Nobody wants to become a victim of overbooking, but savvy travelers know how to profit from the inconvenience.
It feels good to have an overstuffed wallet. At least, that’s what I was saying to myself after a recent flight from Dubai to Frankfurt when the staff asked if I would downgrade my seat from business to premium economy for 800 euros (about US$965). The flight was oversold in business class, and I jumped at the chance.
When airlines oversell flights, it helps to lower airfare for everyone because it prevents seats from going out empty. Airlines rely on historical data to show the average number of “no-shows” on a flight, which can occur from people changing their mind, arriving late, or simply switching to other flights. And when the airline predictions are wrong, you can cash in on the situation.
How do I know if my flight is oversold?
Especially during the winter festive season and long-weekend holidays during the warmer months, it is common to see full flights. But just because the seat map looks full, it doesn’t mean the flight is oversold. Seat maps are not the best way to determine how full a flight is. Airlines block seats for certain passengers, and some travelers opt not to get a seat assigned in advance because it carries a fee. This means that the flight can look emptier than it really is, and you never know which seats have been blocked.
Airlines will seek volunteers during online or kiosk check-in, but this does not mean the flight will always need volunteers come departure time. Some passengers may arrive late or misconnect from other flights. Always arrive at the gate one hour before departure and tell the gate agent you want to volunteer. Gate agents are busy, and they don’t always follow the list of people who volunteered via the website or kiosk.
You can do some homework in advance to determine if they might need you. For example, if you can still buy a ticket for the same flight, it is probably not oversold. Websites like Expert Flyer provide reliable data on how many seats are left for sale. You can also ask ticket agents if your flight is oversold; they will readily tell you. United’s website has an “expert mode” that tells you how many seats are for sale in each fare bucket. The airline’s mobile app will also tell you if a cabin is full by checking the standby list tab.
Are some flights more likely to be oversold?
Busy travel days such as Monday, Thursday, and Friday are more likely to have oversold flights. But keep in mind that if you fly early in the morning, there is a greater chance that people will oversleep. Later in the day, passengers may misconnect from other delayed flights and not show up. Still, business travel routes (like New York to Chicago or Dallas to Los Angeles) are the most likely to be oversold because corporate travelers often have last-minute travel changes; airlines know this and are willing to oversell these flights to ensure they go out full. (Needless to say, airlines lose money with empty seats.)
If there’s bad weather, get to the gate early because previous flight cancellations may have caused other flights to be oversold, increasing your odds at a bump. If you’re flying on a small, regional aircraft, there is a better chance of being bumped because these aircraft are sometimes weight-restricted if flying from shorter runways or on longer flights. If you want a bump, the smaller planes will give you a better shot.
What can I expect as compensation?
While it might seem practical to bargain with a gate agent over compensation, their hands are generally tied when it comes to how much they can give. Airlines have publicly stated they will go almost as high as $10,000 if oversold, but this is rare and only offered if no one accepts to be bumped for a lower amount. Sometimes agents increase the level of compensation if they don’t have enough takers at the lower level. If you were one of the first to volunteer at the lower level, make sure the agent gives you the highest amount that is being offered.
If you want to request other perks like lounge access or meal vouchers, some agents may agree, but remember: Agents answer to supervisors. Also, if your new flight requires an overnight, the airline will give you a hotel and meal voucher, but sometimes you have to remind the agent about meals.
Golden rules for a bump
Always arrive at the gate early and remind the agent nicely that you are willing to volunteer. Agents are more likely to reroute a solo traveler than a larger group. Travelers without checked bags or onward connections are more likely to be chosen first as volunteers so pack lightly. Tell the gate agent that you will wait nearby; if you go too far, the agent might look for another volunteer. You want to be close in case the agent has questions for you or suggests an alternate flight. In the meantime, research your flight alternatives, but keep in mind that some airlines such as Delta and American no longer accommodate each other’s passengers in these situations.
Airlines are pretty good at not needing to bump passengers thanks to years of historical data, but if you play your cards right, you could get lucky. And remember when volunteering your seat, always make sure that your current seat does not get changed in the event that they don’t need you to volunteer. Or your offer to be nice and give up your seat might end up with you in a middle seat in the last row!