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Make the Most of an Overbooked Flight

If you're willing to give up your seat, you can reap big rewards

graphic of three airline seats

Lyne Lucien

Hundreds of dollars! Free meals! A hotel room! If you’re willing to give up your spot on an overbooked airplane, here’s how to make the most of it.

Volunteer without fear

Even if you're on the fence about whether you're willing to take a later flight, step up if airline reps ask for potential volunteers. There's no downside, since putting your name on a list of possible seat yielders doesn't mean you have to commit. The latest twist in the process: You may get a query about giving up your seat before you hit the gate — on the airline's app, during online check-in, at an airport kiosk or at the ticket counter.

Know your price

Instead of naming an amount the airline will pay you to fly later (usually a dollar amount of transferable credits for that carrier), some ask you to name your price, giving you several suggested dollar amounts. While there are no readily available stats on average compensation, of course your bid is more likely to be accepted if it's the lower. But the higher your bid, well, the bigger your possible payoff. Seth Miller, an aviation-industry analyst at PaxEx.Aero, says he always picks the highest amount. “It's way easier to negotiate down, if necessary, than to increase the bid later,” he says. You may even be able to get alternate forms of payment. United will compensate you in MileagePlus miles if you prefer; Delta offers gift cards including those from Amazon, American Express, Nordstrom and Target.


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Up your odds

With airline employees seeking smooth resolutions to oversold flights, anything you can do to make their job easier increases your chances. (No one wants a repeat of United's 2017 public relations disaster, when video of an overbooked passenger getting dragged off a plane went viral.) So if you've learned beforehand that the airline is seeking volunteers, make sure the gate agent knows you're ready and willing. That's what Miller did in April when he was booked on a flight from Chicago to Boston. After making a (high) bid of $950 on the airline's app, he got to the gate area early and asked the attendant if the airline still needed volunteers. When the agent responded that someone had underbid him, Miller said he'd match. Happy to solve his problem quickly, the agent accepted the offer, and Miller walked away with a United credit for $850.

Don't forget the extras

If the airline tells you it's going to accept your bid, make sure you're comfortable with the alternate flights being offered. And if you've checked baggage, consider whether you'd be comfortable letting go of it, since it may travel on your original flight. Also, ask for extras — think meal money if you're going to have to camp out at the airport for hours; plus, if it's an overnight stay, a hotel room and transportation between the airport and your lodgings. Julie Rath, American's vice president of customer experience, says agents are authorized to give out all of those perks when appropriate.

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