updated 12/2/2008 2:38:50 PM ET 2008-12-02T19:38:50

You arrive at the airport, pass through security and head to your gate, only to find that your plane is overbooked. Someone — or several someones — won't make it onto your flight. Could that someone be you?

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An overbooked plane can be a mixed blessing. If you're the type of traveler who loves to reap the rewards of forfeiting your seat, an overbooked plane means a chance to rack up meal coupons and flight vouchers. If not, you could find yourself involuntarily scrambling for an alternate route to your business meeting in Baltimore. Whatever your goal — to be bumped or not to be bumped — we've got a strategy for you.

What is bumping?
To be bumped from a flight is to be denied a seat on a plane when you have a confirmed reservation. It results from overbooking, an airline practice designed to fill the empty seats that no-show passengers leave behind. The more popular a route, the more likely the flight is to be oversold. Keep in mind that passengers ticketed on flights canceled due to bad weather are not eligible for bumping benefits. The Department of Transportation requires commercial airlines flying 30 passengers or more and originating in the United States to seek out volunteers before bumping anyone.

Such volunteers can receive lucrative rewards, from cash to free air vouchers. In general, the longer the delay, the better the payoff, and if the airline cannot secure enough volunteers to forfeit their seats the first time around, the payoff will generally increase as the flight nears take-off time and the airline grows more desperate to empty seats. Some airlines will even offer meals, free drink coupons, free headsets on the next flight, an upgrade to first-class, a free long-distance phone call or admission into the swanky airline clubs.

The Transportation Department closely monitors bumping and issues frequent reports helpful for travelers serious about getting or not getting bumped from a flight. Click here to see the most recent statistics.

How to get bumped

1. First, determine what flights are most likely to be overbooked:

  • Routes frequented by business travelers, particularly those on Monday mornings and the hours between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
  • Departures after noon on Fridays or on Sunday evenings
  • Pre- and post-holiday flights
  • Transcontinental nonstops
  • Popular routes
  • Routes that have scant nonstop or direct service with no change of planes

2. Get to the gate early. Airline rules typically state that if you don't arrive at least 10 - 20 minutes before the scheduled departure, you will forfeit your reservation and have to fend for yourself. In most cases, incidentally, airlines are not required to compensate you for the missed flight.

3. Don't hassle the gate attendants. Arrive early and let them know you're a willing volunteer, then simply remain near the gate where they can contact you if needed. Asking about the status of the flight every five minutes or becoming rude or impolite will not make the attendants very anxious to hand you cash or free flight vouchers.

4. Before you volunteer, make sure the payoff is worth it. Is it possible to get cash rather then a flight voucher? If not, does the flight voucher have a long enough life to make it useful for your travel needs? Does it apply to all airfares, even the lowest, most restrictive fares? Are there blackout dates? Is the alternate flight you are booked on acceptable or are you on standby for another oversold flight? In addition, don't be afraid to ask for extras — meal vouchers, calling cards, free admission to the airport club, a seat upgrade — the worst the airline can say is no.

How to avoid being bumped
If you have obligations in your destination city and absolutely cannot afford to be bumped from a flight, arrive as early as possible at the airport, especially if you're taking a popular route. Better yet, check in online before you even leave for the airport. The last passengers to check in for the flight are typically the ones who find themselves bumped involuntarily. If you're at the gate before the majority of the passengers have checked in, your chances of retaining your original reservation are favorable.

The Department of Transportation statistics show that in the third quarter of 2008, just over one out of every 10,000 airline passengers was bumped. This number often increases over the holidays and other busy travel seasons, but the volunteer system does in fact work very well, and it is unlikely you will be denied boarding on your next trip.

What the law says
The Department of Transportation has specific rules governing overbooking procedures. From the DOT's Consumer Guide to Air Travel.

The airline must give you a written statement describing your rights and explaining who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. If the airline arranges substitute transportation that gets you to your final destination within an hour of your original scheduled arrival time, you won't be compensated.

If the substitute plane is scheduled to arrive one to two hours late on domestic flights or one to four hours internationally, the airline must pay at least the equivalent of your one-way fare to your final destination, with a $400 maximum. If you're delayed more than two hours domestically or more than four internationally, or if the airline doesn't make substitute arrangements, the compensation doubles, with an $800 ceiling. You can demand payment on the spot, and if you feel entitled to more, you can try negotiating with the complaint department.

Before you count your rewards, however, be aware that you must have a confirmed reservation. A written confirmation from an airline, authorized agent or reservation service will suffice, even if the airline can't find your reservation in the computer.

Also, federal bumping rules do not apply to charters, planes with 30 seats or fewer, or smaller aircraft that are substituted for originally scheduled ones. (On flights carrying 30 to 60 passengers, you will not be compensated if you are bumped for safety reasons such as weight or balance constraints.) Federal bumping rules don't apply to inbound flights to the United States or to flights between foreign cities, but various airlines or foreign countries may have rules of their own.


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