By Laura Begley Bloom
1. Consider the timing. Airlines routinely overbook flights with the assumption that a certain percentage of passengers will cancel. Flights during busy travel seasons (hello spring break!) and the last flight of the day are more likely to be overbooked. In that case, the airline will ask for volunteers to give up their seats or bump passengers to another flight.
2. Know your rights. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to compensate you by law if you are bumped off a plane, even if you’re bumped involuntarily. Insist on being paid. If your delay doesn't exceed an hour and the airline puts you on another flight, you're not entitled to compensation. Be aware that the rules go out the window with weather-related delays or delays for safety reasons; rules also vary outside the U.S. Whatever you do, don't arrive at your gate late. The airlines can use this as a way to avoid compensating you. I saw this happen to a family of four who lingered at the restaurant too long and lost their seats when they weren't at the gate 15 minutes before departure time. The airline gave away their seats to people on the standby list. No gift cards for them. (And probably no vacation, either.)
3. Do your research. If your flight still has available seats, it probably won’t get overbooked. If the flight is close to full or sold out, there are increased odds that the airline will bump passengers.
4. Ask! When you get to the gate, head straight to the agent and see if the airline is looking for volunteers. Tell them you only want to give up your seat for a good offer.
5. Don't stray too far from the podium. You don’t want to miss the call for volunteers and you want to be the first person to volunteer when the gate agent offers a good figure.
6. Be careful. A guy on one of our flights said he might be interested in volunteering when he wasn’t really sure. The gate agent took that at face value and gave his seat away. He changed his mind and regretted it, but it was too late. If the airline doesn’t end up needing as many seats, it can also break up families. Once you volunteer, the airline can take away your seat — and make your partner or child fly without you.
7. Don’t get too greedy. Some airlines (as we encountered with Delta) conduct auctions. The airline will give preference to people who volunteer for less.
8. Consider the form of compensation. Some airlines offer travel vouchers; some offer cash or gift cards. Think about what makes the most sense. Some flight vouchers expire within a year; some gift cards expire even sooner. Cash is the best bet if you can get it.
9. Don’t check luggage. My suitcase went to Fort Lauderdale without me. Same thing happened to another family, whose luggage was filled with frozen Passover dishes (they said that their $5,000+ in compensation was sufficient to let the food spoil). The airline says I will get my suitcase back, and I am hopeful. Lesson learned: Fly with carryon bags. It makes it easier if you get rerouted or cancel the flight.
10. Above all, be nice! After hanging out at the counter for hours and hours over the course of two days, I began to notice some trends. Screaming doesn’t work. Crying doesn’t work. Being nice? Now, that works. My husband bought lunch for a couple of gate agents who mentioned that they had worked through their break. I brought water to another agent who said he had come to work at 3 a.m. to help out and was dehydrated. These airline employees went above and beyond to help us out.