If you want to get the most out of your dollar and your trip, Pauline Frommer's Travel Guides are for you. I put a fresh spin on budget travel, showing you how to experience the best for less and how to see it in a more authentic way -- the way the locals do. In this series of monthly tips, you'll find some terrific tips to help you get the most out of every trip. This time around, I share some insight about how to avoid being left behind when your plane takes off.
Get to the airport on time -- or early.
Call the airline the night before to reconfirm your flight and ask at that time if the flight you're on is overbooked. If it is, give yourself at least another half hour to get to the airport. The last to arrive is the first to be bumped. Checking in at home and pre-printing your boarding pass (doable with some airlines on domestic flights only), will also get you towards the front of the queue and can help. But sometimes, they simply bump the people at the bottom of the food chain, economically speaking, and that will be the folks with the award mileage seats or the really cheap seats.
Booking flights later in the day is also a way to avoid being bumped, as the airlines tend to overbook more heavily earlier in the day, assuming that they'll be able to get passengers on later flights.
If you're on one of the so-called "Legacy Carriers" (American, Delta, United, Continental, Northwest, US Airways) and traveling domestically, the Condition of Carriage (what used to be called Rule 240) generally states that if you're delayed for a significant amount of time in getting to your final destination, the airline must give you meal vouchers, perhaps a hotel room, or even buy you a ticket on a competing airline. Most ticket agents won't volunteer this information, so you should know it. If you get bumped but the airline gets you on another flight that arrives at your final destination within one hour of your originally scheduled time, you aren't entitled to anything. If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after the original arrival time (or up to four hours on international flights), the airline owes you an amount equal to the one-way fare for the journey, up to a $200 maximum. You get double the money (double your fare, up to $400) if the alternate transportation gets you there more than two hours later (four hours internationally) or if the airline doesn't make any arrangements for you.
In all the above instances, you still get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. The airlines are simply reimbursing you for your inconvenience. If you end up having to make your arrangements, you can pursue your claim against the airline by requesting an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. If being bumped ends up costing you more money than the carrier was willing to pay you at the airport, you can take it up later with the airline's customer service department.
Bumping rules never apply to charter flights, or to scheduled flights on planes with 60 or fewer seats. Nor do they apply to international flights heading to the United States, or foreign airlines' flights outside the United States, though some airlines may choose to honor them anyway.
To volunteer or not?
Volunteer only if you have a few extra days to kill. People used to volunteer to get free travel, but now many fewer flyers are volunteering to be bumped because unlike in the past, if you get bumped from a flight today, it could mean that you'll have to wait days rather than hours to get on another flight. Planes are going out full and simply don't have room for bumped passengers. And if you volunteer, make sure the voucher you're given is in a cash amount and not for a free trip. Cash vouchers can be used for any flight whereas "free trip" vouchers put you into the same bucket as all the award mileage passengers and you'll be competing with them for seats.
Background on passenger bumping
Bumping is a deliberate strategy on the part of the airlines to maximize revenue. They know that a certain percentage of travelers (usually about 8%) won't show up for their flights. Many of those who don't show up are business travelers, traveling on refundable tickets. When they don't show and get the value of their ticket back, the airline will lose hundreds of dollars on that seat -- unless it overbooks. The problem today is that so many planes are leaving at or near capacity -- the average flight is expected to go out 85% full -- that there's little room for error if the plane is overbooked. The airlines are flying fewer and smaller planes to keep their profits up and there's been an increase in demand. These two factors are a recipe for disaster.
Find out more about the Pauline Frommer Travel Guide series, read articles by Pauline, and listen to Podcasts at Pauline's page on Frommers.com.