Free stuff (bump)

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Generalissimo, while I found your previous entries stimulating, none of this will impress my lady friends. Tell us something we don't know. Tell me how to get free stuff.

Milton Freedman is famous for saying, “there is no free lunch” and there certainly isn't anything free with airline travel.  But there are certain situations where circumstances might conspire with you (or against you) that might give you the opportunity to get something free.  So in this entry, I will present to you, the bump.

The bump, aka “taking a bump”, is the term commonly used to describe a situation where the airline has oversold a plane (booked more passengers than can physically fit) and needs passengers with flexible itineraries to remove themselves from the plane.  For this, they're typically placed on a later flight or even with a different airline and are compensated, generally speaking with a free travel voucher of varying quality.  To date, the General, has earned over 10 (probably something like 20 now that I think of it) of these bump vouchers so it isn't completely uncommon.  You also find bump situations arise when you have bad weather delays and people misconnect on flights at a hub airport.  Which is a lot of techno-jargon for saying that a snow storm in Buffalo can delay or cancel flights.  These passengers are then attempted to be placed on later flights, room permitting. As systems back up (lets say the storm effects Boston and NYC as well), later flights at the hub (Chicago, LA, etc) going to further destinations (Hong Kong) fill up, making the possibility for a bump situation far more likely.  Christmas time often is prime time as far as these situations occur.  Traffic volume on the airlines tends to be quite high and the probably of a snow storm happening that week in Chicago or the north-east tends to be quite high.

I suppose the first question to ask is, how the heck can an airline oversell its flights? It knows how many seats on the plane, why would it sell more than what it has?  Why?  Money.  Money and it knows something that you probably don't know but really should.  I'll just tease you with that and go into the generic reasons why an airline would oversell its planes.  It knows passenger behavior, it has to, that's the airline's business.  It knows that business people will probably schedule later flights (in the evening or late afternoon) so they can do their morning business and get home for dinner (or some such).  But they also know that a number of these passengers might show up early (the meeting only lasted 2 hours instead of 4, yay!) and will standby an earlier flight.  Not just business passengers but holiday makers as well.  Not everyone who shows up early will get on an earlier flight but a few probably will.  As these early birds fill up the seats on earlier planes, this opens up space on the later flights.  Not only this, but weather delays at various airports may cause people to misconnect, so what was once an oversold flight, isn't, because the passengers that would have caused the overflow weren't able to make the flight.  So the airlines hedge their bets, 90-95% they're right and don't have anything to worry about, 5% or so, they're wrong and end up having to compensate people for changing their itinerary. Worth the risk for the extra money.

The second question then would be, what if nobody decides to change their itinerary?  Plane's oversold, the entire plane and its overflow passengers want to take the last flight to Clarksville.  After the gate agents as for volunteers, nobody makes a gesture.  Typically, after a first round, they attempt to sweeten the pot with a better offer (might be cash to be used on the airline instead of a voucher, first class on the new itinerary, etc).  If still nobody volunteers, then they pick people to kick off the flight.  Rut roh, right? Nope.  When you buy a ticket on an airline, you're not guaranteed a seat.  It looks like you have a seat, it even says, you're sitting in row Foo seat Bar but the airline can deny you passage at their discretion.  This is often placed in the airline's “Contract of Carriage”.. for example: United Airlines


Overbooking of Flights
Airline flights may be overbooked, and there is a slight chance that a seat will not be available on a flight for which a person has a confirmed reservation. If the flight is overbooked, no one will be denied a seat until airline personnel first ask for volunteers willing to give up their reservation in exchange for a payment of the airlines choosing. If there are not enough volunteers the airline will deny boarding to other persons in accordance with its particular boarding priority. With few exceptions, persons denied boarding involuntarily are entitled to compensation. The complete rules for the payment of compensation and each airlines boarding priorities are available at all airport ticket counters and boarding locations. Some airlines do not apply these consumer protections to travel from some foreign countries, although other consumer protections may be available. Check with your airline or your travel agent.


The contract of carriage is a good thing to be familiar with if you want to know things like, the airline screwed up my bag, what kind of compensation would I be entitled to, etc.  I would suggest that if you plan on flying a lot (or are flying and that flight means a lot), skimming through it isn't a bad idea.

Moving on, this means that typically there are two types of compensation for an oversold situation, voluntary and involuntary.  Involuntary, tends to be far better because well, they just denied Joe Smith a chance to eat dinner with his wife as opposed to Joe Smith the backpacker decided that he could wait until the late flight to get started with his eight month soul searching trip to south america.  If you're smooth, you can sometimes get the gate agent handing your bump to give you the involuntary compensation instead of the voluntary, but I wouldn't hold your breath.

