The terminal was hot, sweaty, and crowded. The attendants called for all passengers to board the plane. But even though my ticket said I was on that flight, I ignored the call.
I’d already booked a new flight — and gotten an extra $300 in travel vouchers for my troubles. It was my first taste of being a “flight bumper,” and I was loving every second of it.
Airlines often sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, just to hedge their bets in case a few passengers don’t show. Usually, it works out, and passengers are none the wiser.
But sometimes, flights end up with too many passengers and not enough space. This presents a problem for travelers on set schedules who can’t afford to lose their seats.
That’s where flight bumpers come in.
How flight bumping works
Most commercial airlines offer some kind of travel voucher to those willing to switch to a later, less-crowded flight. The amounts vary based on factors like the length of the flight and date of travel, and they can range from $50 to several thousand dollars. But they’re almost always worth it.
For example, I recently volunteered to be bumped from a three-hour flight to Baltimore. After negotiating with the attendant, I was able to secure a later flight and a $400 travel voucher — all for a ticket that originally cost $180 round-trip. That’s pretty good for merely having to wait one extra hour to fly.
After that first time, I became a serial flight bumper. Any time I can, I volunteer to move to a later flight so long as I can secure vouchers. It’s paid off. In the last six months, I’ve used flight bumping to get free flights to New Orleans and New York. It really is the best way to travel on the cheap.
Ready to become a flight bumper like me? Here are some tips to help you get started…
1. Know the best time to fly
Weekends, middays, and holidays are the most popular times to fly — meaning flights are more likely to be oversold. So booking a 5 a.m. flight on a Tuesday in February and hoping to get bumped is unlikely. Instead, go for a late morning or early afternoon weekend flight, especially if it happens to come near a holiday.
2. Spot potential oversells before you book
Think of air travel like a concert. Concerts that sell out are usually for the most popular bands. Likewise, flight bumpers should look to the most popular airlines and routes in order to have the best chance of being bumped.
Many carriers actually make forecasting sellouts very easy to do. American Airlines, for example, has a webpage that shows which seats on its flights are still available. Travel aggregate sites like Kayak will similarly have alerts when seat availability is low.
3. Arrive early and ask ahead
Gate attendants typically announce an oversold flight between 30 and 60 minutes before boarding. If you want to be bumped, you must be present and ready for those calls. To do that, plan to arrive at the airport as early as you can — typically two hours beforea domestic flight.
It’s also essential to “play the game” of flight bumping. When you check in, note if you are given the option to upgrade, pick, or change your seats (even if there is a fee involved).
If you don’t have the option, it may indicate an oversold flight. Once you get to your gate, you could also try introducing yourself to the attendants behind the desk and indicate that you might be willing to change to a later flight.
4. Sit close to the action
When you get to the gate, take some time to spot other flight bumpers. Do your best to position yourself strategically: Sit close enough to the desk that you can pounce when necessary, but do so inconspicuously so as not to draw the attention of other flight bumpers. This also allows you to size up your potential competition.
Another advantage of sitting close is that it gives you the chance to spot the signs of an overbooked flight. A frazzled attendant, a list of standbys that’s not moving, or attendants denying requests for seat changes will give you a clue. By paying attention to little details, you can get a jump on the other flight bumpers around you
5. Hold out for the best deal
With no other flight bumpers in sight, your opportunities for big payoffs increases dramatically. When the attendants announce that your flight is overbooked, you may think that pouncing immediately is the best idea. Sometimes, this is true, but the perks airlines offer almost always improve as attendants become more desperate to avoid having to forcefully bump otherwise unwilling fliers.
The offer that started at $100 in flight vouchers may just balloon three, four, or even five times that if you hold out.
Ultimately, flight bumping is all about doing your homework, knowing your competition, and deciding the best course of action in the moment. By planning ahead, figuring out how to read the signs, and understanding the art of negotiation, you could soon be able to get the airlines to pay you to fly!