Oversold flight? You’re in luck!

Have you ever heard an announcement at the gate asking for volunteers or have you ever been asked at check-in if you would be willing to take a later flight? Most simply ignore these asks, but doing so is a big mistake. 

Trying to understand the science behind airlines could be a full-time job, but we’re here to help. Airlines commonly oversell each flight because they can usually estimate exactly how many people will either miss their connections or simply not show up for the flight. However, overselling does not always work out well for the airline and they can sometimes end up with more people than they have seats. This is where the fun begins.

If you see this during check-in, you're in luck.

If you see this during check-in, you’re in luck.

If an airline were to deny boarding to someone who purchased a confirmed seat, there are serious fines and penalties they must pay to the passenger & the government. Instead, they will typically seek out passengers with flexible travel arrangements to be compensated for a later flight.

Every airline does this process differently, but it’s common for the airline to ask each passenger willing to volunteer what their bid is during the check-in process. This is a genius move on the airlines part because you will often have inexperienced travelers enter a bid at a fraction of what they could have actually received. On average, I see $400-$500 as the sweet spot for airline compensation, but depending on how many volunteers they need and how desperate they are to find a volunteer this offer can be much higher.  If you are one of the lucky ones that is on an oversold flight and you have flexible travel plans, then it’s time to start negotiating. Here’s what to do…

1. Find out if your flight is oversold by checking in on a desktop (Delta, for example, does not show the volunteer prompts on mobile). If you see the prompt to volunteer, decide for yourself what you would be willing to accept for compensation to be moved to a later flight. It also never hurts to get in the habit of asking the gate agent before departure if they are in need of volunteers – sometimes things change at the last minute and you’re in luck.

2. Head to the airport for your original flight, check-in and proceed through security as normal (hopefully via the TSA Pre✓ lane). Unfortunately, offering compensation can not be done ahead of time and must be done at the gate of your original departure.

3. Try to arrive at the gate an hour early so you can be one of the first that speaks to the agent when they arrive. Let them know you’ve put in a bid to volunteer or want to be added to the list. Don’t worry, you still have the option to back out and always remember that no changes to your reservation will be made until they’ve confirmed the changes with you.

4. Now, we have to wait. Hold off on boarding until you get an update from the gate agent if they will need you. If they do decide they need volunteers, feel free to negotiate for what you feel comfortable accepting. It also never hurts to ask for an upgrade to first class, but typically they will tell you it’s one or the other – a smile when asking sometimes helps. At the very least, hopefully they can give you a premium economy seat if you didn’t already have one.

5. Enjoy! If you’ve received compensation to be flexible, you’ve played your cards well! If you are a frequent traveler, then you can start racking up serious airline credit that can cover many of your future flights.

Have you ever volunteered a flight? How did it go? Let us know in the comments!

Have you ever volunteered for a flight?

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TPS Recommendation: Never accept less than $400 for compensation. I’ve seen airlines pay up to $1,000 and offer an upgrade to First Class if they find passengers willing to go at a later time. Don’t be scared to negotiate & only accept what personally makes it worth it for you to be delayed.

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  • Leigh Ware

    I’ve never volunteered but have always thought about it…so good to know what dollar value I should aim for. Just the other week, they offered $400 and I didn’t speak up! 🙁