Saturday, March 10, 2007

How to get free plane tickets...

For many travelers (us included, usually!) getting bumped off a flight is an inconvenient and even upsetting prospect. But if you have the flexibility and desire to volunteer to get bumped, the benefits may be worth it.

We were in Phoenix recently, and were scheduled to fly out on a Friday afternoon Delta flight. By the time it was time to leave, though, we were wishing we had another day or two in the sun! Sadly, when we called to change our flights, the change fee we were quoted was way to high to justify to ourselves. Looked like we'd be heading home as planned. Or not...

When we got to the airport, it was packed--spring breakers leaving after a sunny vacation + with business travelers heading home for the week = overbooked flights. Since Bob and I were in no hurry to get home, decided we'd see if we could get bumped. Not only would that give us more time in the sun, but also vouchers to use for free (or at least reduced price) tickets in the future.

After checking in and getting through security we headed for our gate with just over an hour to spare before our flight. (yay for Delta Medallion status--the Medallion security line was < 5 minutes, as opposed to 45+ for the regular security line! A related tip--often in situations like this, no one will check to see if you are actually eligible for the Elite line. Just walk up like you are supposed to be there, and 9 times out of 10 you can breeze on through with no problem. And on the 1 time out of 10 they do find out you are not holding elite status? Play dumb. They are not likely to send you all the way back to the end of the normal line. Or so I've heard... One notable exception is at Atlanta Hartsfield airport, where not only will they generally check your Medallion card as soon as you join the line, but will also only let Gold and Platinum members--no Silver--through.)

At the gate, we asked the gate agent if the flight was overbooked. When she told us it was, we asked what the compensation was were we to volunteer to be bumped. She told us she was not sure if they would need volunteers or not, but if they did, they were offering $400 pp in Delta vouchers. We put our names on the list and waited. Sure enough, a few minutes after the flight started boarding, she called us up to the desk and told us they would need our seats. Worked for us!

The catch? The 2 flights later that day were also overbooked, so she couldn't get us on a flight until the next morning. Not a huge deal, though--it was 85 and sunny in Arizona, so we were happy to spend another night there (even in the decidedly sub-par hotel in which they put us up.) The only real issue was that our bags would be heading to Atlanta on our original flight without us. Luckily, I had packed new clothes I'd bought that week in my carry-on, so I knew I wouldn't have to wear the same clothes home the next day. Bob was not as lucky, but at least he did have an extra shirt he could put on the following morning. We were each given a toiletry kit with essentials (toothpaste and toothbrush, shaving cream and razor, deodorant, and a t-shirt--that was nice, as I didn't relish sleeping naked on 2* hotel sheets!).

Our compensation totaled $800 plus about $50 worth of vouchers for food (unfortunately, these are only valid in the airport) and about $30 worth of in-flight drink coupons (these will definitely come in handy on a future flight!).

The next day, we repeated the process. We were hoping we'd be able to get bumped off flights all day, and really rack up the vouchers! The airport was once again packed, and people were harassing the kind but harried gate agent to put them on the flight. Sadly, we ended up getting on our flight. But the agent did come by with an additional handful of drink coupons to thank us for volunteering, so our effort was not a total waste :)

Overall, we are glad we volunteered. It gave us an extra afternoon in the sun, a chance to shop in one of my favorite places, which just happened to be fairly close to our hotel, and a reasonable amount of money to throw towards future flights. Yes, not having our suitcases was an inconvenience, but not the end of the world. And from now on, we will likely volunteer on any flight on which our schedule allows. Worst case, we end up with some free drinks :)

At the end of the day, it totally depends on you and your situation and time constraints as far as whether getting bumped voluntarily from a flight is worth both the hassles and the compensation. If you are interested in doing so, though, here are a few tips:

*Go up to the desk at your gate as soon as possible--you may not be the only one interested in volunteering, so you want to try to be first on the list.

*Ask what the compensation is before you agree to get bumped. Often it's only $200 per ticket, which may not be worth the hassle, especially if you have to spend the night. Also ask when the next flight that they can get you on leaves. Make sure that flight fits within your time frame. Note: If the next flight to your destination gets you there less than an hour after your original flight would have, they do not owe you anything.

*It can't hurt to try and bargain a bit, on both the compensation and (if applicable) the hotel they will put you up in. The compensation may be non-negotiable, but if they are desperate for your seats, you are in a good position to try and raise the stakes. As far as hotels, the ones airlines put bumped fliers in are usually all pretty crappy, but if there is a choice--try and ascertain which may suit your needs best. One may be a slightly better choice than the other(s) due to factors like location, free shuttle service to nearby restaurants, shopping, and attractions, etc.

*If you are given tickets/vouchers (as opposed to cash), make sure they can be used anytime. Sometimes the vouchers given will have blackout dates and restrictions akin to those on frequent flier tickets.

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