The holiday season means planeloads of people visiting family or going on vacation. Flights are generally full and then some. That’s why this can truly can be the most wonderful time of the year — earning money for bumps (or bumpertunities, as well call them)!
Why Airlines Oversell
It’s not uncommon for airlines to oversell flights. Why? People cancel at the last minute, miss connections, show up late, etc.
I wrote a post detailing how you can deduce your flight is oversold.
But when more passengers are present than available seats, the airline won’t allow some passengers to board.
Other times, weight and balance issues might necessitate people being left off a flight.
Before things turn ugly (and expensive) for the airline, they ask for volunteers willing to take a later flight in exchange for compensation.
When to Volunteer
If you must be at your destination ASAP for something important (business meeting, wedding, funeral, etc), that’s probably not the time to play the bump game. “Sorry I missed the big meeting, boss. But I got a great bump voucher from Delta!” is not a conversation you want to have.
Similarly, if you have noncancelable reservations at your destination or are meeting a cruise ship, taking a bump probably isn’t the greatest idea.
But on the way home or if your other plans are changeable, consider going for it!
(Another caveat: if you know your airline is going through a meltdown or there’s bad weather for the next several days, taking a bump may not be worth the trouble.)
We’ll use Delta Air Lines as our example carrier because this blog generally focuses on that airline.
How Much Money Can I Get for Volunteering?
It depends on how desperate the airline is when soliciting volunteers.
The most famous stories are probably the eight people on a Delta flight from Grand Rapids who each received $10,000 in Visa gift cards and the woman who received $10,000 in travel funds from United. Delta shelled out $4000 to a lady traveling to South Bend. René and Lisa were each awarded $3000 during an international trip.
Those examples tend to be the exceptions. Don’t plan on buying a new car or quitting your job to live the life of a flight bumpee. Here are some of my personal examples:
My wife and I each received $1000 in Delta vouchers to return home two hours late. Another time, we accepted $400 to stay overnight; this is fairly low for an overnight bump — but my wife was pregnant and $800 in Amazon gift cards bought a lot of baby stuff. 🙂
My best friend and I accepted $500 and first class upgrades to stay an extra 75 minutes in Las Vegas. My favorite, though, was taking $800 for overnight bump at JFK — and then getting $1300 more the next morning because that flight was oversold. I made it home late that night — $2100 richer.
One time when I was in Fargo, North Dakota, a gate agent issued a $1000 opening offer (but not for my flight, gosh darnit!).
Don’t Check Luggage (If at All Possible)
Not checking luggage usually gives you a leg up on scoring a bump. Why? Your checked bags are one more headache for everyone to deal with.
That being said, checking bags doesn’t automatically preclude you from being bumped. But I know people who weren’t chosen because they checked luggage.
Check-In Early and Often
Even if the Fly Delta app automatically checks you in 24 hours before your trip starts, check in again at the airport.
If your flight is oversold, the check-in kiosk may flash you this message:
Your answer is, of course, YES! This, however, doesn’t obligate you to take a bump. Your compensation and new itinerary — if you’re even needed — will be settled at the gate.
You’ll be taken to another screen. This one asks you how much you’re willing to accept.
This is where it might get interesting.
Delta runs a sort of “auction” when it comes to selecting volunteers. Logically, people who bid the lowest might standard a better chance of being selected.
That being said, a Sky Club rep told me a few years ago to enter $800. My bumps since then have been a potpourri of compensation above and below $800.
Another Delta employee once told me that oversold international trips can really fetch some good money. I was at a check-in desk prior to a Paris flight and said volunteered “eight.” She said “thousand or hundred?” without a hint of joking. (In the end, no volunteers were needed, darn it.)
When the kiosk asks if you want to reprint your boarding pass, your answer is, again, YES. In fact, check in again after this so you have two copies of your boarding pass. (Here’s why it’s important to have paper copies of your boarding pass, regardless of what this article says.)
