Free Flights and Upgrades: 10 Tips for Getting Bumped

One of the aspects of the travel experience that a lot of people dread is the prospect of getting “bumped” off a flight because it’s oversold. As if there’s not enough to worry about when it comes to travel, you also have to worry about whether or not you’ll actually get on the flight that you (theoretically) have a confirmed seat on. And then there are others, like me, that love nothing more than to hear the words “we are oversold” from a gate agent’s mouth.

While I was going to write about how to pick the frequent flyer program that’s best for you, I decided to push that off by a week, as my past week and coming week basically revolve around bumps. I just got back from a quick trip to San Francisco, a ticket that cost about $250, and scored $1,200 in “bump” vouchers this weekend. Why? Three of my United Airlines flights were oversold, and they needed volunteers to take a later flight in exchange for $400 in travel credits, and in my case, a first class upgrade on the next flight. Getting bumped off of flights pays for a good chunk of my travels, as this weekend’s vouchers are only a small percentage of the thousands of dollars in bump vouchers I’ve collected to date this year. Also, I’ll be speaking on bumps at a seminar in Chicago this coming week, so have all of this fresh in my mind.

Anyway, here are 10 tips for ensuring you get bumped off your next flight. And if instead you want to keep your seat, in general, do the opposite:

  • Book a regional jet in winter or stormy weather. Yes, I realize there isn’t a reason on earth you’d want to fly a regional jet, let alone when the weather is bad, but these planes often get “weight restricted.” While the airlines typically only oversell 50 seat regional jets by one to three people, they are often weight restricted by another three to five passengers. This usually happens because a lot of passengers check heavy bags, or because the aircraft needs extra fuel or has a lower maximum takeoff weight due to the weather.
  • Route yourself through the airline hub that typically has the worst weather. Airlines will Cancelled flightstypically oversell at the airports that historically have the most “misconnects.” A misconnect is when you have a connection that you miss because your inbound connection is late. In United’s case, for example, this always seems to be Chicago. Furthermore, United has a lot of inbound passengers from international flights that often get delayed in customs. As a result of this, United is often willing to oversell by more at Chicago O’Hare, which can mean that a flight ends up empty even when it looked like it was sold out because of misconnections, or everyone makes the flight because lines at customs weren’t long, the weather is nice, etc., meaning they would need volunteers.
  • Book during the busiest business hours. I know this sounds intuitive, but I’ve actually had the least luck bumping during the holidays, when flights are the fullest. The airlines count on most people making their flight around Thanksgiving, since most of the people traveling then are leisure travelers. Historically, leisure travelers have a much lower no show rate than business travelers. As a result, the airlines will typically oversell flights during prime business hours more than during holidays, weekends, etc.
  • Check the “loads” before you head to the airport. Before you desperately beg the gate agent to bump you, make sure that your flight is actually looking full. The easiest way to look this up is by using tools like ExpertFlyer or KVS to look up how many more seats are being sold on a given flight, or even check the airline’s website directly. Just pretend you want to make a booking on the flight you’re booked on, and see how many seats it would be willing to sell you. If it will sell you more than a few, chances are the flight isn’t oversold. But keep in mind that this can change last minute due to a previously cancelled flight or misconnects, so always check again at the airport.
  • Find an alternative routing. This is something you can do to make the gate agent’s life easier. Before you approach the agent to volunteer, if possible, have an alternative routing on the same airline in mind. For example, on Monday morning I got bumped off of my San Francisco to Denver flight. Almost everything was sold out, though before the flight I checked alternative routings, and found something via Chicago that had one seat available, which the agent snagged for me.
  • Don’t check bags. While it won’t necessarily disqualify you from getting bumped, agents are more likely to seek volunteers that have no checked bags, since it will make rerouting them easier.
  • Add yourself to the volunteer list early. Most airlines will let you add your name to the volunteer list at check-in. Assuming the flight is at all oversold, definitely do this. Don’t be discouraged if the check-in agent says that it doesn’t look too oversold, because it’s all a function of how many of the passengers actually check-in.
  • Get to the gate early. I’ve missed out on at least three bumps because I wasn’t at the My favorite sight at a gategate early enough. Always be there an hour before departure, as some gate agents like to start bumping passengers before boarding starts.
  • Be nice and easy-going with the gate agent. This is absolutely key in ensuring you get the most out of your bump. As soon as the gate agent arrives at the podium, smile, introduce yourself, mention you’re on the volunteer list (or if you’re not, ask if they may need volunteers), and point to where you’ll be sitting, should the agent need you. If you are indeed flexible, just explain that you can take almost any routing they’ll give you, ensuring the agent that you’ll be easy to deal with.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for an upgrade on the next flight. While the compensation levels are typically pretty set, gate agents often have the liberty of upgrading passengers on the next flight. While many won’t, it can never hurt to ask, especially if you were nice to the gate agent.

And there you have it. Those are my top ten tricks for being bumped. Additionally, make sure that you get the compensation you're entitled to: if you are involuntarily bumped, then rebooked on another flight within two hours of your original flight time (or within four hours for an international flight) the airline must give you at least $400 worth of flight vouchers, per Department of Transportation rules. If the rebooked flight arrives more than two hours (domestic) or four hours (international) later than the originally scheduled flight you're entitled to $800. So if you do volunteer to be bumped, don't accept any compensation worth less than that. There's also a proposal to increase involuntary bump compensation.


I started off by mentioning that many people don’t like to get bumped, so in addition to doing the opposite of the above, here's a tip for those that want to have a guaranteed seat on a flight: While the exact process varies by airlines, most airlines involuntarily bump passengers (meaning they didn’t get enough volunteers to take an alternative routing) either by the time they checked in or whether or not they have a confirmed seat assignment (as opposed to being confirmed on the flight without a seat assignment, which is often the case). So check-in online if you can, and select a seat assignment at the time of booking if you can, and you should be set.

Happy bumping!

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