What to do if Your Flight is Overbooked
Many airlines purposely overbook their flights, which means they sell tickets for more seats than they actually have on the plane, knowing some people probably won't show up for their flights. Maybe it’s to ensure optimum revenue on every trip, or maybe it’s because airlines rarely face repercussions for treating customers poorly. Whatever the case, overbooking is something most air travelers will have to deal with at one point or another.
Often, overbooking isn't an issue. On most flights where this happens, one or two passengers miss their flights, or change their plans at the last minute, and nobody's the wiser. But the recent PR disaster for United Airlines shows what a dramatic effect overbooking can have if it's handled incorrectly.
No matter why an airline overbooked their flight, the practice doesn’t have to ruin your trip. Here’s what to know before your next interaction with a gate agent.
How to make the most of an overbooked flight:
There are two kinds of people on overbooked flights: people who can’t believe this kind of thing still happens in the civilized world, and people who know how to take advantage of an airline’s despicable corporate policies. Let’s talk about how to be part of the latter group.
Airlines aren’t going to stop overbooking flights, so it pays to know how to take advantage of the situation. In most cases, airline employees offer some sort of compensation to inconvenienced travelers, and these unexpected boons often include travel credits or a hotel stay.
If a flight is overbooked, you'll often hear a gate agent offering varying degrees of compensation to anyone who will agree to take a later flight. If no one volunteers, the airline usually will raise the price of the compensation, and sometimes these offers get up to crazy-high amounts. Take, for example, the woman whose family made $11,000 from Delta after getting bumped from a flight earlier this month.
Time reports that Delta Airlines was the most likely to compensate bumped passengers in flight vouchers or credits. That doesn’t help if you need to get back to your family or if you’re on your way to an event, but if you have flexible travel dates, overbooked flights can be a goldmine of free travel!
What to do if you’re bumped:
So what happens when you give up your seat, and the flight takes off without you? You could be stuck at the airport for a few hours, or you could be trapped in this bleak travel purgatory overnight. How you handle this turn of events depends on how well you’ve negotiated your bump.
When you’re considering taking a bump, find out how long you’ll have to stay where you are (and consider how far you have left to go). If you’re going to be in one place overnight, the airline may be willing to cover the cost of your hotel room. If you’re not far from your final destination, it might be worth cancelling your flight altogether and hopping on a bus, train or taxi. Your airline may be able to convert your unused ticket into a travel voucher for your next flight (supplemented, of course, with whatever extra travel credit you were able to secure in your expert negotiations).
Smart travelers know how to make the most of this situation. Negotiate a hotel, or stake out a spot near the airport's free electrical outlets to charge your devices while you wait for your flight.
How to avoid being bumped:
Don’t want to get bumped? That’s fine too. There are two ways to more confidently avoid the Kafkaesque challenges that arise from overbooked flights. The first is simple but expensive: Don’t buy the cheapest seat on the plane. Many airlines consider passengers in budget seats to be cattle, worthy of milking for dollars but absolutely beneath human dignity. Buy a more expensive seat in business or first class seat, and you won’t face the same challenges as the rest of the peasants in coach.
If you don't have the money to fly like royalty, earn status with your preferred airline’s frequent flyer program. As we’ve discussed in the past, you can often earn elevated status in airline reward programs without taking a single flight. You’ll just need to find a travel credit card and make the most of your points. We’ve covered the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card in the past. Flyers with reward status are much less likely to be bumped from overbooked flights.
So there you have it. Buy an expensive seat, or earn enough reward points to become a valued customer. Nobody’s going to stop airlines from treating you poorly, but a little bit of planning can save you some major travel headaches, and maybe even earn you some cash towards future trips.