Family Vacation Tips

How Overbooked Flights Can Effect Your Family Vacation

[fa icon="calendar"] Oct 16, 2012 3:52:00 PM / by Sally Black

Sally Black

overbooked flightsAirlines make money when their  seats are full of passengers.  To insure this, airlines will often overbook. This means they will sell more airfares to passengers than there are actual seats on their planes.  It is perfectly legal and a normal way of doing business for the airlines. The airlines argue they need to keep their flights as full as possible in order to work efficiently and economically. Overbooking  supposedly keeps flight prices down for all travelers. Whether you agree with this business plan or not, overbooking happens. Frequent business travelers are generally familiar but families who fly infrequently may not be familiar with this process. Overbooked flights can seriously effect your family Vacation.

 The airlines are playing the odds that a certain number of passengers will be “no shows”.  They have all sorts of customer data and mathematical formulas to help try to keep the odds in their favor.  Hopefully the number of passengers and seats will balance out for them by the time of departure. If not, the airlines will “bump” passengers.  This can happen occasionally on popular flight routes. It can also happen right after a weather or mechanical delay where planes have been grounded.

 There are actually two types of “bumps”…The first is a voluntary bump where passengers will be asked if they would kindly volunteer to give up their seats.  The second kind of bump is an involuntary bump. In either case, passengers who know the rules and understand their rights will make out better than uninformed travelers.

Voluntary bumps – When a flight is overbooked, The Department of Transportation requires the airline to first seek out passengers who are willing to voluntarily give up their seats. Normally an announcement will be made at the gate telling passengers the flight has been oversold. The gate agent will ask if any passengers would be willing to give up their seats.  If you are not in a hurry to your next destination and would like to volunteer, you will need to act quickly and decisively.  Several passengers may step forward and volunteer.  The gate agent will then access each passenger’s particular circumstances and choose which passengers will be allowed to give up their seats. Obviously, the agent wants to work with the easiest passengers; for example, passengers with nonstop flights and carry-on luggage.  It will require less work on the part of the airline staff to work with these passengers.

If you are one of the passengers allowed to volunteer your seat, there are a couple of facts you need to be aware of and a few important questions to ask…

  • What’s in it for you? -  There is no Department of Transportation rule on what airlines have to offer voluntarily bumped passengers.  This is where the fine are of negotiation comes into play.Generally, passengers are offered things like a future free flight vouchers, upgrades on the next flight or monetary reimbursement.   If you are the only passenger or family to volunteer to give up your seat , then you may be able to negotiate a better reimbursement. Hey…if you don’t ask, you won’t get. If there are several passengers willing to volunteer their seats and you try to push the envelope, you may be out of luck on any freebies so bear this in mind.


    • If you score a free ticket or a future flight, what does the fine print say? Are there any restrictions associated with this offer? Is it for a domestic or international flight? Are their black-out dates for when exactly you can use this flight? Is there a specific expiration date? Again, this could be an opportunity for further negotiating points but at the very least, understand exactly what you are getting for volunteering your seat.


        • Find out WHEN the next flight to your destination is? Ask whether you will be confirmed on that flight or whether you will flying as a stand by passenger?  Remember, if you are only a stand by passenger and no seats become available, you will then find yourself stranded.  See if you can negotiate for additional food & accommodations so that you don’t end up paying out of pocket.


          Involuntary bumps

          If there are no volunteers willing to give up their seats, then the airline has the right to choose which passengers are not allowed to board their plane.  So how do the airlines decide who gets bumped?  Most airlines will start by bumping passengers who paid the least amount of money for their ticket. Others will bump according to which passengers checked in the latest for their flight.

          Every airline has a written set of rules that outline their contract with their passengers. This is called their “contract of carriage”. If you are involuntarily bumped off of any flight, you are entitled compensation in the form of a cash or check. How much you receive depends on the price of your ticket, class of service and length of delay…

          1. If the airlines can get you to your final destination (including connections) within an hour of your original scheduled time, you are not due any compensation
          2. If you’re delayed between 1-2 hours for domestic flights and 1-4 hours for an international flight, then the airline owes you 200% of your one way ticket up to a maximum of $650.
          3. If you’re delayed more than 2 hours domestically and 4 hours internationally then you are due 400% of your one way fare up to $1,300.
          4. If your ticket doesn’t show a cost (like when you cash in frequent flyer miles) and you are delayed, you are compensated on the lowest cost for that flight.
          5. Besides the cash compensation, you always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight.
          6. If you paid for services like seat selection or luggage fees you are entitled to get this on your new flight or receive reimbursement for them.

          There are a few additional rules that passengers need to be aware of when it comes to over booked flights…

          • Every airline has rules for when passengers need to check in with the airline or be present at the gate. The rules differ between carriers and on domestic and international flights so be aware. There can be separate rules for online or counter check in and being present at the boarding gate. If you miss either deadline the airline has the right to involuntarily bump you without any further compensation.
          •  Smaller commuter planes of 30-60 passengers and charter flights do not have the same compensation rules as larger aircrafts.
          •  It’s all a matter of timing. If the airline can find you alternative transportation to your destination within the outlined time constraints, they won’t owe you compensation…even if they send you via horse & buggy.
          • The European commission has different rules for delays between two European countries so ask for a copy of their contract of carriage for specific details.
          • Generally if you are involuntarily bumped, the airlines will offer you free vouchers to be used on future flights. Passengers do have the right to ask for a check as reimbursement. Once you accept either form of compensation, you technically lose the ability to pursue the airline for any additional costs. If being bumped ends up costing you further unforeseen costs (like being stranded for longer than expected ) you have 30 days from the date of your check or voucher to seek further claims. 

          Just know the airlines have their compensation rules spelled out and they really don’t care about your stress, time or inconvenience. Don’t expect much after the fact. Understand the rules here and research the rules on your specific carrier’s contract of carriage so that you can negotiate strongly as soon as you get bumped.

          Topics: family vacations

          Sally Black

          Written by Sally Black

          Sally is the Founder of Travel Agency and author of the book "Fearless Family Vacations". She is also the Director of Travel Agent Initiatives and Training at The Family Travel Association.

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