The Tip Jar: How to get the best deal when an airline bumps you from your flight

Flight bumping is in the headlines, so Tip Jar takes a look at how to make the most out of missing your flight.
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Overbooking is common practice among U.S. airlines that want to maximize their profits from each flight by selling more seats than are on the plane, figuring some people will miss the flight. If everyone turns up, airlines ask for volunteers to be bumped to a later flight, almost always in exchange for compensation.

After the controversy surrounding United Airlines, people have a lot of questions about overbooking and getting bumped from flights.

The Tip Jar has taken a look at how to go about negotiating the best deal from airlines when you're faced with an overbooked plane.

Which airlines overbook the most?

This is a useful starting point, as you can get an idea before booking which airlines are most likely to bump some people for a flight.

Now if you ask me, I'd much prefer to go on a flight where there's as small a chance as possible of being bumped – which according to the latest Department of Transportation Figures is Hawaiian Airlines (if only, right?)

But if you're interested in getting paid to miss a flight, Delta asks for more volunteers than any other airline.

When it comes to involuntary bumping – where not enough volunteers come forward and airlines choose passengers to take a later flight (like in the case of the doctor on the United plane) – the airlines most likely to do this are ExpressJet and JetBlue.

To volunteer, or not to volunteer?

LifeHacker suggests that the trick to make the most money is not to volunteer to be bumped, but to be bumped involuntarily.

That's because federal guidelines stipulate exactly how much you should get from airlines if they bump you involuntarily – which is up to two times the cost of your flight for a 1-2 hour delay (to a $650 max), and four times the cost if your delay is longer than two hours (to a $1,350 max).

If you volunteer, chances are you're not going to get as lucrative a deal as those who are not given any choice.

But here's the thing: you have less control over whether you are going to be picked to be involuntarily bumped. So if you're looking to make some money out of an airline, the chances of it happening are slimmer if you don't volunteer.

You could increase your chances of being involuntarily bumped by checking in as late as possible (many airlines have a last-one-in, first-one-bumped policy) as well as not being members of frequent flyer programs (who tend to be prioritized over non-members).

What to check before you volunteer?

The Department of Transportation says it's important before volunteering that you check the airline can absolutely guarantee a seat on an alternate flight. If they can only offer you standby, then you could be stranded.

If there's a considerable gap to the next flight, you should check with the airline if it will provide free meals, a hotel room and transfers between the hotel and airport. Otherwise whatever you get in compensation will be wiped out by the cost of staying longer.

The circumstances matter

Even though involuntary bumping generally gets you the best guaranteed payouts, there's a chance you can really make a killing as a volunteer if the situation is desperate enough for the airline.

Forbes contributor Laura Begley Boom wrote that her family recently managed to get $11,000 out of Delta by repeatedly agreeing to be bumped from flights during a stormy weekend on the East Coast that saw thousands of flights cancelled.

TravelSense notes that the closer it gets to a flight leaving, the more lucrative the offer for giving up your seat, such as free meals, drinks, headsets, first class upgrades or admission to exclusive airport clubs.

So yes, circumstances will dictate how much airlines are willing to pay out, though not every flight you get bumped from will necessarily result in a big payout.

Delta for example on some flights has an auction system that asks passengers when they check in how much they would be willing to accept in exchange for being bumped. Needless to say, the ones who put the lowest bid will get picked. PBS explains more on this here.

Negotiating the best deal

Check-in attendants are given some room to negotiate deals with volunteers in exchange for missing their flight, and Business Insider says the way to get the most out of them is by being alert and respectful to staff.

Here are some other tips from BI and travel industry expert The Points Guy.

– Position yourself close to the desk at the gate so you can react quickly when the airline asks for volunteers. But don't annoy the gate crew who will be busy enough as it is.

– When negotiating compensation, ask for cash instead of airline vouchers – these often have expiration dates, restrictions, or limited seating.

– Start the negotiation asking for the same amount as the last person to volunteer – the first person to volunteer is likely to get lowballed, so it's good to start where the person before you finished.

– Airlines want to avoid involuntary bumping, so if you're going to get to your destination at least 2 hours late, they would have to pay you a maximum of $1,350 to deny you boarding. Bear in mind that this is the figure the airlines want to avoid, so negotiate as close as you can to it.

– That said, don't appear over-eager and don't get too greedy, The Points Guy advises you to be reasonable, otherwise an airline will look for volunteers who are willing to take less.

– Befriend the gate agent. At the end of the day they want to get the flight out on time so be as polite, cheerful and accommodating as possible to make their jobs easier.

– As well as cash, look for other bonuses. Agents are able to offer you other rewards, so if you've agreed on a compensation price already, see if they can bump you up to First or Business Class on your re-routed flight, or give you access to the airline's private lounge. It doesn't hurt to ask.

– Be prepared for it to fall through. If someone fails to show, your carefully negotiated deal will fall through and you'll have to fly. One Mile At A Time says the deal's not closed till the cabin door shuts.

If you have any money questions or feature ideas for The Tip Jar, email adam@gomn.com.

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