I’d just gotten home from the airport when I got the call; my boyfriend’s United flight was overbooked, and they were asking for volunteers to be bumped. In exchange, the gate agents were offering a $300 travel voucher (only for use on United) and a hotel for the night. Since he was heading on vacation to Cancun, there wasn’t an obligation to arrive at a certain time. He was calling to ask if the voucher was worth it—should he volunteer?
Before agreeing to be bumped, I suggested asking the following questions:
- What situation is causing the airline to bump passengers? (They had purposefully overbooked.)
- Would they consider paying out cash, instead of a voucher? (They wouldn’t.)
- Were they going to involuntarily bump passengers if there weren’t enough volunteers? (They were.)
Considering the circumstances, I advised that no, he shouldn’t accept a travel voucher in exchange for volunteering to take the next flight. That’s because, due to the Department of Transportation (DOT) Passenger Bill of Rights, when an airline denies you boarding, they’re obligated to pay you cash for your trouble—and payouts can be up to four-times the price of your ticket.
When an airline denies you boarding, they’re obligated to pay you cash for your trouble.
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There are a few exceptions to that rule, and we’ll get to those shortly. But first, here’s everything that you need to know about bumping, including why overbooking happens, and how to calculate your potential payout.
Why Do Airlines Overbook Flights In The First Place?
Despite what it might feel like, overbooking isn’t just a ploy to frustrate airline passengers. According to the DOT, airlines are allowed to overbook a certain number of seats on each flight to compensate for passengers who don’t show up.
It’s a calculated risk, and an airline’s estimate for no-shows sometimes turns out to be incorrect. When that happens, passengers can be involuntarily left behind (bumped). However, the process requires airlines first to ask for volunteers.
Tip: Something to keep in mind when choosing which airline to fly is that each handles how many seats are oversold differently. Some, such as JetBlue and Virgin America, refuse to overbook unless absolutely necessary. Alternately, Southwest, United, and Delta take the top spots as most likely to overbook a flight.
What Happens If You Volunteer to Be Bumped
There are times when you might consider volunteering to give up your seat in exchange for an airline voucher. Before you do so, ask the following questions:
1. Will I get a confirmed seat on the next flight out?
Sometimes airlines will ask for volunteers, but only offer a standby seat on the next flight out. If that’s the case, don’t even think about volunteering! Consider that the airline has already overbooked one flight, and, should the next one turn out to be equally packed, you could potentially spend days stranded in a terminal.
Only if the airline can confirm your seat on the next acceptable flight should you move on to the next question—and remember to check that the proposed alternative doesn’t include undesirable multi-hour sits due to extra stopovers.
2. Will the airline provide you with a hotel room, meals, and transfers back and forth to the airport?
Unless you’re really keen on recreating Tom Hanks’ culinary tricks with catsup packets in The Terminal, consider that hours spent waiting in an airport can quickly become very expensive.
Only think about volunteering if the airline is providing you with a place to sleep, food to eat, and a way to get back to the airport in time for your next (confirmed) flight. Remember, you’re doing the airline a favor—and you shouldn’t incur extra costs in the process.
To recap, only consider volunteering to be bumped if:
- You don’t mind being delayed
- You will receive a confirmed seat
- And the airline will provide you with the necessary amenities
Should all of the above apply, know that you can also attempt to negotiate with the airline for cash-in-hand instead of a voucher, or for a higher amount. The latter is less likely, but it depends on how desperate the airline is to avoid denying their passengers boarding.
Extenuating Circumstances That Affect Your Potential Payout
Before you start dreaming of a bigger payout due to being denied boarding, know that there are a few extenuating circumstances to consider.
Airlines are subjected to extensive regulations—many which favor passengers if you know your rights. However, the DOT does make exceptions for times when an airline needs to shuffle passengers around, deny boarding, or delay a flight in the name of safety.
For example, if the airline was forced to substitute a smaller plane for the original aircraft, the carrier doesn’t have to pay out to passengers who are bumped due to weight-and-balance or safety constraints directly related to the switch.
Other circumstances that mean airlines aren’t obligated to pay include:
- If you’re flying on a charter flight, or if your original aircraft holds only 30 passengers or less.
- If you’re flying on an international flight coming into the United States.
- If you’re flying between two international cities.
- If you’re already holding a standby ticket, not a confirmed reservation.
- If you missed your airline’s check-in deadline.
Should any of the above apply to your situation, know that the airline isn’t required to pay you the higher fee for denied boarding—something to consider if you’re torn between volunteering to stay behind or holding out for more compensation.
Tip: If the airline arranges substitute transportation that gets you to your final destination within an hour of your original scheduled arrival time, you won't be compensated.
For example, in researching this article, I came across one Redditor who complained of not getting their voucher after volunteering to go on another flight:
“I voluntarily bumped myself off Delta Airlines flight and took another one. They promised 400 dollar credit, but the agent that helped me out ended up not giving it to me because I am getting to my destination two hours earlier on my other flight.”
Remember that vouchers and payouts are to compensate you for the inconvenience of being bumped—and that if there’s no inconvenience, there’s no pay.
What Happens If You’re Involuntarily Denied Boarding
At a certain point, the agents managing an overbooked flight have to switch over to denying paid passengers boarding. Should it look likely that you’ll be one of the passengers left behind, here’s exactly what’s about to happen:
- The gate agents will hand you a pamphlet explaining your rights. At this time, they’ll also ask for your boarding pass to confirm your ticket information and amount owed with headquarters. This process takes a few minutes, so get comfortable.
- If the airline can put you on another flight that arrives within one hour of your scheduled arrival, there’s no compensation.
- If the substitute flight arrives within one and two hours for a domestic flight, or one and four hours for an international flight, you’ll receive a check for 200 percent of your one-way fare, up to $675.
- If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later, or four hours internationally, or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, you’re entitled to 400 percent of your one-way fare, up to $1350 maximum.
A few important notes when calculating your payout:
- Your compensation is based on a one-way fare—not the total amount that you paid for your roundtrip ticket.
- Note that, if your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
Once your compensation is calculated, there’s also the matter of arranging your next flight. Remember that you still get to use your original ticket on a substitute flight of equal value. You can choose a confirmed seat on the next available flight, or decide to take one several days later, depending on availability.
Why I Never Volunteer To Be Bumped (And You Shouldn’t, Either)
In our specific situation, we had purchased a one-way ticket for $362. Because United had intentionally overbooked their flight, the ticket was for an international trip, and the next flight out wasn’t scheduled to leave until 12 hours later, we were eligible for the full 400 percent—totaling $1342.
As stated above, there are multiple factors that affect the final amount of your denied boarding compensation, including the cost of your one-way fare and how many hours you’ll be inconvenienced. While no one was able to get on an earlier flight, other passengers who were denied boarding on the same flight were handed checks for different amounts because they’d purchased round trip fares, which are generally less expensive.
Given that there are variables in how much you’ll be paid, why would I never volunteer to be bumped? It comes down to odds: If an airline is already asking for volunteers, there’s a good chance that they’re going to start denying passengers boarding.
And, if inconvenience is imminent, I’d rather hold out for the higher compensation—much less payment in the form of a check—wouldn’t you?