Getting the Bump: Benefitting from Overbooked Flights

Greg Jackson is a teacher who loves to travel.  But how can he afford to go on trips when his only breaks happen during the high season--the most expensive times of the year to travel?  In this guest post, Greg shares one of his secrets with us.   Next time you fly, implement some of these strategies and you may end up putting some cash in your pocket!  Take it away, Greg!


As a teacher, I love my opportunities to travel over school breaks. 

Three times during the school year I get a week to jet off to faraway places, be it to visit friends and family or simply soak up the sun in my own private slice of paradise. The downside of having all this time off (queue the world’s smallest violin) is that I must fly during peak travel times, when fares are at their highest and nary a decent price is offered. For instance, flying round-trip from New York to Miami on a random weekday is about $180. Compare that to $620 the weekends of winter break.

It doesn’t have to be all bad news for your wallet though. When families fly to see Grandma or the Grand Canyon during school holidays, flights are much more likely to be overbooked. Airlines hate it when planes take off with empty seats. Therefore, they routinely sell more tickets than they have seats expecting that some travellers will not show up. If, however, all passengers do show up, the gate agent will get on the PA and ask if anyone would be willing to give up their seat for a later flight.

Wait! Why would you volunteer to get bumped?

Because you will be richly rewarded for your flexibility.

Let me explain. One recent Friday before a week long school break, I said goodbye to my students as they skipped out the door at the ring of the school bell. I then headed off to the airport, went through security and found the gate for my LA bound flight. The terminal was crowded with children giddy for their trip to Disneyland and parents steeling their resolve for the six hour journey ahead of them. I found a seat in front of the gate agents and waited.

It wasn’t long before I heard what I was waiting for. “Attention Los Angeles bound passengers. This flight has been overbooked and we are looking for three passengers who would be willing to fly on a later flight in exchange for a $500 voucher.” I was at the counter before the agent had time to put down the intercom.

By volunteering for these bumps I have saved $1700 in the past two years alone.

Of course there are no guarantees of a bump, but there are ways to maximize your chances and make the most of the situation.

Attitude is everything

Getting bumped is an inconvenience. But the level of inconvenience depends on the attitude you have. Be nice. Smile. Realize that you will still get to your destination. The airline is obligated to get you there.

Know when to fly

In my experience, flights are more likely to be oversold on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning at the start of a school vacation.

Be flexible

If your original flight is in the evening the airline may not be able to get you on another flight until the next day. If you were originally leaving on a morning flight chances are they will rebook you for a flight later that day and you may only arrive at your destination a few hours later than planned. Build some flexibility into your travel plans to account for this.

Additionally, you can be flexible with your destination. When JetBlue couldn’t get me to LAX in a reasonable amount of time, I asked them if they had any flights to nearby Long Beach. Not only did they get me to Long Beach, but they gave me a taxi voucher to get me across the city. (More on those vouchers later).

Get to the gate early

I try to get to the gate about 45 minutes before boarding. There is no telling exactly when the airline will ask for volunteers. Don’t miss your chance because you were still outside security putting your shoes back on.

Travel with carry-on luggage only

Not having any checked luggage will make it more likely that you will get picked as a volunteer since they won’t need to go through the hassle of retrieving your already checked bags.

Sit near the gate agent’s counter

Volunteers are accepted on a first come first served basis. To the victor go the spoils. Give yourself a head start by sitting as close as you can. Just don’t hover over the agents. That creeps them out.

Ask for money instead of vouchers

There can be restrictions on vouchers, but not for cold hard cash. Not all airlines offer cash, but it’s worth asking.

Ask for extra incentives and upgrades

I’m a proponent of asking for what you want and seeing what you can get. After you agree to the bump ask for a meal voucher or a lounge pass. If you will be leaving the airport and coming back, see if they’ll give you a taxi voucher. If the next flight isn’t until the next day, ask for a hotel room near the airport. See if they can upgrade you to a first class seat when you are rebooked on your new flight. It never hurts to ask, and you’d be surprised at how accommodating the airline can be.

Get the highest reward offered

Agents will often raise their compensations in increments to attract more volunteers if not enough people take them up on their early offers. I’ve seen offers start at $400 end up at $700. Don’t feel cheated if someone is given a higher offer after you accepted yours. If this happens, simply ask the agents to match it. Legally, airlines can award up to $1350 per passenger.

Don’t be too upset if there are no offers.

This is important. There are no guarantees that a flight will be oversold. NEVER buy airfare expecting to be able to volunteer for a bump. If the airline doesn’t ask for any volunteers, simply get on your original flight and have a great vacation.

About the Author

Greg Jackson is a former teacher from the Boston area and blogger at He has traveled extensively through Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. He can often be found exploring ancient ruins, eating unfamiliar foods, and joining random street festivals.