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How To Score Free Money From the Airlines

I got home on Friday from another week long trip for my employer.  As I was sitting in the airport, I detailed my journey of getting a voucher for another flight on Twitter in real time. @AlisonPaoli who works for Zillow, stated that someone should write something on how to score free flights.  Since I had hours of waiting in the airport, here it is folks!

Let me first chronicle my journey.  I drove from New York City down to Atlanta (long story).  I arrived on Sunday and was scheduled to fly out on Thursday some time.  I didn’t book my ticket back home until Tuesday at around midnight, so I cut it as close as humanly possible.  I booked a coach seat even though my flight showed that no seats were available except for first class.  Since they allowed me to buy a coach seat, it was obvious that Delta was overselling seats again.  After checking out, I noticed that I had received a free upgrade to first class.  Ka-ching!

I logged into Delta’s website on Wednesday night to check into my flight.  As I was checking in a screen popped up asking me if I was willing to voluntarily give up my seat and how much would I except as compensation for the seat.  I dropped $400 into the little box (stupid me..more on that later) and checked in stating that I wouldn’t mind giving up my seat.

I arrived at the airport and was sitting at the gate a full 1.5 hours before my flight’s scheduled departure.  I walked up to the ticket counter and asked if they needed volunteers.  The gate agent said that I was the first one there, and they would take volunteers in order, so I was the first one on the list.  Sweet!

I sat and waited as they filled the plane and rebooked me for a first class seat on a flight that would leave three hours after my original departure time.  I collected my $400 flight voucher and walked away to have dinner and get a massage before boarding.  So how can you score free money from the airlines, and what mistake did I make?  Here goes:

  1. Keep Your Eyes Open When Booking Your Flight
    I purposely booked a flight that I already knew had been oversold based on the seat choices that were left to me.  There was a good chance that I would get bumped to another flight already, and I knew that there were additional flights leaving later that night.  This tends to happen with flights going to popular cities like New York, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
  2. Fly On A Busy Travel Day
    You know all of those news reports that come out around the holidays telling you how busy the airports are with the obligatory shot of a news reporter standing in the middle of people trying to get somewhere? That’s the day you want to travel if you want to increase your chance of getting bumped.  By the way, the day before Thanksgiving and the day before Christmas are not the busiest travel days.  Try travel on Thanksgiving day or just about any Saturday in the summer to increase your chance of getting bumped.
  3. Check In Online
    The last few times that I’ve been bumped, I checked in online and a little box popped up saying that the airline was in need of volunteers willing to give up their seats.  This was with Delta.  If you are willing to volunteer, the airline asks that you enter the amount that you would like to be reimbursed.  The airline will have a maximum reimbursement rate based on your ticket class (more on that later).  If you enter more than they are willing to pay, a little box will pop up telling you the maximum reimbursement amount.  One strategy to employ is putting a crazy number in the box to discern the maximum reimbursement and then revising the amount down to match the airlines’ maximum.
  4. Arrive Extra Early To The Gate And Be Super Nice
    I arrived 90 minutes early, so I had the benefit of being first on the list.  Not only was I first, but I was all alone at the gate with the agents, giving me lots of time to schmooze them up.  They’re used to people being pissed off and exasperated with them, so a nice customer is a change for them.  As others came to the gate wanting to volunteer, I stuck out in their memories.  They even remembered my name!
  5. DO NOT CHECK BAGS!
    I never, ever, ever, ever check bags.  I’ve just had bad experiences in the past, so as a rule, even when flying internationally, I never check bags. Plus, if you’re hoping to get re-booked, it’s just less of a mess then trying to figure out when your bags will get to your destination versus when you will get there.  Watch this slide show from the NY Times on how to pack 10 days worth of stuff in a carry-on (and I have a smaller than average version to make sure that it always fits).  It will change your travel life.
  6. Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate
    Depending on how desperate the airline is, you can squeeze some great concessions from them.  This is where I made a crucial error.  I had a first class seat.  I could have negotiated for more money.  I did negotiate to make sure that when I was re-booked, I would have a first class seat on the new flight.  Wanna know a secret? You can negotiate for an upgrade on your re-booked flight if you were originally flying coach.  Also, did you know that there are actual rules as to how much you can be compensated if you have an “involuntary denied boarding” A.K.A. if you were bumped?  Same rules apply if you volunteer due to an overbooked flight too.  Here are the rules:

    Domestic flights within the United States: No compensation is due if your airline finds alternate transportation that will get you to your next stopover point or final destination within one hour after the scheduled arrival time of your original flight. For flights getting you to your next point or destination more than one hour but less than two hours, cash compensation equivalent to 200% of the one-way fare on the flight you were bumped off to a maximum of $650. Flights getting you to your next point or destination more than two hours from the original time will net you cash compensation of 400% of the one-way fare to a maximum of $1,300.”

    My ticket was a little over $400.  I could have gotten a voucher worth much, much more than $400 had I negotiated.  But that’s okay.  I didn’t know the rules then, but I do now!

  7. More Goodies
    Depending on just how long you’ve been bumped for, you can score a meal voucher and/or a hotel stay.  My aunt volunteered to be bumped from her flight coming back from a vacation and wasn’t able to get rebooked for two days.  The airline paid for her stay in an all inclusive hotel as well as her transportation to and from the airport.  Score!
  8. The Fine Print
    Just because you get bumped doesn’t mean that you’re always entitled to compensation.  If stuff happens because the government grounded flights or snatched your seats or there were acts of God, terrorist activities or the weather.  Basically, if shit happens that wasn’t their fault or wasn’t because they overbooked the flight, you get no money!  Also, your reimbursement amount may be affected by your fare class.  That’s those little letters the “Y” and stuff that is printed on your ticket.

So, if you don’t mind a little inconvenience, you can actually make money from being nice enough to give someone else your seat.  I promptly booked a flight to Denver this week as I sat for my new flight using the voucher that Delta so graciously handed over to me.   The cost?  A few hours, patience, and a good meal.

Have you ever been bumped?  Have any secrets that you’d like to share?

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18 Comments

  1. My dad and his girlfriend once got bumped both going and coming to Hawaii! In both cases they left the next day but that was okay because they were retired and she had family in Hawaii. As I recall each time they got vouchers to fly anywhere roundtrip that the airline flew.

    • Awesome question – one which I forgot to include in my post. When you are buying a ticket look at how many seats are left and which seats are open for purchase. If the only thing left are first class tickets or the ones where you have to pay for an upgrade in order to secure that seat, chances are that the flight is oversold. I try to buy tickets where it appears as if no seat is left and I can’t choose the larger size or more comfortable seat without purchasing an upgrade. In that case the airline assigns you a seat when you check in…supposedly. That, my friend is your golden opportunity.

  2. Mine has! I sit near the desk and wait in anticipation for them to ask. I’ve never been asked before how much I would like in compensation, though. They’ve just given me a free voucher for any continental domestic flight in my original seat class. It’s been a little while since I’ve flown, though.

    • The flight that my aunt was bumped from was an international flight! That’s why she got to say in such an awesome hotel and was able to extend her vacation for free for 2 days.

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