Getting Bumped

Voluntary or Involuntary Bumping from Your Flight

There are several reasons for Airlines "bumping" travelers from their pre-booked flights:

One is that airlines overbook, taking into account that up to 15% of persons with prior reservation do not show up. When indeed everyone shows up, there aren't enough seats available and the call goes out for volunteers willing to give up their seats for a later flight by offering an incentive for the inconvenience this is causing. If there are no volunteers, the airline can request that a passenger will give up the seat for a later flight, which is called "involuntary bumping", as opposed to "voluntary bumping".

Another reason can be that inclement weather or mechanical problems has caused the carrier to cancel flights and its next-departing flights may not be able to accommodate many of the stranded passengers. After attempting to garner enough volunteers, the airline may also resort to "involuntary bumping" if they deem it necessary in case of special needs or circumstances of some of their passengers.

  •  Voluntary Bumping and your Rights For the volunteer who doesn't mind waiting for the next flight to their destination and thereby getting compensated by means of either money or a voucher good for a one-way trip, this is a way to finance future travels.

    If you choose to give up your seat, you have to accept your airline's deal, which differs from airline to airline and is not regulated by the FAA. Once you have accepted the deal, no changes can be made. NOTE: Commuter airlines serving smaller communities or link to regional hubs, as well as charters, do not have set compensation rules. Also, no compensation is offered if the airline is able to put you on another flight within the hour. It is possible that a commuter airline will put you on standby, meaning you could be in for a very long wait.

    In general, airlines offer as compensation free tickets or a dollar-amount voucher toward a domestic or international flight. If you accept the free ticket, keep in mind that it may come with many restrictions and/or limited seat availability.
  •  Involuntary Bumping and your Rights To the person who is being involuntarily bumped, this could be a disaster: A missed important business meeting, a missed reunion, a missed wedding.... It is important that you state your special circumstances for the airline's consideration. However, also note that airlines are reluctant to bump their best customers, be it the ones who paid full fare for first- and business class, or even the frequent flyer class. Those economy-class travelers with last-minute reservations and/or late arrivals are usually the most likely to be targeted for bumping.

    If you are forced to give up your seat, the FAA has set rules and guidelines for Airlines to follow, which are basically the following:

    (a) You are not entitled to compensation if the airline is able to get you to your final destination within one hour of your original arrival time. 

    (b) You are entitled to compensation equal to your one-way fare, but not exceeding $200, if the airline is able to get you to your final destination within two hours of your original domestic flight, or four hours of your original international flight. 

    (c) You are entitled to compensation of double your one-way fare, but not exceeding $400, if the airline delays you more than two hours for a domestic, and four hours for an international flight. If the airline makes no alternate arrangements for you, this is also the limit.

    NOTE: The airline may offer you a voucher for future travel - you can insist on getting a check instead, which should be issued then and there.

    In addition to the FAA's mandate, your airline's own policy may include other offers, such as: access to their airport lounge, meal voucher, and/or hotel vouchers in case you need to stay overnight. Do not hesitate to ask for them if they are not freely offered to you.

    ALSO: Ask to be protected under the airline's own "Rule 245" which is a section of their contract dealing with what action it is to take to rebook your trip and the compensation to be made.

Being Bumped -- What you Need to Know

  • If you are bumped -- voluntarily or involuntarily and have checked baggage, your bags will not be removed from the plane but continue on to your destination, pending your arrival later.
  • Keep all receipts for expenses caused by being involuntarily bumped. Regardless of their rules, you have the option of an appeal to the airline's customer service department, backing up your claim with your receipts (keep the original, give them copies).
  • If you feel you will be delayed for a long time, consider booking a hotel room and/or a rental car before everyone else does. Given special situations, some airlines issue vouchers for hotel rooms and ground transportation--check before making your own arrangements. You may also be entitled to meal vouchers, telephone charges, etc. Pay attention to any future reservations with airlines, hotels or rental cars that will be affected by your delay and contact them.

Whether you want to be bumped or not, these three rules apply to both: 

1. Reserve a Seat You are less likely to be bumped involuntarily - and have more power to negotiate for voluntary bumps - if you have an assigned seat. Reserve your seat when booking your ticket. A message saying your seats will be assigned at the airport or are "under airport control" usually means the flight is overbooked. You may want to choose another flight or airline.

2. Check In Early You can check in from home by Internet up to 24 hrs prior to your scheduled departure for most airlines. Even though you still need to be at the airport at least 90 minutes prior to your flight, if you want to avoid getting stuck at the security line while your airline gives away your seat (or your chance to get bumped).

3. Obtain a Guarantee or an Alternative If you lose your seat on one flight, chances are you have a long wait if other flights are likewise crowded. Ask the gate representative to get you a confirmed seat on another flight with that airline or, if that's not possible, on another airline.

NOTE: "priority standby" means: We don't have a seat for you! Therefore, you want "confirmed".

Thereafter, strategies for getting or avoiding a bump differ considerably.

