PHOTO: The interior of a Boeing 777-300. (photo via Flickr/Matt Pek)
Amid the turmoil over the involuntary removal of a United passenger, many are wondering why nobody on that flight was willing to take the compensation offered and voluntarily give up their seats.
I recently made 1,200 Euro and was treated to an overnight stay with meals in Frankfurt because Lufthansa overbooked my flight back to the U.S. during the first week of the spring school holidays in Germany. That was nice, but that's chump change compared to what's possible in these transactions.
My friend and fellow travel writer Laura Begley Bloom topped that this past weekend by raking in $11,000 by voluntarily giving up her family's seats on Delta flights, not once, not twice, but three times.
Airlines work hard to avoid involuntary bumps and with the United video playing to millions, it is likely that they will work even harder in the future. Here's how to cash in.
Travel during busy seasons
My flight was only slightly overbooked, but it was filled with families traveling to the U.S. starting a holiday. Those are the people who are not willing to give up their seats. They saved all year for that trip. Assume that all flights during peak travel seasons will be overbooked. If you are looking for opportunities to make money, look at spring break, Memorial weekend, and Independence Day in addition to the usual fall and winter holidays.
Try to avoid checking bags
If you are seriously considering taking a voluntary bump, it's best if you haven't checked bags. Bloom still has not received her luggage back from its trip to Ft. Lauderdale. I got lucky and my checked bags arrived in Dallas the same day I did.
The flip side of that is to try to travel with only what you can comfortable carry if you suddenly find yourself exploring a new city. In Frankfurt, my husband and I opted to stop by the hotel the airline had reserved for us and have them store our carryon luggage while we explored the city, but that may not always be an option.
Take extra undies
Everyone knows that you should pack a change of clothes in your carryon when you leave home so that you have something to wear at your destination if your luggage gets lost. Yet, few of us think about packing that way on our return trips home. Taking a voluntary bump—or dealing with an involuntary one—is far easier if you have what you need in your hand bag.
Have a backup plan for things at the other end
It's far easier to accept the airline's offer of money on a return trip if you know that the dog will be fed and your boss will be okay if you are a day late. If you are starting a vacation, be sure that your hotel reservations won't be given away if you don’t show up at the designated time. Don’t forget to subtract any hotel change fees from the airline payout before you decide if the offer is a good one.
Be prepared to think on your feet
To get the voluntary compensation, you have to be in the right place at the right time with a smile on your face. You need to be prepared to assess the status to the flight before the call for volunteers goes out. You then need to be able to negotiate the best terms for your situation and you are often doing that while navigating through an unfamiliar airport. Anytime you are traveling during a potentially overbooked situation, start thinking about the bump when you originally make your travel plans if possible.
Get your offer in early
If you are prepared for a voluntary bump, tell anyone and everyone.
Tell the ticket counter agent or the agent at the first airline service desk you find. While it is always up to the gate agents to determine who gets the bumps, having a note in your computer record before you even arrive at the gate can mean the difference between you getting the compensation and the next person.
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Know what they are required to pay you
Know what the regulations are regarding how much airlines are required to pay passengers who are involuntarily bumped. That is usually the ceiling for your negotiations. In Bloom's case, her offer to give up her family's seats for $1,500 each was met with a counter offer of $1,350, which is the maximum mandated amount for a delay in the U.S. of more than four hours. In the EU, the maximum required compensation is 600 Euro. Lufthansa started the offer there, so there was no negotiating the amount we would be paid.
Travel with a credit or debit card
If you plan to take advantage of oversold flights, having a card that can have your compensation added to it is a big plus. Even when the amount of your compensation has been settled, you can still negotiate the form of payment. Airlines often attempt to get you to accept vouchers good for future travel, presumably in the hope that you won't ever use them.
Avoid that option if you can.
Bloom was offered gift cards. These are better than vouchers, but be aware of possible fees and expiration dates, Bloom advises.
Cash is king, but getting cash from the gate agent is far less likely to happen than if you simply offer up a card that can be credited. I used a card that has no exchange fees, so my 1,200 Euro appeared on my card ten days later as $1,237.50.
Ask for upgrades
Always politely ask for something else after the compensation has been negotiated. Try for upgraded seats on the rebooked flight or an extra meal voucher for snacks in the airport when you return the next day. My husband and I not only got upgraded on our re-booked flight, but also got fifteen Euro each in airport vouchers to get snacks and bottled water for our afternoon in Frankfurt.
Be prepared to split up your travel group
Bloom was dealing with massively oversold flights due to extenuating circumstances, but most oversell situations are far more modest, usually requiring only one to four volunteers to get the flight squared away. Decide ahead of time if you and your travel companions are willing to split up to share the compensation offered for only one or two of you taking an alternate flight. This works especially well when alternate flights are offered with same day arrivals.
Double (or triple) down
In Bloom's case, the money added up because she and her family were willing to stay in the game. They eventually gave up their trip and had their tickets refunded. Assume that most oversell situations are not isolated events, but are likely to be repeated the next day.
On my Lufthansa flight, the gate agent even mentioned to us that the next day's flights were also oversold and that we could probably repeat the process if we wanted to. With the upgraded seats he had already procured for us, we opted to quit while we were ahead and come home, but the gambler in me is still thinking about that extra $1,200 we could have made for a little more discomfort.