes to voluntary compensation for denied boarding. This is because airlines want to do everything they can to avoid inadvertently denying people boarding, as regulators see it against them.
So to work out how much leverage you have to trade, get an idea of how oversold the flight is. If they don’t ask for other volunteers at the gate area, chances are only one or two will show up, and you don’t have as much influence. However, if they are making announcements asking for a lot of volunteers, or if the alternative route they are offering leaves a long delay in your travels, you have much more room to negotiate.
Sometimes you can even negotiate an upgrade as part of the compensation, especially if first class is all that’s available.
Some airlines have a policy of awarding all volunteers the highest compensation awarded to any individual. Even if that’s not officially the case, if you have some leverage, you should be able to negotiate that with no problem.
Be prepared to negotiate, if there is room to do so.
Make the job of the gate agent easier
Once you’ve volunteered, don’t be annoying. Gate agents in the US are ridiculously overworked, so once you’re asked to stay, just say “I’ll be sitting here.” Make sure your seat is close to the podium so you can watch what’s going on and you can be easily called if there are any updates.
If you do get hit and they’re still busy, just make sure you get compensation from them, but consider going to an airline lounge or customer service counter to get boarding passes, seat assignments, etc., for your new flight.
The gate agents are really overworked
Understand that it’s not over until the door closes
This is an important point in terms of managing your expectations. You can go through the whole volunteer process, agree to compensation, have the agent check you in on the next flight, etc., and still not be displaced.
Things change at the last minute, so when you volunteer you may find yourself in a situation where 30 seconds before departure, the gate agent asks you to board the plane. When this happens, there may be no room for carry-on luggage or, in some situations, someone else’s seat may even have been assigned to them. This is a risk to be aware of, so be prepared for that to happen.
It ain’t over til it’s thrown off the bridge of the jet
Airlines often overbook flights and from time to time volunteers will be needed to catch another flight. If you are a smart and flexible traveler, this can work in your favor so that you can get some compensation. The above are the things I would recommend considering before doing so.
If you have ever been voluntarily removed from a flight, what was your experience like?