How I Turned An Overbooked Flight Into $400

I just turned an overbooked $99 one-way flight into an extra day in Seattle (which I actually wanted), $400 in Delta Dollars (which spend like cash on the Delta Web site), and a hotel voucher for the night. Not a bad outcome for a delay that I wanted anyway! I did this by getting bumped off of a flight, and you can too.

Delta voucher

I received a $400 Delta voucher!

Most airlines (with the exception of JetBlue) routinely oversell flights. This means that they sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane. It makes sense for the airlines to do this to soak up inventory that would otherwise go unsold. On almost every flight, there will be a few seats that go out empty because people showed up late or misconnected. Most of the time, this works out just fine for the airlines. Flights go out full (or nearly full), and the airlines pocket the change fees. However, as those change fees have increased–to the point where tickets are now often completely nonrefundable–people have gotten a lot better at making their flights. This has made it a really delicate calculation for the airlines and sometimes it doesn’t work out in their favor.

My flight yesterday was an ideal candidate for scoring a bump. It is the last flight of the day from Seattle to Los Angeles, and it’s also a feeder flight for Virgin Australia’s service to Sydney. These connecting passengers cannot miss their flight without causing a major disruption to their itineraries. Making matters worse, Delta has begun funneling most passengers onto its own flights instead of routing them onto Alaska Airlines, and they just launched a massive expansion in Seattle two weeks ago without adding any additional capacity on the route. Flights (especially connecting flights) are suddenly packed. At the same time, the relationship with Alaska Airlines has deteriorated to the point where the two airlines are no longer cooperating on the route through codeshare, so Delta doesn’t have anywhere for the overflow. And I was booked only from Seattle to LAX, with all of the flexibility in the world.

The US Department of Transportation (equivalent rules exist in other countries) highly frowns on the practice of overbooking when it results in what is called an “involuntary denied boarding” (or “IDB” in industry parlance). There are some really stiff penalties, requiring cash compensation of up to 400% of the ticket price. Additionally, if airlines deny you a seat that you paid for, they have to buy you another seat on the next available flight (whether they operate it or not). If you’re stuck overnight, they have to pay for all of your hotels and if you’re delayed for over two hours, they have to pay for your meals. All of this also gets reported to the Department of Transportation and ends up in published statistics that invariably end up as negative press. As you might imagine, airlines do whatever they can to avoid involuntarily denying boarding to passengers (although if they ultimately do have to involuntarily bump someone, there is a detailed pecking order through which they decide whom to bump).

the hook

This is why airlines will sometimes ask for volunteers who are willing to take another flight in exchange for compensation. The compensation is whatever you can negotiate, although it’s typically a fixed offer and there tends to be a lot of competition for volunteering. United typically starts the bidding at $200 in vouchers, US Airways and American start the bidding at $300, and Delta usually starts at $400. However, Delta will only put you on another Delta flight, whereas other airlines (except Southwest) will often buy you a ticket on the next available flight regardless of operating airline. This means you’re usually facing a longer delay with Delta.

It pays to pay attention. By the time that gate staff makes an announcement in the gate area, it’s probably too late to volunteer your seat. Many airlines (such as Delta) ask for volunteers during the online check-in process, so it pays to check in as early as possible – you can usually check in 24 hours early. Also pay attention to the seat map. If there are no seats available for selection unless you pay extra, don’t pay for a seat. You’re likely to get a free upgrade to a preferred seat when you check in (sometimes even first class), and you may have the opportunity to get bumped as well. Airlines call this an “operational upgrade,” or “op-up” for short. This is because it costs them less to give you a free upgrade than it does to bump you off the flight.

How do you know whether you might have a chance at getting bumped? There are a few clues. If you’re asked online to volunteer your seat, you know the flight is definitely overbooked and there is a very high chance of getting bumped. Airlines will offer the lowest possible compensation you might accept online, but you can generally bid a higher amount. Just keep in mind that higher bids are lower in priority, and airlines usually don’t need very many volunteers (sometimes they only need one). If you accept the lowest offer¬†at the earliest time with the least complicated itinerary, you will have the highest chance of being bumped. Note that you won’t always be asked online. If you check in and your boarding pass doesn’t have a seat number but instead says something like “assigned at gate,” you know that the flight is overbooked and you’ll probably have a chance to get bumped.

If you haven’t volunteered your seat online, go to the gate early (the gate typically opens an hour before the flight leaves) and be the first in line to talk to the agent. Ask politely whether the flight is oversold, and if it is, ask whether they are looking for volunteers. If they are taking volunteers, they’ll take your boarding pass. Sit down near the podium (in a place where they can easily see you) and pay attention. Everyone else will board before you. If you do end up getting on the flight, you will be the last person on. Don’t worry, the gate agent hasn’t forgotten about you (and if they have, they will need to give you compensation anyway). So, do not bother the gate agents, they are very busy getting the flight out on time, and if you hassle them they might just put you on board to get rid of you (and you’ll lose your chance at being bumped for compensation). Wait in the gate area and stay visible until they call you to the podium.

