You 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 lessons I’ve learned and how to effectively take advantage of an overbooked flight:
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.
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.
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 things like your laptop, night clothes, medication, toiletries, and snacks.
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.
- 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.