How to Get Free Travel or Compensation Through Overbooked Flights

overbooked flight voucherYou don’t have to wait to redeem your credit card rewards or frequent flyer miles to earn a free flight. With a little bit of patience, flexibility, and luck you can be on your way to a free flight quicker than you can say “overbooked.”

Overbooking flights is a standard practice in the airline industry. It’s a way to hedge against passengers who skip out on reservations or to collect double fares if a prepaid passenger doesn’t show up. Most of these no-shows are business customers – leisure flyers tend to book trips early and show up when they say they will, according to Forbes.

For most, it is an inconvenience that is avoided at all costs. However, I have changed my outlook and in 2009 saved over $1,200 in travel costs by taking advantage of overbooked flights. My first experience came in October 2008. I was on my way home from a weekend visit in Detroit, MI. I had a layover in Chicago, IL and that flight was overbooked. At first, I ignored the employees plea for a volunteer even though they were offering a $200 voucher that would be redeemable on any Southwest flight. After the 3rd announcement, I realized that I didn’t have to work on Monday (Columbus Day), so why not take advantage of the offer? I was given a flight voucher, meal voucher, and overnight hotel voucher. This was the start of my love for overbooked flights.

Below is a breakdown of the the lessons I’ve learned and how to effectively take advantage of an overbooked flight:

1. Flexibility
Volunteering for an overbooked flight works best for the independent traveler. If you are traveling with kids, chances are the airline will not need to bump all of you. Young children may test your patience while waiting for another flight. Also, if there is a caregiver waiting for you to return home, the responsible thing to do is get home as soon as possible. However, if there is nothing pressing waiting for you at home, you may be in the ideal position to take advantage of an overbooking opportunity.

I have started planning the possibility of an overbooked flight into my schedule. Typically, when returning from a long trip or vacation, I take a day of rest anyway before returning to work. For example, if I am planning to be out of town from April 1-3rd, I’ll block off the 4th as well as my rest day. My calendar is now clear should an overbooking opportunity arise.

2. Patience
If you volunteer for an overbooked flight, expect to wait around for a while before you receive your voucher. While the airline employee is truly grateful for your volunteering, their main focus will be to get other travelers on the plane on time. You will not receive your voucher or any detailed instructions until this is done.

When you volunteer, they will ask for your airline ticket and offer you another flight either later that day or the next day. If it is a next day flight they will offer you a hotel voucher as well. If they don’t mention this, make sure to check with them. Once you agree to a later flight, they will book you on that flight and return their attention to the boarding passengers. Take a seat near the information desk and wait until they call you. Do not wander off! Sometimes they’ll realize seats are available at the last minute. If that is the case, you are expected to board and may still get some kind of compensation!

3. Planning & Anticipation
Overbooked volunteers are taken on a first-come, first-served basis. It seems as if more people are realizing the value of taking advantage of an overbooked flight by volunteering rather quickly. To ensure I am the first in line, I ask if a flight is overbooked as soon as I approach the terminal gate and offer myself as a volunteer.

4. Packing
If you have been moved to a later flight, any checked in luggage will be waiting for you at your destination. Make sure that you have previously packed anything you would need or want overnight in a carry-on bag. This includes thing like your laptop, night clothes, medication, toiletries, and snacks.

5. Costs
When done right, there are no additional costs as the hotel and flight are paid for. However, I usually carry extra cash to tip the shuttle drivers. Follow these tips so your extra day out of town does not cost you money:

  • Most likely, the hotel will ask for a credit or debit card. Even though you are not paying for the room, an authorization hold or charge may be placed on your account. This is especially true for debit cards where a significant amount of money can be held for up to 72 hours or more after checkout. I usually ask the hotel clerk to turn off “incidentals” instead of assigning my credit or debit card to an account. Some hotel chains are OK with this while others will insist on some type of financial deposit. This is pretty much the only time I’ll use a credit card.
  • You may be given meal vouchers, usually they’ll expire within 72 hours or less and are only redeemable in the airport terminal. You will not receive change when these are used so it is best to spend the entire amount of the voucher. If you are not hungry at the moment, get something that can be easily warmed up later in a hotel microwave.
  • Familiarize yourself with the hotel shuttle schedule. Some hotel schedules have a sign-in sheet, others only run on the hour, by request or limited hours. Determine the shuttle hours as soon as you check-in. If you wait until it is close to your flight time, you may find yourself spending money on a cab, or worse missing your flight.