If You Don't Want to be Bumped

  • Never use standby or open tickets for travel during peak travel times: weekdays 7-10 am and 4-7 pm--particularly Monday morning and Friday afternoon; early evenings on Sundays; start and end of Holidays.
  • Avoid using an airline that's first on the list for passengers being bumped. The US Department of Transportation's "Air Travel Consumer Report" includes, among others, overbooking of flights for the ten largest airlines.
  • Upcoming labor negotiations nearing the time of flight departure may cause a work stoppage or slowdown--change your airline.
  • Weather conditions might cause delayed and cancelled flights and in turn will fill up seats on other flights, causing passengers to be rebooked on other flights--keep checking.
  • Flying at peak travel times (see above), during spring break, and at the beginning and end of summer increases your chances on getting put on another flight.
  • If possible, book a nonstop flight, as each time you land and take off, you increase your chances of getting bumped.
  • Take an earlier flight--in case this happens to you, you have more options of same-day rebooking.
  • If at all possible, don't book the last flight of the day--particularly on peak flight days when many flights end up overbooked. Fewer volunteers are willing to be bumped from the last flight of the day, since many airlines' policies do not include hotel compensation, making a stay at the airport until the next morning a reality.
  • You may consider using a paper ticket over an electronic ticket, if you think that you might be re-booked on another flight. If you need to transfer to another airline to continue your trip, a paper ticket can save you time. Most airlines are not yet able to transfer passengers flying on e-tickets without first taking the time to switch them to a paper ticket.
  • Get a seat assignment when you book your flight. Also confirm your reservation and make sure the airline has the correct information.
  • Flying first class, full fare or business class will greatly reduce chances of being treated like sup-par travelers. Or join an airline's elite member club or frequent flyer program.
  • Arrive early and confirm your seat assignment.
  • If you check your luggage, ask about the flight--if overbooked, go directly to the gate. However, just having checked-in is not always a guarantee for a seat.
  • Board when your row is called. Otherwise it is assumed that your seat is available for a standby passenger. NOTE: If you don't show up at the gate 15 minutes prior to departure, the airline can involuntarily bump you and not owe you anything.
  • Ask to Up the Offer--FAA rules require the airlines to make a good-faith effort--meaning if no volunteers have yet come forward, it should try to sweeten the deal. The airline's desire for an on-time departure does not excuse them from making this effort. When you ask - use diplomacy!
  • Even if your best efforts to avoid bumping fail, do not take your frustration out on the airline employees. Being nice isn't just a good negotiating tactic if you're trying to get freebies. It's also good karma.

Planning for the Bump

Your negotiating skills are essential if you volunteer to give up your seat, as the airlines have no mandates for what they must offer you to get your seat.

Furthermore, keep in mind the competition: There are lots of people who know how to play the bumping game these days, and chances are a dozen or more people will also be willing to give up their seats--making it harder for you to negotiate a great deal.

Airlines are much more likely to offer vouchers for future flights with set limits between $200 and $300. If you are offered a so-called "unlimited" round trip, it usually comes with substantial restrictions. The downside is that available flights to free ticket users are very limited.

  • Travel light: If you intend to be re-booked on a later flight, don't bring luggage to be checked in but restrict yourself to carry-on luggage.
  • Offer your Services: Arrive early at the gate and you will be among the first to offer your volunteer services when the gate agent shows up. Thereafter, avoid checking back in, but rather park yourself nearby to be ready when your name is being called.
  • Consider the Deal: You have only a short time available between negotiating a deal and deciding on whether to accept it after considering the negatives involved in the deal. Should you be delayed for more than two hours, ask for a meal voucher and access to an airport lounge. For an overnight delay, request a hotel room, a transportation voucher to/from the hotel, as well as a meal voucher.
  • If you don't want to haggle, request that the gate agent matches the best deal offered to anyone else.

This said, your chances to get bumped increase if you do the following:

1. Choose a Popular Flight: Routes most popular with business travelers is a good bet, particularly Mondays, and weekdays between 4-6pm. Friday afternoons & evenings and Sunday evenings are favored by leisure travelers. Nonstop flights to prime destinations such as New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, etc., also tend to be full.

2. Choose a Holiday Flight: Overbooking occurs more likely with flights before and after major holidays.

3. Check the Weather: Bad weather can cause flight cancellations resulting in a cascade of overbooked flights across the country as airlines try to accommodate stranded passengers. Your chances of losing your seat increase considerably; however, your chances of getting another flight also decrease markedly.

Important Tips for the Volunarily Bumped

1. Update the reward: If you volunteer your seat and the reward later goes up, make sure you get the top reward as well--pay attention!

2. Get it in writing: Whatever offer you are getting, insist on the agent writing it down, signing it and adding their employee number.

3. Request more: Ask the agent rebooking your flight for an upgrade. If upgrades are not available at flight time, ask for credit/compensation as well.

4. Stay at a Hotel: If your rebooked flight requires an overnight stay, the airline will likely issue a hotel voucher accepted at certain airport hotels. If location of hotel requires transportation, also ask for a taxi voucher.

5. Use the Club Lounge: If your rebooked flight requires a wait of over two hours, ask to use the airline's club lounge offering free drinks, snacks, television, and computer workstations.

6. Do it all over?:  If your rebooked flight is also oversold, you again have the option of giving up your seat.

Getting Bumped From An International Flight:

If you are denied boarding on an international flight, the airline will reroute you but generally will not offer any extra compensation. Involuntary reroutings can involve upgrading your class of service at no extra charge, or rebooking you with a different airline to the same destination, but offering a higher class of service.

Should rerouting involve an overnight stay, the airline will provide for hotel and meal vouchers. However, you will not receive any free tickets, and you have no other legal recourse, except in case you purchased a first-class ticket and you were rerouted to a lower class, in which case the airline is to refund the difference. If you absolutely have to get to your destination without being bumped, the surest way is getting a first-class ticket.