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
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.
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