6. Miscellaneous

  • Most vouchers expire within a year of the issue date. Keep track of your voucher and make sure you use it before the time is up!
  • The vouchers have a unique code that is asked for when they are redeemed. Do not lose this! Vouchers cannot be replaced. Keep them someplace safe.
  • Most vouchers are transferable. In other words, you can apply some or all of your voucher dollars to someone else’s domestic flight.
  • Airline loyalty points are still accumulated when you use a voucher.
  • Hotel loyalty points are not accumulated when you use a voucher.

I’d love to hear your airline travel stories! Have you been asked to voluntarily surrender your seat on an overbooked flight? How was the experience?

This is a guest post from Lakita of Personal Finance Journey, a website that offers encouragement, education and advice to those on the road to financial freedom. You can find her on Twitter (@PFJourney).

  • Amanda

    Sometimes they’ll realize seats are available at the last minute. If that is the case, you are expected to board and should still get the compensation!

    Are you sure about this? I’ve volunteered twice in the past and in every case, the plane had room in the end and I was not offered the compensation. They just told me to board as usual.

    • Andrew (Admin)

      My experience has been that you can still sometimes get compensated in certain situations though this may depend on how nice they are at the counter. It might be something as little as them being more willing to bump you up to first class or something (which is big for me!). But of course you won’t get hotel vouchers and food vouchers as you’ll have no chance to use them anyways if you’re hopping on the plane.

  • Lakita (PFJourney)


    You are correct, that was something left over from poor editing on my part. I’ll ask them to fix it.

    If you volunteer, but then you are able to board your original flight you do not receive compensation. You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

    My apologies for the error! Thanks for catching it.


  • dj komputer

    I guess I am not luckby because I was never offered to be bumped off to another flight. I fly out of JFK which is one of the biggest / busiest airports in US and it never happens to me :(

  • Robert

    Hard to plan a vacation around a “maybe” flight, though, unless you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Good for you.

  • Lakita (PFJourney)


    It happens on some airlines more than others. I read in a report by Forbes that Jetblue bumps the least and Atlantic Southeast bumps the most. Though I don’t factor that in when I purchase tickets.

    @Robert: I don’t plan vacations around the maybe. I have at least 5-7 flights planned a year. These are already in my budget, so win I get free flight voucher, I put it towards the next trip and can put the cash I saved towards something else.

    When planning a vacation, factor the cost of the ticket in your budget…on the way home if your flight is overbooked you can stay an extra day and your NEXT vacation or flight is then free…again, you have a year to use your voucher.

  • dave

    This works on international flights as well. My wife and I go to Europe every year to visit family, and the first thing we do when we get to the airport is ask if they are in an overbook situation. We get bumped about 1/3 of the time on the trans-atlantic leg. While the compensation usually doesn’t cover the entire cost of a flight, it’s usually $500-$800 each; which combined covers the cost of one ticket. I’ve also found that the European airlines are a bit more generous and will generally put you in a very nice hotel and put you in business class on the next flight. But, you have to request it. Always be friendly and patient, and bringing a candy bar or coffee for the ticket agent doesn’t hurt either.

    Like the author, we plan en extra day to recover from jetlag, which is significantly easier to do when you have the comfort of business class on the way home.

  • Wise Finish

    This is a great article about how to score a free flight. Hope to be able to do this soon!

  • Tom C.

    Make sure the airline is offering $$$ vouchers. A $200 voucher can be used on any flight to reduce your cost. Sometimes airlines give vouchers for “a free flight any where we fly in the continental US”. But then when you want to use it, it is not valid on the flight you want to take.

  • Mac

    Great reminder on scoring some free flights! I haven’t tried this for a long time and the last few times the flight was overbooked, there were a boatload of quick volunteers. I think this is the key quote you made “To ensure I am the first in line, I ask if a flight is overbooked as soon as I approach the terminal gate and offer myself as a volunteer.” I’ll be sure to do this on my next flight!