Here’s why this is important: boarding passes give agents plenty of helpful information, such as your name, PNR/confirmation number, and seat number. It speeds things along when/if they need to find and/or rebook you.
Go to the Gate (Or Airport Lounge — if Time Permits)
Be proactive. Don’t wait for gate agents to ask for volunteers.
Gate agents working a flight show up at the gate about an hour-ish prior to departure. And so should you.
“But my credit card gets me access to Delta Sky Clubs!” you say. Excellent (assuming you have time).
So head to the Sky Club. When the rep checks you in, ask him or her if your flight is still oversold. They’re obligated to tell you — but don’t have to say by how many. Most agents know why you’re asking. (In fact, a couple of them have called to my gate and told the agent, “Hey, I have your volunteer right here!”)
But keep an eye on the clock.
Once you arrive at the gate, take that extra boarding pass and approach the gate agent. I usually say something along the lines of, “Hi! Are you oversold?”
If they say no, I usually offer my boarding pass copy just in case something changes. Some gate agents take it, some don’t.
But if they say “yes,” I reply, “Great! I’m happy to volunteer. My schedule is fairly flexible and I’m not checking any luggage. Just carrying on. Here’s an extra copy of my boarding pass.”
I might be asked, “Did you volunteer at check-in?” I obviously say yes. And if they check my name against the volunteer list and say, “You bid $800?” I reply, “Yes. But I’m open to whatever.” (Depending on my schedule, I might take as low as $400.)
Ask them if you should board when your group is called or if they’d like you to stay in the gate area. If they think you might need to stay behind, they’ll tell you to hang out.
As René noted in his original bump guide a few years ago:
I will never take a bump unless I know I can get a confirmed flight. You do not need a seat, as that often means the next flight is just as full as this one, but you must be confirmed on the flight. The risk of going standby is you have to spend all day in the airport, or worse, and no chance for another bump!
The Waiting Game
For the next 50-ish minutes, stay near the gate agents and their lectern — but don’t bother them or hover.
As Tom Petty sang, the wai-ai-ting is the hardest part. All sorts of thoughts flood your mind: Am I going home today? Will I get rerouted? Any chance my next flight will be oversold and I can get bumped again?
This is a perfect time to start planning a mini-mileage run. For example, if you’re flying from MSP to JFK, you might want to pick up some additional MQM. Maybe, say, MSP to LAX to JFK. Search the Fly Delta app (or Delta.com) for flights you want.
Or, if you live in a city with multiple airports, you may be able to request a “co-terminal” change. For example, when I fly out of LAX, if I can ever finagle a way to return to Burbank instead, I’ll do it.
This is important: do not board or leave the gate area until the gate agent instructs you to do so. If they make an announcement saying something like, “All ticketed and confirmed passengers, please board now,” then remind them you volunteered and wonder if you should board.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “Yep! I think we’re going to need you to stay!” But a minute before boarding ends, the agent says, “Thanks for offering. Turns out we don’t need you.”
If You’re Selected to Stay
Everyone voluntarily bumped receives the same compensation. For example, I once verbally accepted an $800 bump from JFK to LAX. But the gate agents needed to entice more people — and upped the ante to $1300. In the end, I, too, received $1300.
Delta usually compensates you in the form of gift cards. They’ll email you a link and you have 60 days to make your choice from a menu of brands such as Delta, American Express, Target, Best Buy, and more.
The airline must provide hotel accommodations at their expense (room and tax only) if you’re moved to a flight the next day. Plus, they’ll give you vouchers for food at the airport and/or hotel. Because you might be flush with points, live in your departure city, or have friends or family with whom you can stay, etc., you might be able to negotiate more compensation for providing your own accommodations.
What Else I Usually Ask For
I request the crazy rerouting I researched while waiting for the flight to board. Sometimes the gate agents can oblige, other times not. If they say they can’t fulfill your mileage run wishes, say “no problem!” and don’t push it.
