Airlines like money and it turns out that the best way for airlines

to make money is to ensure that there are as few empty seats on a plane

as possible.

When a person doesn’t show up for a flight, the

seat is left empty and an empty seat is a lost opportunity for revenue.

As a result of this conundrum, airlines employ fancy statisticians to

figure out how many seats the airline needs to overbook just to make up

for the no-shows.

Unfortunately, those statisticians aren’t

fortune tellers and sometimes (ok, a lot of times), their figures are

off. When the figures are off, it’s still a better deal for the airline

to give you a $300 travel voucher than it is to risk letting a seat fly


So how can you cash in on all of this free travel? Here are seven tips to releasing your inner Free Travel Royalty:

  • Show up early

    may sound like a no-brainer, but the early bird gets the worm. Arrive

    at the gate at least an hour and fifteen minutes before your scheduled

    departure and ask the gate agent if he needs volunteers. If he isn’t

    sure, give him your name just in case. This doesn’t commit you to

    volunteering, but it might get you first dibs on those choice ticket


  • Choose your flights carefully
    If you really want to scope out the overbooked flights, check out AOW

    (Airlines of the Web). Search for your flight of choice and then take a

    look at the string of numbers and letters on the side. Those letters

    refer to the class (First, Business, Coach, etc.) from highest to

    lowest and the numbers refer to the number of remaining seats in the

    corresponding class. Keep in mind

    that the highest possible number is nine, so if the number listed is

    nine, the real figure could be much higher. Ideally, you want to find a

    flight with zeros (or close to zero) all the way across.


    are better than evenings—airlines are more likely to overbook these

    early flights, knowing that they have a better chance of delaying

    passengers to a later flight. Holidays, Saturday mornings, and Sunday

    evenings are good bets, too. Similarly, popular destinations are

    goldmines for the flexible traveler. Las Vegas, Hawaii, and major

    business travel hubs like New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago are common

    sites of overbookings.

    According to the U.S. Department of

    Transportation’s February 2008 Air Travel Consumer Report, some of the

    best airlines for overbooking are Delta, American Eagle, and US

    Airways. If you fly Jet Blue or Air Tran, your chances of being bumped

    are practically nil.

  • Be flexible

    possible, try to let your travel day be a travel day and avoid

    scheduling meetings or sightseeing trips for your first day in town.

    This is good advice for lowering your blood pressure on a hectic trip

    and it’s good advice that can allow you the time for getting bumped.

  • Travel light

    finding volunteers is like pulling teeth, but if the competition is

    fierce, airlines tend to prefer volunteers who don’t have checked

    baggage. On a similar note, one of the few downsides to getting bumped

    is the extra opportunity for the airline to lose your checked luggage.

    Try to stick to carry-on bags. If you can leave the turbo deluxe hair

    dryer and extra set of golf clubs at home, do so.

  • Be prepared

    setting foot in the airport, decide how late you are willing to be

    delayed and the lowest dollar amount you’re willing to take. Similarly,

    if you’re traveling with a party, decide who will take the later flight

    if there aren’t enough seats for everyone. Are you willing to be split

    up? Overnight? For how much money? Once the agent makes an offer, you

    will need to be ready with an answer or she might just take the next


    If possible, you should consult the flight schedule

    so that you can make suggestions to the agent of later flights and even

    alternate destinations that you prefer. I flew to New York recently to

    visit friends and was scheduled to arrive in Newark and then take a

    train into the city. When I was “bumped” the gate agent switched me to

    a later flight that flew directly to La Guardia, landing me in

    Manhattan half an hour sooner than originally scheduled.

  • Take the travel voucher

    free roundtrip ticket sounds like a good deal, but the travel voucher

    is totally the way to go. The roundtrip ticket is usually subject to

    blackout dates and all sorts of other restrictions which greatly limit

    when and where you can fly. Additionally, free roundtrip tickets are

    usually exempt from earning frequent flier miles. Travel vouchers, on

    the other hand, can be used just about any time, anywhere and the

    flights you purchase usually earn miles.

  • Get what you deserve

    making your deal, hang around within earshot of the gate (if you don’t

    have to run to make your next flight). If you hear another traveler

    negotiate a better deal, wait until the gate agent is finished and

    politely request to be offered the same terms. She doesn’t have to say

    yes, but it rarely hurts to ask.

    On a similar note, realize that

    you are often entitled to extras. If you have a long wait in the

    airport, ask for a meal voucher and a calling card. If you’re staying

    overnight, make sure that the airline is paying for your hotel and

    offering a shuttle to and from the airport. Request an upgrade to first

    class on your later flight and request a day pass to the airline’s club

    lounge (where you will often find free drinks, snacks, wi-fi, and

    sometimes even showers), particularly if your delay is long and

    inconvenient (such as an overnight stay, a different arrival airport,

    or an extra connecting flight).

    The airline is often desperate

    and you’re in a good position to bargain, but remember that there are

    often other volunteers who are happy to take your place, so be

    courteous in your requests. As the saying goes: You’ll catch more

    flights with honey than with vinegar.

  • A Final Tip

    not uncommon to score multiple travel vouchers on a single trip. This

    can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your level of flexibility.

    If you’d like to keep your delays to a minimum, ask the gate agent to

    confirm your seat reservation on your later flight. If your later

    flight is delayed or canceled, ask to see a copy of the airline’s

    contract of carriage to determine your rights in the case of an

    Involuntary Denied Boarding (IDB). The U.S. Department of

    Transportation requires that a copy of the contract of carriage be made

    available to passengers at the airline ticket counter.

    You may

    have heard of Rule 240, which originally required airlines facing

    delays to transfer you to another carrier if another flight with

    available seats could get you to your destination sooner. This rule is

    no longer in effect, but many airlines make similar promises to their

    customers and, if your airline makes such a promise, you should know

    about it.

Good luck and happy (free) travels!

Written by Clay Collins, creator of The Growing Life.