“Today’s flight is oversold. Do we have any volunteers who would be willing to give up their seat on this flight in exchange for a travel voucher? You will be rebooked onto the next available flight.”
If you’ve spent much time flying, you’ve probably heard this announcement come over the loudspeaker at a boarding gate before. Airlines almost always overbook their flights with the anticipation that a certain percentage of passengers will be no-shows. Occasionally, their estimates are wrong and they end up having more passengers show up than there are seats available on the plane.
In order to free up seats, airlines will typically offer travel vouchers to those are willing to give up their seat and fly at a later time. These vouchers can range in value depending on the airline and the length of the delay and can be an excellent way to fund future travel.
However, the competition for these vouchers has become extremely competitive. So much so that in many cases the airlines have more volunteers for the vouchers than they need and don’t even have to make an announcement.
As a frequent flyer, I have racked up a few of these vouchers, and most of the time the opportunities were never announced by the gate agent on the loudspeaker. If your itinerary is flexible and you want free flight vouchers, read on for tips to make sure you’re one of the travelers who gets the coveted voucher.
Plan Ahead When Booking
When you are selecting your flights, some flights are more prone to being oversold. Heavily traveled business routes are busiest Monday mornings and Thursday evenings, vacation destination flights are busier on weekends. When you’re choosing your seats, take note of availability. If it is close to your travel date and there are still plenty of seats available, its not likely that the flight will be oversold. However, if there are only a few seats open, there is a good chance the airline will sell more than the available allotment of seats.
As a followup, check your flight again a day or two before hand. Navigate through the airline’s online reservation system as if you’re going to buy a ticket. If the flight isn’t available, it’s already oversold. If it is, check the available seats. If the flight is half empty, then you can forget about the voucher.
Know The Heavy Travel Days
Traveling around holidays can be a nightmare at the airport with long security lines, crowded gate areas, and heavy air traffic causing delays. However, these days can also offer the most valuable bounties in travel vouchers.
Heavy travel days are notorious for having an abundance of oversold flights. Knowing this in advance, the heady traveler can clean up in vouchers by volunteering to give up their seat on successive flights, doubling or even tripling their voucher value. I earned $1200 in successive vouchers on one Sunday in early March – prime time for spring breakers coming back from skiing in the mountain resorts in Colorado.
Know beforehand if you’re traveling on a heavy travel day, and ensure you have the flexibility to be rebooked to a later flight.
Show Up Early For Your Flight
In order to be competitive for the highly sought after vouchers, it helps to show up at the gate early – an hour before departure time to be precise. This is when the gate officially opens and the agents are available to add your name to the list of volunteers who are willing to give up their seats on an oversold flight.
Ask the gate agent working the flight if it is oversold. If it is, ask for your name to be added to the volunteer list. Often times, gate agents have more than enough volunteers for a given flight and have no need to ask for more over the public announcement system.
When I have the flexibility to give up my seat, I always try to show up to the gate at least an hour early so I can be the first on the volunteer list. If airlines have more volunteers than they need, they give the vouchers to those at the top of the list, so it helps to be first.
Ultimately, the gate agents have final say as to who gets a travel voucher for giving up their seat. The agents can be a steely and cold group who encounter frustrated and irate customers all day, every day. By smiling, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and treating them in a kind manner, you can ensure you’re on their good side when they’re determining who will be getting the voucher.
If you do get bumped, you want the process to be as smooth as possible. Packing everything you need into carryon bags ensures that things you need aren’t on a plane without you. Airlines also appreciate the flexibility – there are less hassles involved with rebooking a passenger who hasn’t checked their baggage.
Gate agents are incredibly busy people who do their best to ensure the plane is loaded safely and quickly every time. Your place on the volunteer list for an oversold flight is not their top concern. Because of this, I have seen gate agents forget the names on the volunteer lists and make an announcement looking for new volunteers. Or if multiple agents are working the same desk, a miscommunication can take place and a separate volunteer list can accidentally get started.
In these cases, it never hurts to speak up and politely inform the gate agent that you’re already on the volunteer list. Normally I’m not one to complain or interfere with their job, but when the difference is a flight voucher worth several hundred dollars, it’s worth (politely) saying something.
Now Get Those Vouchers!
Now that you know how to earn your free flight vouchers, plan your next trip accordingly. Are your dates flexible? With a little preparation ahead of time you can make sure you’re first on the volunteer list on your next flight.