If I don’t like my new flight schedule (may my new flight is too early the next morning), I request something else. The agents usually very accommodating (if space permits).
I’m not shy about asking for a first class seat and neither should you. Even if it’s Delta One. (Some agents try their best to put you in first class anyways). If that isn’t available, I request C+ bulkheads or exit rows.
Your new itinerary will likely be rebooked into “Y” class — which is great, considering fare class is the second tiebreaker in Delta’s upgrade hierarchy. (Though you’ll almost certainly receive the MQM for your original fare class.)
I also ask for airport food vouchers. These are generally $15. They can be used at airport restaurants and (usually) airport convenience stores. So even if I decide to hang out in a club lounge (assuming the airport has one), I can buy some bottled water or snacks or a souvenir for my daughter.
Don’t have Sky Club access? Politely ask for a complimentary visit pass so you can wait there for your next flight.
Will Your Boss Find Out if You Volunteered?
A word of caution here.
If you travel for work and your flights are booked through a corporate travel system or agency, be ready to field some questions when you get bumped. Why? Because your new itinerary will be sent to your corporate travel rep — and whomever else receives those emails.
I speak from experience.
A few years ago, I worked a photo shoot in Dallas. On the way home, I took a $500 bump in exchange for a flight three hours later. Not bad — especially considering my client paid for my airfare.
But then the emails started.
My primary “boss” at the company understood I play the bump game and take mileage runs. She instantly figured out the situation — and found it rather amusing.
Her boss, though — who was one of the seven other people CCed on the travel emails — was a little concerned. “WHAT HAPPENED?! WHY DID YOU GET REBOOKED ON ANOTHER FLIGHT? ARE YOU OK? WHAT’S WRONG?”
This, of course, was a “Reply All” he sent to everyone else.
I simply responded (while sipping a drink at my first class seat) there was a change in schedule, I was on my way home at that very moment, all was fine, and I appreciated the job that week. (All of which was 100% true. 🙂 )
So be prepared for that.
Ask away in the Comments section!
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A bad result of volunteering, if you are flying Coach and if you eventually are not selected, is that you board last and therefore will probably have to gate-check your carry-on.
@Miles: That is a risk, yes.
@Miles – That is why it is good to stick a Diamond Medallion tag on your bag (even if you just got it on ebay)! 😉
LoL, I can sell mine on eBay? Who knew
@P. Love – Your DM & MM tags? Sure! They are “collectors” items 😉
Worse than Miles above I can’t count how many times my free C+ upgrade or sweet emergency aisle seat was given to another passenger on standby or BE and then at the last second they didn’t need me so I got moved to a middle seat in the very back by the bathroom and zero compensation.
I always keep an eye on the seating charts. If it appears a flight may be oversold I take screen shots of the alternate itineraries that work best for me – connections/MQMs and available FC seats. In the Sky Club I ask if the flight is oversold. If so, I go to the gate an hour before departure. When the gate opens I offer to help by giving up my seat. I briefly explain that all I have is a carry on bag and that I’ve got screen shots of alternatives that work best for me in the unlikely event my seat is needed. I encourage the agent to focus on getting the flight out on time and remind him/her Delta’s load algorithms are remarkably reliable and highly unlikely the flight will be oversold. It’s true. After waiting to board, 99% of the time my seat isn’t needed.
Watch the gate. If four agents and a red coat appear more likely than not the flight is oversold.
After offering to give up my seat and waiting to board I’ve never been forced to gate check my bag. On the rare occasions when I have taken bumps I have always kept my complimentary upgrades on alternate flights. It pays to be a Delta Diamond.
Thanks for the helpful hints. I think that having such a concerned and informed management chain is unusual. I was never asked about my flight changes!
