What to Do If Your Flight Is Overbooked

What happens when a flight is overbooked? Airlines first seek volunteers. If no one raises their hand, a flight bump might have your name on it.
Meg Lee
By Meg Lee 
Updated
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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Did you know that rather than risk an empty seat on a flight, airlines sometimes overbook flights and pay up to $1,350 to each bumped passenger?

Yes, you read that right. Official Department of Transportation protocol calls for compensation of 400% of one-way fare (up to $1,350) for passengers who experience an arrival delay over two hours when bumped off a flight.

So how should you, the individual traveler who was really hoping to catch your connection and get to your destination on time, respond to an overbooked flight? Here’s our list of tips from the pros on what customers can do if their flight is overbooked.

Why do airlines overbook?

Empty seats mean less money for the airline. To account for last-minute cancellations, other flight delays or no-shows, it's common for carriers to oversell seats. This practice improves the odds of airlines maxing out at 100% flight capacity.

The amount of overbooking an individual airline deploys varies across day, route and airline, as does their approach to compensating passengers. In essence, the airlines aim to incentivize passengers to delay their travel as volunteers. Even when there's generous compensation for being bumped, volunteers generally cost the airline less than if they have to involuntarily bump flyers.

Who gets bumped on overbooked flight?

The DOT makes clear that individual airlines are responsible for determining their own practices in bumping passengers. It states:

"If there are not enough passengers who are willing to give up their seats voluntarily, an airline may deny you a seat on an aircraft based on criteria that it establishes, such as the passenger’s check-in time, the fare paid by the passenger, or the passenger’s frequent flyer status. However, the criteria cannot subject a passenger to any unjust or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage. For example, an airline could not lawfully use a passenger’s race or ethnicity as a criterion."

Know your carrier’s bumping policies

The best step you can take as a passenger who may get involuntarily bumped from your flight is to know and understand the policies you’re up against.

In general, the DOT requires airlines to ask for volunteers to give up seats before resorting to forcing passengers off a flight. This can be a pretty sweet deal for passengers, depending on which airline you’re flying and what their compensation policies are.

For instance, United Airlines could reportedly issue you overbooked flight compensation up to $10,000. If you weren't aware of this possibility, how would you know to advocate for yourself while negotiating compensation?

If you’re traveling with others, also take note of whether your entire party will be covered, or if only one individual will be affected by an overbooked flight.

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Volunteer to get bumped

If you play your cards right, you could make out like a bandit by volunteering to get bumped from an overbooked flight. Since few people love hanging out in crowded airports for longer than they have to, it’s essential that you check off the following before signing on the dotted line:

  1. Find the next available flight where you can confirm a seat so you can avoid the standby dance (and subsequent frustrations) altogether.

  2. Ask for a food voucher if your delay is in the two to four hour range.

  3. Request a hotel voucher if you have to stay overnight.

  4. If you have time to leave the airport premises, ask for transportation reimbursement.

  5. Armed with your knowledge from tip #1, (politely) request the maximum financial compensation within your airline’s policy.

  6. Consider other perks to negotiate as a volunteer: lounge access, future flight vouchers, a first class upgrade — get creative!

File a trip delay insurance claim

Trip delay insurance is one of the many travel perks that you can find on the benefits lists of many rewards credit cards. It can save the day by reimbursing cardholders for expenses spent due to delayed transit (flight or other “common carriers”). The following cards offer trip delay insurance:

American Express

Terms apply.

Bank of America

Chase

Hyatt

Marriott

United

U.S. Bank

Don’t mistake this insurance claim as a walk in the park, though. You have a certain number of days to file your claim and need to provide documentation. That may include different documents; as an example, Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders are expected to submit a statement from their carrier detailing why your travel was delayed, delay expense receipts, your original itinerary and proof of your initial payment for the ticket.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Different card providers have different criteria for when trip delay coverage can kick in. Be sure to educate yourself on your policy so you can manage expectations for reimbursement.

The bottom line

Overbooked flights aren’t uncommon during normal travel times. But if you prepare yourself with the right knowledge and credit card, you can avoid the unnecessary trip-delay headaches — and maybe even come out ahead.

All information about the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card has been collected independently by NerdWallet. The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card is no longer available through NerdWallet.

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