Getting bumped from a flight could be either a blessing or a curse. Here’s how to make the most of getting bumped, whether it’s voluntary or not.
Know Thy Bumps
There are two kinds of “bumps”: voluntary and involuntary.
Voluntary bumps (technically “VDBs,” for Voluntarily Denied Boardings) take place when the airline thinks there will be too few seats for the number of people checked in. It offers incentives (usually a free trip or voucher, sometimes also upgrades, meals, airline club access, lodging, etc.) to get people to give up their seats. If not enough people volunteer, the airline may sweeten the offer.
If there are still too many people for the plane, the airline will “IDB” some people—involuntarily deny them boarding. IDBs are governed by laws that depend on the airline and country (e.g., here’s how Europe rolls). But generally speaking, the airline is required to write you a check on the spot, and find some alternate flight, train, or bus to get you where you’re going. (Examples here at DOT.gov.)
Both types of bumps are much more likely during bad weather, when the airline has a backlog of passengers trying to get home after their original flights are cancelled. Bumps are also somewhat more likely during holiday travel periods like Thanksgiving, when planes are so full that a single cancellation can leave hundreds of passengers stranded.
If you can be flexible, voluntary bumps can be great news, since the compensation is usually worth several hundred dollars. If you’d like to increase your chances of a bump, and your plane is looking full on the seat map, ask at the airport if the flight is “looking for volunteers.” If so, ask to go on the “volunteer list.” Then, if the flight is still looking for volunteers when you get to the gate, you’ll get paged to the counter and made an offer to give up your seat.
If you’re inflexible with your travel, there’s no hard-and-fast way to guarantee that you won’t get bumped involuntarily. Nonetheless, your odds are very small to begin with (about 1 in 10,000, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics – your U.S. tax dollars at work!). And the first people bumped are typically the people who rarely fly that airline and bought the cheapest tickets on the plane.
Acceptance: How to Make the Most Out of a Bump
Always a good tip at the airport, and in life: the nicer you are to the notoriously abused airport staff, the better off you’ll be.
One more reason to pack light. If there’s enough of a delay because of your bump, you can figure out how far you are from something interesting. With some luck, you can deftly escape the airport for a bit of sightseeing and be back in time for your flight.
And as hard as this is to remember in the middle of a stressful situation like an inopportune bump—there are much worse things in life than missing a flight. Call your loved ones, co-workers, or whomever and let them know you’re OK, but that you’ll be running late.
Update: Jesse over at AirTransparency has some great insights on the subject as well (and airline industry experience to boot!)