Bumping 101 and Denied Boarding Compensation

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I absolutely love that airlines overbook flights. I’ve scored hundreds of dollars of airline vouchers from voluntarily denied boarding compensation (“being bumped”).  That equals free flights and more travel for me, all because an airline sold more tickets from seats and I was flexible on which flight I took to get home.

However, for every person out there that loves being bumped, there’s someone who has a rigid schedule and can’t afford to end up on a different flight.  Here’s the skinny on denied boarding compensation – and how to handle it based on where you fall on the love/hate spectrum.

Bumped Flight Meaning

Bumping is the action of removing a passenger from a flight even when the passenger holds a confirmed ticket for that specific flight.  

Why do airlines overbook flights?

Every single day, airlines overbook flights to account for no-show passengers.  These “no-shows” are more common than you think, and might include someone who cancelled last minute due to extenuating circumstances, an elite flyer who was able to standby on an earlier flight, or someone who missed their connection because their first leg was delayed from weather or mechanical reasons.

Airlines know that these no-shows happen regularly and they’ve got smart people calculating how many people to expect as no-shows.  For the most part, it’s safe to sell 2 or 3 extra tickets than the airline has seats for.  This allows them to maximize revenue instead of sending planes out with empty seats.

However, every once in awhile their calculations are wrong and everyone shows up — and if there are more passengers with tickets than seats on the plane, someone has to get bumped.

Types of Bumping on Flights

There are two main types of bumping:

  • Voluntary Denied Boarding (VDB): When a passenger gives up their seat out of their own free will, usually in exchange for a seat on an alternate flight as well as additional compensation, such as free flight tickets, airline credit vouchers and/or upgraded seats.
  • Involuntary Denied Boarding (IDB): The act of refusing a ticketed and confirmed passenger from flying because there aren’t enough seats.

Obviously, the airline will look for volunteers before bumping someone involuntarily.  I love to be that volunteer!

How to Handle Involuntary Bumping:

1. Make sure you have a seat assignment.  This one isn’t foolproof, but usually holding a seat assignment means you’re more likely to get onboard.  Choose a seat at the time of booking (if possible) and/or choose a seat when you check in.  If you still don’t have one when you check in, get to your gate early and politely let the gate agent know that you still need a seat assignment.

2. Check in with time to spare.  If all else is equal, sometimes the last person checked in is the first to be denied boarding.  Check in online in advance if you can (and if you can’t, try to get to the airport at least an hour early so you’re not last to check in).

3. Get to the gate early.  Airlines can officially close doors and stop boarding 10-30 minutes before your scheduled flight time, depending on the airline and whether or not it’s an international flight (check your boarding pass for the “gates closing” time).  If you don’t arrive in time to board, your seat can be given away, with no compensation due to you.

4. Know your rights.  If you do end up being involuntarily bumped, you may be entitled to compensation.  In the USA, ask the airline for a copy of DOT regulations for reference.  To or from the European Union, ask the airline about “EC 261” (or read my full guide to European flight compensation).  Generally speaking, the amount of compensation you receive is proportional to how long you have to wait for the next flight.

Within the USA…

If you arrive at your destination within an hour of the originally scheduled flight, you will not receive compensation

If you arrive between 1-2 hours after the original arrival time, you’ll receive compensation equal to 200% of your one-way fare (up to a $650 maximum).

If you arrive more than 2 hours later than scheduled, you’ll receive 400% of your one-way fare ($1300 maximum). 

If you’re headed from the USA to an international destination, there’s no compensation for a one hour delay, 200% on delays of 1-4 hours, and 400% on delays of more than four hours.  You’re entitled to cash, not just vouchers, so keep that in mind.

5. Be polite.  I know you’re probably frustrated if you end up being bumped, but instead of yelling at the agent, be polite and then request a few extras.  An agent might be able to hook you up with free lounge passes, meal vouchers, or other goodies that make the wait until the next flight more bearable.

How to Volunteer for Flight Vouchers (Voluntary Bumps)

1. Determine which flights are more likely to be overbooked.  Hint: it’s usually flights that are popular with business travelers (who no-show more frequently), such as Monday morning flights and “happy hour” flights (Monday-Friday between 4-7pm).  Nonstop transcontinental flights also have a tendency to be overbooked compared to flights with a connection partway through. Sometimes it’s dumb luck, though, if a mechanical or weather problem leads to flight cancellations and a huge influx of new passengers trying to get on your flight.

2. Don’t check a bag.  For one thing, it’s easier for an agent to switch you to a different flight if they don’t have to retrieve a bag so they may select you over someone else.  It’s not impossible for them to get checked bags and re-route them on your new flight, but be aware this sometimes causes issues with checked luggage arriving on time.

3. Ask questions.  Before you commit to a bump, be sure to ask about whether you have a confirmed seat on a different flight, what the new flight schedule is, and if there are any restrictions on your compensation (such as an expiration date on your voucher or black-out dates on your free flight).

4. Know your options.  Use your laptop or cell phone to check for alternate flights if your original flight is oversold.  Taking a bump doesn’t necessarily mean you have to wait for the next scheduled flight on your route.  See if you can switch to a routing through a different connecting city, take an extra connection, or fly into an alternate airport at home.  Sometimes these options will open up possibilities that an agent might not have time to search for.

5. Be polite.  Getting to the gate with time to spare and letting the agent know you’re willing to volunteer can get your name first on the list if they end up in an oversold situation.  Just remember not to be a pest (gate agents are busy!), so just let them know once with a smile and along with “please and thank you”.

Are you chasing a bump opportunity?

There’s a lot to consider before volunteering for a bump, but when the stars align you can often get lucrative bonuses just for being inconvenienced by a few hours.  There are certainly times when I haven’t volunteered on a bump since my schedule wasn’t flexible, but more often than not, I’m ready to volunteer.

12 thoughts on “Bumping 101 and Denied Boarding Compensation”

  1. @Scott, makes sense to me 🙂

    @Kay, it really depends. A lot of times I don’t even have a chance to tell them before they ask just based on when I get to the gate (short connections, etc.) However, whenever I have an inkling it might be a full flight, I try to get there ASAP to politely inquire. Most of my flights aren’t oversold, but I have a pretty good track record for whenever they are.

    @dealswelike, good for you!

  2. When I was single, I was always the first to volunteer. Now that my travel is accompanied by a wife and toddler, that is no longer the case.

  3. Great post! I’ve never been bumped, but I’d like to be. Do you usually wait until they ask for volunteers, or do you let the gate agent know that you’ll available for bumping if they need volunteers?

  4. What are the best flights to book to get a chance to be bumped JFK – LAX and LAX – JFK?

    I haven’t been bumped in years but I always try..

  5. I missed a great bump opportunity for $800 in tickets on a flight to India. I was traveling for work and needed to be on that flight not the one the next night. They were almost begging for people to bump.
    Also I can’t accept cash if I am on a work ticket so other opportunities may be limited on work travel.

  6. @Jason, unfortunately airlines are pretty good at this too – they’ve done their best to make sure bumps don’t happen. The exact flights will depend on airline, but if the flights you regularly take don’t turn into bumps, try booking a different time of day, a different airline, or even an alternate airport (i.e. EWR-LAX).

    @Brabbit, hope you have another spring break planned with those vouchers!

    @Mo, Fuel surcharges are included, taxes are not.

    @Faye, glad to help, and it’s a good review for me too!

  7. If “Business travelers tend to no-show more often than leisure travelers” then flights that attract business flyers are likely to have last minute openings and thus are less likely to bump anyone else. Thus if we want to increase the chances of being bumped shouldn’t we seek flights that do not attract business travelers?

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