This article is being updated.
When traveling by air, airline safety standards require us to be prepared for the unlikely event of an emergency landing. But we don’t always know how to prepare for the unlikely event of an overbooked flight.
Here are a few tips to help you deal with being bumped at the boarding gate — including how some protections from a travel credit card can help you out.
Why do airlines overbook flights?
Why do airlines oversell seats in the first place? It seems like a bad business model in terms of customer satisfaction, and if you’ve paid for a seat then you should get a seat, right? Unfortunately, purchasing a ticket doesn’t always guarantee a spot.
According to the latest Air Travel Consumer Report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, nearly all domestic carriers had at least one case of involuntary disembarking during the first half of 2019. American Airlines is by far the worst culprit in terms of raw numbers, but the data suggests that their inflated numbers are ramifications of the Boeing 737 Max grounding order.
Regardless of the circumstances, the main reason why airlines do this is simple: They want to make sure as many seats as possible are filled when accounting for things like no-shows or last-minute cancellations, and that means overselling the flight. It’s similar to creating a guest list for a party; if you’d like to host a party for 30 people, then you have room to invite more guests than that, expecting that some won’t be able to attend.
To maximize profits, airlines keep track of the rate of passengers who don’t show up and use that rate to determine how many extra tickets to sell.
Can I avoid getting bumped?
According to the study mentioned above, the numbers suggest that flying Delta, JetBlue, or Hawaiian will decrease your chances of getting bumped because it isn’t something that happens very often with these carriers. For JetBlue especially, it isn’t financially viable for them to bump passengers due to its passenger-friendly Customer Bill of Rights, which offers compensation of $1,350 to bumped passengers.
Often, airlines will request volunteers who don’t mind taking a later flight in exchange for cash compensation. If there aren’t enough voluntary takers, passenger bumps usually start from the cheapest basic economy tickets and move up.
If you hold a basic economy ticket, it doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically have to give up your seat; it just means you’re more likely to have to. One way around this is by being a loyalty member with the airline rewards program. If you hold a rewards membership or an airline-specific credit card, you’ll likely be passed over for a bump in the interest of customer loyalty.
» Learn more: Your credit card’s insurance could bail you out
What if I get bumped?
If you do get bumped, it’s important to know your options. It may be possible to speak with your gate agent right away, as everyone else will be on a departing plane and it should be fairly quiet at the gate. If not, immediately head to customer service and if the line is long, try to phone customer service while you wait.
According to the Department of Transportation, airlines aren’t required to compensate you if they can reroute you to arrive at your destination within an hour of the original itinerary. If the difference is between one and two hours on domestic flights, you’re entitled to 200% of your original one-way fare. Longer and you’re entitled to 400%.
You may be offered a voucher with that same airline (pay attention to the expiration date), but ask if you can opt for cash instead. According to the DOT, passengers are legally entitled to check or cash compensation. Vouchers often expire within a year of issuance, so if you prize flexibility, ask for cash.
Will travel insurance help me?
Generally, if you’ve lost a nonrefundable deposit because of the bump, travel insurance will help. The airline is required to compensate and rebook you for the flight, but in the event that you end up losing money on something else (e.g. hotels), you should be able to use your trip interruption insurance to claim those losses.
If you end up stuck overnight or have other additional costs incurred due to your delay, you can also make a claim to your trip delay coverage. The most fool-proof way to benefit from an unexpected bump is to take advantage of travel coverage through a credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, or Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card. Each card comes with a set of travel interruption insurances that allow you to claim compensation, though the claim process can be onerous.
How to maximize your rewardsYou want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2020, including those best for:
- Airline miles and a large bonus: The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- No annual fee: The Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
- Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
- Premium travel rewards: The Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
- Business travelers: The Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice:
Find the best travel credit card for you
Will travel insurance cover winter weather woes?
How to find the best travel insurance