Most recently I made $800. The first time I had offered $200. The second time I offered $200 and they said the plane was about to leave and that they didn’t need me. However after a few minutes when we were still at the gate they came and asked if I was still interested. I said I was so I got off and on the next flight (that actually got me in earlier as both the original and that one had connections). I was able to negotiate up to $600. Both of those gifts came in very handy when I suddenly had to fly to/from the UK a few times when my mother took ill and then died.
On that second flight, after seating myself on the new plane, again, at the last minute, they came and asked for me. The person was very serious and although I suspected he was going to upgrade me, he pretended that he was in security and that I had done something wrong. “Come with me please”….. in a very serious voice – and led me to the last open seat in first class! It was classic and very funny.
If Delta is looking for volunteers due to overbooking; will volunteers receive a voucher, plus no additional cost to board next available flight (and at the same travel duration)? I’m traveling and have seen airlines ask for volunteers several times.
All great advice. As a former gate agent, it also helps to be kind when speaking with the agent. It’s very challenging working an oversold flight, and still making sure it gets out on time. I always sit off to the side, and watch/listen to what is going on. You can quickly summarize how close they will be. At the same time, I am searching other options to get to my destination.
I have worked the bump game for years now, and with the online apps, it is so much easier. The gate agent is not likely to look for alternative ways home, they usually just pick the next nonstop. But if you can find alternatives and ones with FC seats, even better. Most will do their best to upgrade you, whenever possible.
For example, I volunteered on a DEN to LAX DL flight. Made a quick $1200, but the catch was I would have to spend the night in DEN compliments of Delta. While they were finishing up the oversold flight, I found a DEN to SEA to LAX option. Thankfully a supervisor came over take care of the vouchers/rebooking for the volunteers. I showed her what I found, asked if she could call over to the SEA flight and hold the door. She rebooked me in FC, handed me the voucher and ran me to the door to make sure I got on. As we were leaving, the party of 4 behind me were like “we want to go with her”. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to rebook 4 more people and not hold up that SEA bound flight.
Thanksgiving Sunday and the Sunday after Christmas are great days for racking in volunteer opportunities. And unlike in the ‘good ole days’ they offer up gift card/vouchers now vs free domestic flights.
Anyone had success with strategic bumping where your only goal is to score the bump? Driven by complete speculation with the ability to cancel a flight anytime before take off and no penalty? You have no intention or plan to get on the plane? At least with miles on a non basic economy ticket this seems possible if you have the time and are strategic about picking commonly oversold routes/times…
Seems quite problematic to me. It’s an air ticket, not a lottery ticket.
did you ever try this? I’m in a similar boat and wondering if you found success!
More than half the time in my experience I lose my good seat and get stuck in a middle at the back at the last minute when they don’t ultimately need me plus I have to now gatecheck my bag.
Airlines get around this very easily. According to federal rules, if you arrive at the gate after boarding has ended they don’t owe anything . So if they overbooked they simply start boarding late so those last to be checked in are checking in after boarding has officially ended.
I booked an economy flight and so I was in the last boarding group. I was anxious because I had an appointment to go to that couldn’t be rescheduled. I arrived early and got my ticket from a kiosk. I noticed it didn’t have a seat number. Without a seat number, the gate person made me wait while everyone else went ahead of me. Then when they looked at my ticket they said there was no room left. When I complained to the US Dept of Transportation, they denied my claim because records said I was checking in after boarding had ended. I am sick and tired of being bumped.
The airline emailed me a $50 voucher with so many restrictions I will never use it. I will never use that airline again.
Thanks for the data point — and sorry to hear of your experience, Garrick.
Chris, thanks a ton for writing this helpful article—yesterday, I was booked to fly economy on delta Freon JFL to MCO. When checking in, I got a notification that they needed volunteers, and seeing as I wasn’t in a rush to be home, I offered $500. At the gate, the agent doubled it to $1000 plus transportation to and from the airport, and now I’ve been put on another oversold flight today, $1000 richer. In any case, this was a super helpful read and I’m not sure I would have had the same outcome without it.
whoops, meant to say from JFK to MCO
Thanks for the kind words — and congratulations on your big score!