So, how do you get a bump?  Well, its really about being in the know.  When you get to the airport, when I get to the airport, do I know if I am going to get bumped off the plane?  No.  The only people that can tell you whether or not you might have a chance are the people who know what the plane's bookings look like, i.e. the check-in desk and the gate agents.  So, it is not uncommon for the General, when checking in to ask something along these lines, “is the flight oversold?”.  Sometimes, I get a look like “who the hell are you kidding? You're flying to Timbuktu and nobody flies there” but often I just get an honest assessment.  No, its full, but not oversold or, yes, its oversold by 3 people.  Being oversold doesn't mean that you'll get a voucher, but that it is possible.  All kinds of things can happen from check-in to flight time.  People missing their flights (oversleeping or getting in a traffic jam), people misconnecting, people flying standby on earlier flights, etc.  When I'm past security and in the airport itself, I make sure that I talk to the gate agents when they arrive to do the flight (typically an hour ahead).  Since I know the flight is oversold, I basically ask them to put me on the volunteer list, if they don't feel its necessary, they'll tell you so, most of the time they thank you for being proactive.  It saves them having to hunt people down later.  And as far as volunteering goes, its first come, first serve.  So if the plane is only oversold enough to produce one free flight voucher and you're second in line, then you're SOL.

At flight time, if you're needed, they'll call you up.  Because you've already volunteered and did so before anyone else know about the oversell situation, people just assume that you're getting a new seat assignment or an upgrade.  You laugh to yourself about how you just got a free flight and probably first class on the next flight and you probably just avoided having to sit in a cramped, full, plane.  Something to note, sometimes, but not often, you can be placed on the volunteer list at the gate. If that can be done, do it there.

One other thing, if the plane is really oversold and they definitely know they're going to need you, make sure to get the booking done for your new trip as soon as possible.  Only take a bump if you're sure you can accept the alternative arrangements.  I have turned down a number of bump opportunities because it would have shortened my holiday significantly or made the person picking me up the airport stay up to some ungodly hour, etc.  More often than not, when they call you up to ask you to volunteer your seat, they'll go through the options with you.  You can, of course, turn them down.  In which case, they go to the next person on the list and after having exhausted that, ask the plane itself through an announcement.

chivato says:
PS, thanks for the comment :)
Posted on: Jun 17, 2007
chivato says:
This is not necessarily true. United's bump voucher is actually a low-tier seat class, i.e. if there is availability in something like T class, you can get a seat, same with Alaska airlines (which makes both of these very valuable, alaska even more so since it goes anywhere they fly, including Mexico). US Airways however, is out of frequent flyer inventory which can make them nearly useless unless you plan them out LONG in advance. The cash voucher is almost never given on a voluntary basis. I have heard, that you can you can actually send the bump voucher into US Airways and have it converted into a cash voucher, esp. if you can make the argument that it is essentially worthless to you. I have never done this so I have no experience in it. Hence why I didn't include it. But I should have, placed a link to such advice since it is, handy. I've earned probably on the order of 10-12 us airways vouchers and for the ones that I have reasonably planned out (like 10 months in advance) have been able to use. The rest have been hit or miss, last year, alas, I let 3 go to waste. :( Cash compensation typically has the same limitations as the voucher itself, meaning if you get $200-300 on the airline, you can't just typically use it for any flight, you have to use it in the lower 48 or wherever the voucher would be valid for. Also, US airways' vouchers are not only good for the lower 48 but canada as well, or at least they were before their merger.
Posted on: Jun 17, 2007
Kramerdude says:
A comment on the "free stuff" given for voluntary bumps (for US airlines):

There are typically two forms of compensation given for a voluntary bump. A "free ticket" and a "cash voucher". The "free ticket" is typically a free ticket anywhere in the domestic 48 states, with one HUGE caveat. The ticket comes out of frequent flyer inventory. So you are battling everyone trying to use frequent flyer miles for a seat and we all now how difficult that can be. A cash voucher can be used just like it says, as money off the price of any ticket that you purchase. Typical values are $200-300. So it might not amount to a free ticket, but it is much easier to use.

For an involuntary bump you should receive some form of cash compensation, dependent on how long after your initial arrival time the airline gets you to your destination.
Posted on: Jun 15, 2007
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