Last year, airlines gave me roughly $2000 in free flights. I used that money for a visit to Maine, cross-country flights to San Francisco and Seattle and a Labor Day getaway to the Dominican Republic.
I "paid" for all these flights by deliberately getting bumped.
Airlines try to oversell most flights, anticipating that a handful of travelers won't show up. If everyone who bought a seat actually shows up at the gate, you'll hear the agent ask for volunteers.
When that happens, I'm frankly shocked that more people don't jump at the opportunity to be bumped. I was once given a $500 voucher and a confirmed seat on the next flight -- an hour and a half later. In other words, I earned $333 an hour. Another time, I was bumped off one flight for $500, put on a flight a few hours later and bumped off that for an additional $400.
You can get a number of perks by giving up your original seat. Sometimes airlines will offer to place you in first class. If you've got a layover, you can also ask to fly directly to your destination. For example, I once got bumped in LAX as I waited to kick off my Los Angeles-Dallas-Washington DC journey. An hour later, I was on a flight directly from Los Angeles to Washington DC with a cool $400 in my pocket. Finally, unlike flights you book using frequent flyer miles, you actually earn frequent flyer miles when you pay using a voucher.
Getting bumped is, of course, a crapshoot. You rarely know in advance if an airline will seek volunteers. But there are a number of steps you can take to maximize your chances:
- Know your chances -- When you get to the airport, check in at a kiosk and look at the seat map to see if the flight looks pretty full. If there are just a couple empty seats, or better yet none, chances are decent the airline will need volunteers.
- Be in the gate area 30-45 minutes before boarding -- There's no set time that they'll make an announcement, but you don't want to miss it because you were at Starbucks instead of the gate.
- Sit as close to the gate agent desk as possible -- And be ready to jump if they make an announcement. (Keep one headphone out!) Airlines typically accept volunteers on a first-come, first-serve basis, so speed is key. On multiple occasions I've beat out other potential volunteers by sitting closer and jumping earlier.
- Demand money, not vouchers -- Some airlines like AirTran offer you free round-trip tickets anywhere they fly in exchange for getting bumped. This seems like a sweet deal -- you could theoretically fly to destinations like Jamaica, Bermuda, and Aruba that normally cost over $500 roundtrip. The problem is that the number of seats they make available for voucher tickets is extremely small. Your chances of actually finding a seat on a flight you want is slim to none. Rather than accepting a relatively worthless voucher, tell them you've had bad experiences with their vouchers in the past and would rather get financial compensation. Chances are good they will offer you at least $250, money that you can use on any future flight. Airlines like AirTran don't advertise this option, but it exists nonetheless.
- When to pull the trigger -- Airlines will typically start out offering around $250 and then ratchet up the offer by $50 every 5 minutes or so until they get enough volunteers. I typically pull the trigger early (usually the first offer, unless I need to take this particular flight), but I always ask whether I will get the final offer rather than the initial one if they keep ratcheting up the offer to entice more volunteers. Most of the time they'll agree.
- Using leverage -- Recent FAA rule changes force airlines that involuntarily bump passengers to give the flyer up to $1,300 in compensation. Because airlines desperately want to avoid that large fine, this gives you leverage to make some demands. For example, you can ask your airline to rebook you onto another airline that's more convenient, confirm you in a first class seat, and/or give you a hotel room and meal voucher if you have an overnight stay.
This article was excerpted from Scott Keyes's new e-book How To Fly For Free: Practical Tips The Airlines Don't Want You To Know.