Curious how much of a delay? Did you mean JFK-MCO (New York-Orlando) ?
Great info. If you are on a voucher flight and want to give up your seat will you loose the miles you used from the voucher or can they be put back into your total?
Hi, Lynda! I believe this is your first comment — thank you and welcome!
It sounds like you’re talking about an award flight or a trip booked using miles, right? So, if you volunteer your seat, it’s the airline’s responsibility to book you on another flight. You’ll still get where you’re going — and the airline won’t refund your miles. But at least you’re still coming out ahead with whatever reward you receive for volunteering.
Very I insightful artical. Thank you.
Quick question on taxes. Does anyone know if the gift cards are taxable if the total amount received in a year is $1200 or more?
I received $1300 gift cards and never received any kind of tax documentation from Delta or their gift card distributor. (I’m not a tax expert or financial consultant, etc.)
I am curious about the mindset behind bidding $800. The last time I got that offer, the choices were $100, $200, $300 (maybe they had $400 too? But there weren’t a lot of choices.)
I think I chose $300, but my assumption was that if given the choice, they would go with the $100 person. I want to choose whatever option gives me the best chance, but I’m always confused.
I also almost always check a bag because I have to bring a sleep machine and I also have some mobility issues. How likely is it that this will screw me over?
I haven’t been bumped since 1997-by Northwest, which is now absorbed by Delta-and I got a $1000 voucher for future flights. Had to use it within 12 months. I literally flew to Miami overnight because my friends were down there. (Ah, to be young again!)
You can manually enter a bid amount. And while I’m one of those, “Hey, five bucks is five bucks!” kind of people, there’s no way in hell I’m taking a bump for $100 or $200 unless it’s for a flight that gets me to my destination an hour later. Tops. So, if someone wants to take a $100 bump, I’m delighted for them. But many things in life are negotiable — and I tell the gate agent that while I bid $800, I’m happy to hear whatever offer they have.
We’ve checked bags and still taken bumps. The baggage folks at the airport set them aside when no one picks them up when you don’t arrive on your originally scheduled flight. You claim them when you show up. But if you need the sleep machine and play the bump game, you might want to start carrying it with you.
I have an international flight from CMH to MIA and then MIA to UIO. I got a prompt to bid for the CMH to MIA flight. When the airline rebooks you (if your bid is picked) will your full flight itinerary be rescheduled? Or only the flight for which the bidding is for?
@TK – If you can still make your connection the original next flight will remain. If not they will rebook the next connecting flight as well. It is good for you to start searching for flights so if they give you options you can tell them the flights you would prefer to have.
In the last few weeks, I have had to book a flight same day on American. I was very surprised that once I bought the ticket in the app, I immediately presented with a “we’re looking for volunteers!” news flash. I mean, why sell seats if you are also over-sold? It makes me think the volunteer request is being over-used.
Any ideas what to make of this?
Airlines routinely oversell because they gamble on people missing flights. (Flaking, bad traffic, missed connections, etc.)
I have not actually been bumped in a long time…. Close, but no cigar. :(. . Regarding work delays, delta had offered me
An issued message on a ticket like paper saying
I was required to take a different flight due to
Military necessity. I would show this printed delta stock
Document to supervisors and they
could not say a word! Also there were times I requested this document as a “work excuse,” and it was gladly
Issued. I wonder if they still offer this service.
I would LOVE to bump again 🙂
I have an international flight tomorrow looking for volunteers. I can be flexible but I’m worried that I’ll end up in a middle seat for the 9 hour flight. This is pretty much my nightmare. Any idea what the chances of getting a crappy middle seat are if you volunteer?
Ask a representative where you’ll be reassigned. If it’s not something you like, tell them you need a confirmed aisle or window seat.
Great, thanks so much for your response! They probably won’t even need to bump me, but I’m glad I fully understand now for future situations. Your article was extremely helpful!