What will you receive if you’re voluntarily bumped? It’s whatever compensation you can negotiate, or if you didn’t negotiate up front, whatever you can negotiate with no leverage (being nice and polite to the gate agent goes a long way here). You’ll usually get a hotel voucher for the night if you’re not in your home city and you’re stuck overnight, an airline voucher that is good for up to $800 (although usually for much less), and sometimes meal vouchers depending upon the length of the delay. You should be aiming to get the maximum amount possible with the minimum length of delay (unless, of course, you want the delay), but remember you have competition. If you’re too greedy the airline will accept another volunteer’s less demanding offer!

Is It Safe To Book A Mistake Fare?

Every time there is a widely publicized and unusually good mistake fare, I end up answering the same question: “Sure, you got a great deal, but will the airline honor it?” A follow-on question is often something like “When I get to the airport, will I be able to check in for my flight?” The answer is usually yes, but there are some cases where the answer is no. Here are 5 simple rules to help you avoid getting tripped up along the way.

trip hazard sign

Rule #1: An itinerary and a confirmation number is not a ticket. You booked your ticket. The online travel agency sent you an itinerary that indicates the price and the amount charged to your credit card. You even got a confirmation number (one of those codes that looks like CNF1NQ). And then you show up at the airport to check in, the agent types in her computer, frowns, and says the dreaded words:

Sir, your reservation is not ticketed on this itinerary. You will need to purchase a ticket to travel today.

So what happened? Occasionally there can be a glitch in booking where you make a reservation but a ticket is never actually issued. You need both a reservation and a ticket number to travel, and without both, you’re not going anywhere. Do you have any recourse? Only if you were charged for the flight. 99% of the time, when you go back to review your credit card statement, you were never actually charged and will be stuck either buying a very expensive last-minute ticket or abandoning your itinerary.

Rule #2: Don’t Call The Airline. While a deal is active is not the time to contact the airline. If they find out that you got a good deal, they will use every trick in the book to void your contract and cancel the tickets. Only after a ticket number is issued and confirmed, and enough time has passed to thwart shenanigans (72 hours to be safe), should you contact the airline.

Rule #3: $0 fares can be voided. If the airline mistakenly gave you a completely free ticket (charging only government imposed taxes), there is some legal precedent that they can get out of the contract by refunding everything you were charged. This is because the airline never actually took your money in exchange for providing a service (they only collected taxes on behalf of the government), so they never actually entered a contract with you. This theory hasn’t been tested lately because airlines decided that the revenue lost from a few seats mistakenly given away wasn’t worth going to court. However, do keep in mind that they could probably go to court and win. One attorney suggested that if there is any airline-imposed charge in the booking (such as a fuel surcharge or even 1 cent in fare), the airline would have a much more difficult legal case to make. Of course, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Rule #4: Frequent flier tickets are a whole different ball game. An airline makes a mistake and offers a routing to Aruba via Amsterdam with a free stopover in Europe, but charges you only the mileage for a single-leg journey to the Caribbean. You can’t believe your luck, and the airline can’t either. A few days before you are due to travel, after having already prepaid for hotels in Amsterdam, you are contacted by the airline. They deliver an ultimatum: either cancel the whole journey (losing all of the money you have already prepaid) or alternatively, they’ll essentially wipe out your whole frequent flier account by re-pricing the trip as three one-way trips: one from North America to Europe, another from Europe to the Caribbean, and finally from the Caribbean to North America. “You’re lucky we can’t prove that you did this on purpose,” they say, “or we’d close your frequent flier account.” Your biggest question is whether they can really do this, and unfortunately, the answer is yes, they can. Airlines are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want when it comes to administering their frequent flier programs. They have very wide latitude, so tread carefully when a frequent flier redemption seems too good to be true.

Rule #5: Contracts Rule. By taking your money and issuing a ticket number, an airline has entered a contract with you. This isn’t true with frequent flier or other $0 fare tickets, but if the fare is 1 cent or more, the contract is in place. You can’t get out of a contract with an airline just because you wish you hadn’t entered it, and the same goes for the airline. So, don’t be afraid to assert your rights if an airline contacts you and tries to get out of the contract. Airlines know this, and also would generally prefer not to alert the general public to mistake fares. So, they usually just try to sweep mistake fares under the rug and allow anyone who has already purchased tickets to fly with no trouble.

Mistake fares can offer some incredible values in travel, and take you to some places that you might not consider visiting otherwise. I enjoyed an incredible visit to Ecuador on Aeromexico, which moved to the top of my list when roundtrip fares (widely believed to be mistake fares) dropped below $400. I was even able to upgrade one segment to first class for $40, I squeezed in a side trip to Mexico City, and I received Delta SkyMiles for the entire itinerary! As long as you follow the 5 simple rules above, you should have no problem flying on mistake fares you find!