Tips on volunteering on overbooked flights
Should you volunteer to get “bumped” from your oversold / overbooked flight? Earlier this month, my Los Angeles to Vancouver flight with Alaska Airlines was overbooked (not uncommon these days). So prior to boarding they asked for volunteers, and as for compensation, a $400 cash voucher (because the flight is headed to Canada; if it’s a domestic US flight, Alaska will offer $300). Since I was traveling solo with no checked baggage, and I had a rather relatively flexible schedule, I immediately went up to the gate agent and volunteered my seat. After locating an suitable alternate itinerary to get me to YVR, however, there was a no-show, and they didn’t end up needing my seat, and I got on my original flight. Although I didn’t get the $400 voucher since I wasn’t denied boarding, I still received 2,500 Alaska miles simply for volunteering – which is worth $50.
Now this obviously is one of those “your mileage may vary” moments. You usually get nothing at all if they end up not needing your seat. However I was being very nice to to the gate agent and we even made some small talk. A few days later, I received an email from Alaska apologizing for my “experience”, which is a little funny considering it wasn’t a negative experience at all. Of course, if I had been bumped from my flight I would have received the full $400 voucher, which would have paid for most of my trip.
So you want to get “bumped” from your flight for a little compensation?
Here are a few things to consider before you run up to the counter to volunteer your seat:
- If you have a tight schedule, you may not want to do this. If you have a time-sensitive appointment, a cruise to catch, or just want to spend more time at your destination, keep in mind you probably won’t get there until hours later, or even the next day.
- Have a traveling companion? Not only is it harder to for gate agents to reroute two people on same flights, they may also end up needing only one seat and you and your traveling companion will get separated. Don’t do this if you are on your honeymoon.
- They may put you on another airline. I was offered Air Canada Rouge, which I rejected with a passion, because their tightly-packed seats may very well be the most uncomfortable in the history of aviation (okay, that’s definitely not true, but at 5’10 I couldn’t find any legroom at all). However, sometimes you may not get to choose, so be prepared for the possibility you have to fly with an airline that doesn’t sit well with you, pun intended.
- Your new itinerary may not be direct. I was then offered another Alaska itinerary with an overnight layover in Seattle, which I accepted). Also keep in mind your substitute flight(s) may get delayed, so you have to account for that possibility as well.
- You may lose your original seat even if they don’t end up needing your seat. This is definitely true for Alaska. Once you give your consent to volunteer, your original seat is gone. If they don’t end up needing your seat, you will be assigned another seat. United Airlines, from my experience, allows you to keep your seat if you volunteer and they don’t end up needing it. So find out from the gate agent if you have to give up your seat as soon as you sign your volunteer consent, and if you have a great window or aisle seat that you don’t want to give up, think twice because you may get stuck with a middle seat on a long-haul flight.
- Your carry-on may become checked baggage. Think about it: the flight is of course full if they needed volunteers to begin with. And if you volunteer and they don’t end up needing your seat, you may not know that until the general boarding process is completed, meaning the overhead bins are all full by then. If you only have a backpack and can fit it under the seat in front of you, no problem. If you also have a rollaboard, it will probably have to be checked. If they are able to do a gate-check, I have no problem with that, despite what is being said here. If you have flown enough with regional carriers, you will know gate-checking is unavoidable on smaller planes. If it has to be baggage checked, that is a different story. Personally, I don’t like standing at the carousel for 10-15 minutes to wait for my luggage, and not to mention the possibility of the airline losing your luggage.
So you still want to volunteer? Great, here are some tips to help you:
- Get to the gate early. I usually go to the gate 15-20 minutes before boarding time on flights that are almost full (You can check this by checking the seat map and gauge whether they will need volunteers). You want to be near the counter so when the gate agent broadcasts the call for volunteers, you can volunteer immediately. Read the situation, sometimes you can even volunteer before they make an announcement.
- Insist on cash, or a cash voucher. Cash is obviously the best, but airlines usually give vouchers these days for volunteering. Cash voucher is just as good assuming you will be flying with that airline again in the future. What you don’t want is flight credits. Booking flights with cash voucher will earn you miles. but you will not earn miles on flights you book with flight credits.
- If you travel light, make sure they know. Don’t have checked baggage? They love it because they don’t have to call the baggage handlers to locate and pull your luggage off the plane (which takes time) in the event your seat is needed. It also gives you weight to ask for more compensation when it comes to negotiating when you tell them they won’t have to reroute your luggage.
- Be flexible. As mentioned above, you may be arriving a day late, be put on a different airline, be delayed by your alternate flight(s), etc. Be prepared to hear itineraries with routes and times that seem uncomfortable to you. Of course you can say no, but eventually they will run out of itineraries and you will have to pick one.
- You should search for alternate flights too while they are looking. Pull up your smartphone and load Kayak or your favorite flight search app and find an itinerary that suits you while they are looking for flights on their terminals. You do not care about price at this point as you will not be paying (feels good huh?). I found a Delta flight which the gate agent did not initially locate on their system.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for first class. Sometimes it will even be offered to you without you asking. But if it isn’t, you can certainly ask if there are any first class seats available on the alternate flight(s). Chances are they won’t find any availability, but at least you asked. You certainly will not get disqualified from volunteering for simply asking, unless you come across as a rude passenger who demands to be seated in first class, in that case all bets are off.
- If you are offered an itinerary which requires you spending the night at a hotel, make sure you are not paying for it. You might think it is the airline’s obligation to pay for it – and you are right – but it’s less complicated when you are not assuming anything.
- If they are desperate for volunteers, you may get even more. This one is a bit of a gamble, because you only get those benefits if you don’t volunteer initially. But if you wait too long, it may be too late for you to volunteer. This is why I just go volunteer immediately. But if you choose to play the waiting game, check the seat map / standby list to estimate the number of seats they are going to need, then keep an eye at the counter to see how many people are volunteering their seats after the initial and subsequent call for volunteer announcements. If there aren’t enough volunteers, they will offer more compensation (increased cash / voucher value, lounge passes, meal vouchers, first class upgrade, etc) as it gets closer to boarding time. When you hear an offer you can’t refuse, go volunteer. You may ask the gate agent for even more in compensation, but tread lightly: read the agent’s mood first and remember, don’t be greedy. Remember, the longer you wait, the more you get, but sometimes you can also get more by simply asking (nicely) even if you’re the first to volunteer.
- But don’t ask for too much. It’s not a crime to ask for what you think you deserve, but consider this scenario: Someone else also volunteered after you did, and they only need one seat. 99% of the time volunteers are processed on a first come-first serve basis (see above point on why I don’t gamble for more compensation), and you should be the one who get bumped. But, if you asked for first class, future upgrades, more cash voucher value, elite status miles, and a taxi voucher (yes, it’s real), while the other person didn’t ask for anything in extra compensation, and when the time comes to select a volunteer, the agent may make this simple conclusion: it will cost the airline less to bump the other passenger than you.
In case you haven’t noticed, there is one recurring theme here, and this is perhaps the most important tip: Gate agents are very powerful, and can do all sorts of wonderful things for you. Treat them nicely! Granted, some of them won’t be nice to you no matter what, but you never know what will happen. And you may just get a little something for volunteering, even if your seat isn’t ultimately needed.