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 experiences:
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 if you don’t take your originally scheduled flights. Your bags will very likely end up on your originally scheduled itinerary.
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 a message similar to this:
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.
Most Sky Clubs now have self-service check-in kiosks. But you can ask the help desk reps 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! Looking for volunteers? 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 are 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.
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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