How You Can Take Advantage of Airline Overbooking

Apr 13, 2017

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Delta’s atrocious operational performance this past weekend ruined a lot of family plans. But, one of those families walked away with $11,000 in compensation — not including the refund of their original flights — for their troubles. The story of Laura Begley Bloom’s lucrative non-trip has been shared far and wide online over the past few days. The Points Guy caught up with her to get her tips for other travelers stuck in the same situation.

1. First, know your rights. Before getting yourself into a potentially problematic situation, know your rights. In the US, you’re entitled to some compensation for volunteering, and the maximum required by law is going to be no more than $1,350 (or 400% of your one-way ticket, whichever is less) for an involuntary boarding — so don’t expect to get offered more than that. That said, airlines might be willing to go higher now after this United situation turned out so poorly for the airline.

The laws are different in the European Union. While these laws are more customer-friendly when it comes to delays, the laws make no differentiation between a three-hour delay and being denied boarding. Compensation for either is on a sliding scale from €250-€600 ($266-638) based on the distance of the flight.

2. Do your research. Figure out if the flight you’re on is sold out. As seat maps can be notoriously unreliable, The Points Guy recommends using a tool such as ExpertFlyer to see exactly how many seats are still available for sale. “Y0” will indicate that there are no economy-class seats available for sale, and you have the potential for an overbooked flight.

3. Don’t check bags. Although Laura’s family did quite well from the Delta situation, there was one issue they had: her checked bag ended up traveling on the first flight even though she wasn’t on board. And, she still hasn’t gotten her bags back yet. If you’re considering checking your bag but might volunteer, you’ll likely want to try to carry it on.

If you check a bag, it might make it to your destination even if you never do.
If you check a bag, it might make it to your destination even if you never do.

4. Ask the gate agent when you arrive at the gate if there’s an oversell situation. Mention that you might be willing to volunteer if there’s a good offer. But…

5. Don’t hand over your boarding pass until the oversell is finalized. Sometimes there are potential oversells that don’t end up happening. By handing over your boarding pass, you’re giving up your claim to that particular seat. The airline might not need volunteers after all, and you’ll likely not get that seat back.

6. Don’t get too greedy. While Laura’s family was able to make out like bandits, this isn’t going to be the normal situation. If you’re interested in cashing in on an oversell, don’t wait too long to volunteer or you’ll miss out on the opportunity.

7. Don’t be afraid to ask for special treatment, like an upgrade on the next flight, meal vouchers, a mileage bonus — or re-routing a longer way to get more miles through your flights — or a couple of lounge passes to make the wait easier.

A Warning Story

Personally, I learned the hard way how not to handle overbooked flights. I had some flexibility on which United flight I could take from Houston (IAH) to Newark (EWR) before an overseas flight in November. When I heard the request for volunteers before boarding, I thought I’d make the gate agent’s day easier by volunteering at the first $200 offer.

After confirming I would have a seat on the next flight and a $200 voucher, I handed over my boarding pass. I was quickly unseated from my Economy Plus window seat — but the gate agent refused to hand over a boarding pass for the next flight or my $200 voucher. Once the flight was ready to close, the agent printed a boarding pass for me… but it wasn’t for the next flight. She had found a middle seat in the back of this flight and had put me there. My protests about our agreement fell on deaf ears; it was either this flight or no flight.

Not only was my Economy Plus window seat replaced with a standard-legroom middle seat, but — to add insult to injury — I was asked to check my carry-on bag.

So much for my extra-legroom seat.
So much for my extra-legroom seat.

Laura’s Take

I checked in with Laura to see what I did wrong. Here’s her take:

Your story underscores a number of things that travelers need to know about getting bumped. Whenever you volunteer your seat, you give up a lot. The airline has to get you on another confirmed flight to your destination. But they don’t need to give you the same class of service or even a direct flight, for that matter. The airline can also break up groups traveling together.

And they can do exactly what happened to you. You can get assurances from the gate crew that they will “re-accommodate” you in a positive manner, but you’re relying on their good word. I met several people who took compensation for getting bumped last week, then ended up having problems getting to their destination.

I also would have held out for more money. Although $200 is nothing to sneeze at, was it enough to compensate for the aggravation you went through? And what if your next flight was delayed or even cancelled? You could have been out a whole lot more.

Very true, Laura. I’ll be a lot more savvy about it next time. Instead of handing over my boarding pass, I’ll just mention to the gate agents that I’m interested in volunteering — but wait until the oversell is finalized before giving up my prime seat.

Featured photo by izusek/Getty Images

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