Airlines like money and it turns out that the best way for airlines to make money is to ensure that there are as few empty seats on a plane as possible.
When a person doesn’t show up for a flight, the seat is left empty and an empty seat is a lost opportunity for revenue. As a result of this conundrum, airlines employ fancy statisticians to figure out how many seats the airline needs to overbook just to make up for the no-shows.
Unfortunately, those statisticians aren’t fortune tellers and sometimes (ok, a lot of times), their figures are off. When the figures are off, it’s still a better deal for the airline to give you a $300 travel voucher than it is to risk letting a seat fly empty.
So how can you cash in on all of this free travel? Here are seven tips to releasing your inner Free Travel Royalty:
* Show up early
This may sound like a no-brainer, but the early bird gets the worm. Arrive at the gate at least an hour and fifteen minutes before your scheduled departure and ask the gate agent if he needs volunteers. If he isn’t sure, give him your name just in case. This doesn’t commit you to volunteering, but it might get you first dibs on those choice ticket vouchers.
* Choose your flights carefully
If you really want to scope out the overbooked flights, check out AOW (Airlines of the Web). Search for your flight of choice and then take a look at the string of numbers and letters on the side. Those letters refer to the class (First, Business, Coach, etc.) from highest to lowest and the numbers refer to the number of remaining seats in the corresponding class. Keep in mind that the highest possible number is nine, so if the number listed is nine, the real figure could be much higher. Ideally, you want to find a flight with zeros (or close to zero) all the way across.
Mornings are better than evenings—airlines are more likely to overbook these early flights, knowing that they have a better chance of delaying passengers to a later flight. Holidays, Saturday mornings, and Sunday evenings are good bets, too. Similarly, popular destinations are goldmines for the flexible traveler. Las Vegas, Hawaii, and major business travel hubs like New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago are common sites of overbookings.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s February 2008 Air Travel Consumer Report, some of the best airlines for overbooking are Delta, American Eagle, and US Airways. If you fly Jet Blue or Air Tran, your chances of being bumped are practically nil.
* Be flexible
Whenever possible, try to let your travel day be a travel day and avoid scheduling meetings or sightseeing trips for your first day in town. This is good advice for lowering your blood pressure on a hectic trip and it’s good advice that can allow you the time for getting bumped.
* Travel light
Sometimes finding volunteers is like pulling teeth, but if the competition is fierce, airlines tend to prefer volunteers who don’t have checked baggage. On a similar note, one of the few downsides to getting bumped is the extra opportunity for the airline to lose your checked luggage. Try to stick to carry-on bags. If you can leave the turbo deluxe hair dryer and extra set of golf clubs at home, do so.
* Be prepared
Before setting foot in the airport, decide how late you are willing to be delayed and the lowest dollar amount you’re willing to take. Similarly, if you’re traveling with a party, decide who will take the later flight if there aren’t enough seats for everyone. Are you willing to be split up? Overnight? For how much money? Once the agent makes an offer, you will need to be ready with an answer or she might just take the next volunteer.
If possible, you should consult the flight schedule so that you can make suggestions to the agent of later flights and even alternate destinations that you prefer. I flew to New York recently to visit friends and was scheduled to arrive in Newark and then take a train into the city. When I was “bumped” the gate agent switched me to a later flight that flew directly to La Guardia, landing me in Manhattan half an hour sooner than originally scheduled.
* Take the travel voucher
A free roundtrip ticket sounds like a good deal, but the travel voucher is totally the way to go. The roundtrip ticket is usually subject to blackout dates and all sorts of other restrictions which greatly limit when and where you can fly. Additionally, free roundtrip tickets are usually exempt from earning frequent flier miles. Travel vouchers, on the other hand, can be used just about any time, anywhere and the flights you purchase usually earn miles.
* Get what you deserve
After making your deal, hang around within earshot of the gate (if you don’t have to run to make your next flight). If you hear another traveler negotiate a better deal, wait until the gate agent is finished and politely request to be offered the same terms. She doesn’t have to say yes, but it rarely hurts to ask.
On a similar note, realize that you are often entitled to extras. If you have a long wait in the airport, ask for a meal voucher and a calling card. If you’re staying overnight, make sure that the airline is paying for your hotel and offering a shuttle to and from the airport. Request an upgrade to first class on your later flight and request a day pass to the airline’s club lounge (where you will often find free drinks, snacks, wi-fi, and sometimes even showers), particularly if your delay is long and inconvenient (such as an overnight stay, a different arrival airport, or an extra connecting flight).
The airline is often desperate and you’re in a good position to bargain, but remember that there are often other volunteers who are happy to take your place, so be courteous in your requests. As the saying goes: You’ll catch more flights with honey than with vinegar.
* A Final Tip
It’s not uncommon to score multiple travel vouchers on a single trip. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your level of flexibility. If you’d like to keep your delays to a minimum, ask the gate agent to confirm your seat reservation on your later flight. If your later flight is delayed or canceled, ask to see a copy of the airline’s contract of carriage to determine your rights in the case of an Involuntary Denied Boarding (IDB). The U.S. Department of Transportation requires that a copy of the contract of carriage be made available to passengers at the airline ticket counter.
You may have heard of Rule 240, which originally required airlines facing delays to transfer you to another carrier if another flight with available seats could get you to your destination sooner. This rule is no longer in effect, but many airlines make similar promises to their customers and, if your airline makes such a promise, you should know about it.
Good luck and happy (free) travels!