Unlike the popular 70’s disco dance of the same name, not everyone loves the bump. For many it is their least favorite thing about travel. But when done strategically, bumping can net you some serious savings on your travel budget.
So what is a bump, exactly?
Airlines tend to overbook seating on flights. depending on the airline anywhere from 200-400%. This is done to ensure even if the flight gets canceled reservations or no-shows they can still be certain of a full cabin. Occasionally, everyone does in fact show up or what is even more frequent there is a weather or mechanical event that causes the whole system to go awry, your seat may be unavailable to you and you may end up having to take another flight. You have been removed or “bumped” from your flight. Bumping can be voluntary or at the airlines discretion. Unless you are considered unruly or pose a flight risk, (and those definitions can be a bit arbitrary) the airlines will usually try to work with you to find a suitable arrangement for compensation. Every Airline has what is called a “Contract of Carriage” which is their internal rules on how to handle bumping. (It’s always a good idea to check them even if you don’t wish to be bumped, just so you know what the airlines will and won’t do for you if you are in a bump situation.) The information is required by law to be provided on the airlines website.
Since there is both voluntary and involuntary bumping we’ll discuss what to do in either scenario. Usually involuntary only happens when no one is willing to give up their seat and the airlines will pretty much always try to entice someone with a generous offer beforehand. Voluntary bumping can be a win-win. Both the passenger and the airlines benefit. The airlines gets to keep a happy customer and a full cabin. The passenger gets compensation or a voucher for a future flight (usually $200-$800), a seat on a different flight at no additional cost, and if the flight won’t leave until the next day a hotel and dinner voucher. Often the initial the offer will be low-balled. Here’s where the knowledge of the “Contract of carriage ” rules pays off since you can negotiate an offer.
How to use bumping to your advantage
Since the compensation or travel voucher can be a pretty sweet deal, many travelers will try to get bumped intentionally. I did this in 2016 and got a $800 voucher which I used to pay for a trip to Central America. I’ve also had nice rooms in hotels I normally wouldn’t be able to afford on my salary and had a lot of free meals. Here are some guidelines to getting a nice lucrative bump.
Book the right flights. Usually weekday morning and evenings, Sunday afternoons and holidays are almost always have bumped flights. Pick an airline that has a poor on time record (airconsumer.gov has them) to increase your chances. When booking your ticket look for a smaller aircraft on the same flight.
Arrive Early. (Usually two hours minimum domestic and 4hrs international) This will get you through security and give you time to arrive at the gate as soon as it opens for your flight (as a rule about an hour before departure)
ASK. When you arrive at the gate ask if the flight is overbooked. Even if it isn’t, tell the attendant that should the flight become overbooked you wish to volunteer. Even if they are not overbooked, stay close to the counter just in case, so you can be there should the situation arise. If they do make an offer know what their limits are to make sure you don’t get low-balled. Don’t be afraid to ask for more especially if you know they can give more. Remember in a voluntary bumping scenario you have the right to decline if you are not pleased with the compensation offer, so even if you tell them you are willing to volunteer you can change your mind prior to accepting.
Here are some important questions to ask the agent: What later flight is available? Will it be standby or a confirmed seat? If it is a next day flight are you covering my hotel and meal? Is the flight in the same airport (especially important in cities that have multiple airports} What are the restrictions on the voucher/when does it expire? Is it transferable? can it be extended?
Given cash or voucher, I usually check the terms and if they are acceptable I go with a voucher. If I am given cash I will just spend it and usually NOT on something travel related. Make sure you have an alternate flight booked (the agent will do this for you) before officially accepting the offer.
BEFRIEND the agent. They are under a lot of stress. I had a bump situation where the lady in front of me was just nasty about being involuntarily bumped. She chewed them out terribly. The agent gave her $300 and told her that was all they could do. When it was my turn, I smiled at them told them I was sorry they were treated that way and i knew they were just doing their job. The same agent gave me $600.
Try to have just carry on bags (no checked luggage) if you do have baggage to check, Ask the counter agent to tag your checked bags to fly whichever flight you end up taking. With the new airline security policies, your checked bags must fly on the same flight you fly.
A word on involuntary bumping. If you are involuntarily bumped know your rights. (these pertain to the USA, for international readers, check your local governmental travel agency. In a lot of countries, you actually have more rights that here so it’s worth checking in to) Per the Department of Transportation website:
- If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
- If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.
- If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).
Another good website is www.airsafe.com which has the “rules of the air” and breaks down the regulations regarding bumping both voluntary and involuntary.
For a little flexibility, bumping can offer some great benefits. While not for everyone, every time. the occasional bump even when involuntary can turn out to be a blessing in disguise. So what are your bump stories, have you been bumped either by design or by fate? How did it work out for you? let’s talk about it in the comments.