The following is a guest post from John at Travel Rinse Repeat. John is a business traveler who now spends the majority of his life on the road meeting with clients all over the United States. Please check out his site and thanks for the tips, J0hn!
The Oversell Issue
It’s no secret that most airlines oversell their flights anticipating a certain number of no-shows. And if more customers show up than the airplane has seats available, then the airlines are forced to clear room on the plane by giving travel credit vouchers to volunteers who give up their seat and take the next available flight out. The value of these vouchers can be high and competition for them can be fierce.
My $1200 Day
When I travel for work, I typically fly out first thing on a Monday morning. However, due to an unusually expensive ticket price for my standard Monday morning flight to Atlanta, I had to book a cheaper Sunday morning flight instead. It was bad enough that I had to cut my weekend short, but to add insult to injury, it was a 7:00 am flight.
Despite the early wakeup call, I knew I’d have a certain level of flexibility to work with since I didn’t have to be at work until Monday morning. I arrived at my gate right when it opened (an hour before departure) and asked the gate agent if the flight was oversold.
“Yes, as a matter of fact it is.” she replied. Still drowsy, I perked up at the thought of a hefty travel credit. I told her I was flexible and asked her to add my name to the volunteer list.
“You’re #1 on the list” she replied.
I knew having my name added to the list was no guarantee of getting a voucher. The airline was counting on several people missing their flights and if that were the case, then there would still be plenty of room for me on the plane.
Boarding time came and I checked in with the agent again. She informed me that they wouldn’t be needing my seat and to board as usual. I boarded the plane, settled into my seat, got out my book, and tried to relax for my flight to Atlanta.
Right before the boarding door closed, a gate agent boarded the plane and announced the flight was oversold; she was frantically looking for a few volunteers. My hand quickly shot up, but she had already chosen others who were seated closer to her. As she walked by my seat, I quickly grabbed her attention. Upon seeing me, she instantly remembered that I had first volunteered to give up my seat. She agreed to let me come off the plane.
Had I not spoken up in this instance, I not only would have lost out on this voucher, but the others to follow as well. This underscores the importance of speaking up in similar situations. There is no need to be rude or mean, but a polite reminder is certainly worthwhile when several hundred dollars of travel vouchers are at stake.
I gave up my seat and was rebooked on a flight later that morning. The total reward for a few additional hours spent in Denver? $400.
After grabbing breakfast and killing some time at the airport, I returned to the gate for my next flight an hour before departure. I was the first in line when the gate opened, and once again, I asked the gate agent if the flight was oversold. It was. I wasn’t getting my hopes up, but I did think of how nice it would be to double my $400 voucher, and I added my name to the volunteer list again.
This time I never made it onto the plane – before boarding started they informed me my seat would be needed and I was rebooked onto another flight that evening. Once again, Delta rewarded me for the minor inconvenience with another $400 voucher, bringing my total for the day to $800 in flight credits – and it wasn’t even noon.
After losing myself in my computer for the afternoon, it was time to head back to the boarding gate to go for the hat trick. Like every other flight before it that day, it was once again oversold. I added my name to the volunteer list, and if I did get bumped, the next flight didn’t leave until 6:15am the next morning – the flight I originally wanted to book anyways.
I waited on edge to see if enough customers would show up to necessitate bumping me off the flight. Just like the two times before, I was bumped once again and given another $400 voucher, bringing my total to $1200 in less than 12 hours spent at the airport.
This time, the flight I was booked on wasn’t until the next morning – the Monday morning flight I originally wanted to take. Because it was an overnight delay, Delta also put me up in a hotel by the airport (in my hometown, nonetheless) and gave me meal and transportation vouchers.
When Monday morning arrived, I had run out of flexibility and had to go to work. However, I can’t help but think how long I could have ridden this particular wave of oversold flights. It was clear that Delta had made a serious miscalculation regarding how many people would be on their flights that day, and I was able to take advantage of it.
Anybody Can Do It
The best part about this is that ANYONE can have a $1200 day like I did – you don’t have to be a frequent flyer. In fact, the heaviest travel days around the holidays (offering the most oversold flights) are often avoided by the seasoned business travelers. These are the best days to go for the vouchers; the day I earned $1,200 was on the tail end of spring break when Colorado has an influx of skiiers and snowboarders.
- Show up to your gate early – Get to your gate an hour or more before your flight departs and ask the gate agent if the flight is oversold. If it is, tell them you’d like to volunteer to give up your seat.
- Pack carry-on luggage – Giving up your seat gets complicated when your bags are still getting on the plane. Pack carry-ons and make sure your bags end up on the same plane as you.
- Be nice and smile – Ultimately the gate agent has final say on who gets the valuable vouchers. Despite their external steely demeanor, they’re people too, and a smile and a little friendliness can go a long way.
- Fly on Heavy Travel Days – Days with a significant amount of travelers will also have a significant amount of overbooked flights.
With a little forethought and planning when booking a ticket and on the day of your flight, you can reap some serious voucher value from the major airlines.
Crystal’s Comments: Mr. BFS and I have volunteered for staying off a flight once but they didn’t need us. Most of the time, I am really, really looking forward to getting to whereever I am going, so I do not volunteer. But I am usually flying for pleasure, not business. I would be way more likely to stay behind and blog at the airport while waiting for another flight if I was just rushing to work, lol. But I will totally keep these tips in mind on my next flight since a free flight would be awesome!
How about you? Do you all play the travel voucher game?
FYI: I worked at a dead end cubicle job from 2005-2011 for about $30,000 a year. I went self-employed in July 2011 and make between $80,000-$100,000 through blogging, a rental home, and professional pet sitting. If you’d like to start your own site (link to my free step-by-step guide), I highly suggest checking out Bluehost (my referral link with a nice discount for you). I even have all of my favorite tools on a resource page - I hope they help you too. This all gives me the time to be with my aging family members, the flexibility to stay close with my friends and family, and it should help if we finally get pregnant too! Please contact me any time at budgetingfunstuff*at*gmail*dot*com with questions or just to brainstorm! I’d love to help!