"This flight is overbooked," the gate agent says through the crackly microphone. "We're looking for some volunteers who would be willing to give up their seats. We're offering $200 flight vouchers as compensation."
Look around and you'll see some passengers scrunched down in their seats, like students hoping they won't be called on. Others are already on their feet, eager to grab some airline vouchers. And others are hesitating — is getting bumped worth it?
We'll take a look at the three possible outcomes of an overbooked flight and tell you how to make the most of the situation.
1. There's an overbooked flight, and you want the flight vouchers.
If you're not in a hurry to reach your destination, and you'd like to get a free future flight, you can offer to get bumped. But to do it right, you have to plan. Here's how.
- Volunteer to get bumped before the gate agent asks. Travel blogger John, telling the epic story of the day he collected $1,200 in flight vouchers, asked the gate agent at check-in if he could volunteer to get bumped. As a result, he was first on the list, and got a $400 airline voucher — the first of three he collected that day.
- Don't check bags. Getting bumped gets more complicated when your bags make it to your destination before you do. If your suitcase is already on board, you'll have to decide if you can be separated from your luggage for a day or more.
- Know how much your time is worth. Delta has an innovative policy of asking passengers to bid to get bumped. Essentially, the airline asks willing passengers to state the lowest-value flight voucher they'd accept to get bumped. As a result, Delta saves money, and it's up to passengers to accurately estimate the value of their lost time.1 Other airlines may first offer a low-value voucher, and then, if no one takes it, raise the amount. Either way, don't undersell yourself.
- Ask questions before accepting. Does the flight voucher expire after a year? Are there blackout dates, or other restrictions? And are you guaranteed a seat on the next flight, or might that be overbooked as well? Make sure you understand what you're signing up for.
- Ask for extra perks. If you ask nicely, the gate agent may give you a meal voucher or a lounge pass. Score!
- Be prepared to entertain yourself. Even the best airports can be dreary places to spend eight-plus hours. Make sure you have everything you need to pass the time: a long book, headphones, a fully charged tablet/laptop and a portable travel charger, just in case. Here are some tips on making yourself comfortable during long layovers.
2. There's an overbooked flight and you really don't want to get bumped.
If you're on your way to a cruise ship departure, or your brother's wedding, an overbooked flight can ruin your whole trip. The good news is that fewer people are getting bumped involuntarily off oversold flights — 17 percent fewer in 2015, compared to the previous year, according to the 2016 Airline Quality Rating.2 It still happens, of course, but there are ways to avoid it.
One is to check in early. Once you check in, you'll probably get a seat assignment, and the chances of getting bumped decrease. Don't wait to board! If you're not in your seat, the airline may assume you won't show up and give your seat to another passenger.
You can also appeal to the gate agent — but the best time to do this is well before the flight boards. Ask if the flight is oversold, and if it is, politely and calmly let the agent know that you're on your way to an important event and you need to make this flight. Resist the urge to add, "Or ELSE!"
3. You get bumped involuntarily from an overbooked flight.
You run panting through the airport corridors, your suitcase wobbling wildly behind you, and you make it to the gate just in time — or so you think. "Sorry," the gate agent says. "The flight's full." Here's how to make the best of the situation.
- Know your rights. The U.S. Department of Transportation has established some rules for airlines to follow when bumping passengers from an overbooked flight. The airline must give you a written statement explaining your rights, and in general, must offer you compensation if the substitute transportation gets you to your final destination more than an hour late. Compensation ranges from two to four times your original one-way ticket fare, up to $1,300.
- Don't be late. If you don't check in by the deadline, the airline's not obligated to give you any denied boarding compensation.
- Remember, you don't have to accept the airline's offer. "If being bumped costs you more money than the airline will pay you at the airport, you can try to negotiate a higher settlement with their complaint department," the DOT advises.
- Always purchase travel insurance with trip delay and cancellation coverage. If you get bumped from the last flight of the day, or if you're staring at a 10-hour wait in the airport, trip delay coverage is a godsend. Trip delay coverage reimburses you up to $1,600, depending on the plan you choose, for additional accommodation/travel expenses and lost prepaid expenses due to a covered departure delay of six or more hours. This means you don't have to accept the airline's $5 voucher for dinner, or sleep curled up on the carpet.
Whatever happens on your next overbooked flight, try to stay calm. Shouting and pleading won't work on gate agents — they've heard it all before. Travel happy!
Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.