What to Do if Your Flight Is Overbooked

It’s a nightmare scenario you hope never to encounter when you book air travel. You plan an expensive vacation, use your hard-earned vacation time at work, get your family ready, head to the airport — and find out that your flight is overbooked and that your seat isn’t available anymore.

If your flight is overbooked, you might find your trip delayed as you wait hours or even days for another flight. However, if you know your rights and how to negotiate, you might be able to get paid a lot for the inconvenience.

In fact, getting bumped from a flight is the number one way to get free airfare when you travel. Follow these steps to get paid what you deserve if you can’t take the flight you wanted.

What to Do if Your Flight Is Overbooked

Overbooking a plane flight isn’t illegal. In fact, it’s a common practice in the U.S. airline industry, with airlines selling more seats than are available on a plane to allow for no-shows.

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However, if everyone does show up, there isn’t enough space on the plane to go around. That could lead airlines to ask for volunteers to give up their seats or forcibly bump people from the flight. How you’ll get compensated depends on how you wind up losing your seat on a flight.

1. Know Your Rights

The most important thing that you can do to ensure that you’re properly compensated for losing your seat is to know your air passenger rights. Your rights vary depending on whether you’ve volunteered to give up your seat or if the airline denied your boarding without your permission.

Before airlines can start denying boarding, they’re legally required to ask if passengers are willing to give up their seats voluntarily. Usually, they’ll offer some type of compensation to volunteers. If part of the compensation for volunteering includes a voucher of some kind, the airline must outline any and all restrictions that apply to it before you agree.

If not enough people volunteer, the airline can then choose to deny boarding to passengers without their permission. In this case, those passengers must receive compensation, known as denied boarding compensation or DBC. The airline determines who gets bumped based on factors such as check-in time or frequent flyer status.

For domestic flights within the United States, those who are denied boarding will receive the following compensation:

Length of Delay by Arrival Time Compensation
Less than 1 hour None
1 to 2 hours Two times the one-way fare (maximum $775)
More than four hours Four times the one-way fare (maximum $1,550)

International flights allow for slightly longer flight delays before maxing out the compensation you’re due.

Length of Delay by Arrival Time Compensation
Less than 1 hour None
1 to 4 hours Two times the one-way fare (maximum $775)
More than 4 hours Four times the one-way fare (maximum $1,550)

The airline must give bumped passengers a written document explaining what is happening and your rights. You are also entitled to compensation at the airport on the same day or within 24 hours if you leave the airport that day.

Additionally, to be eligible for compensation, you must:

  • Have a confirmed reservation
  • Check-in on time
  • Arrive at the gate on time
  • Be departing from the U.S.

If you’re stuck overnight, you aren’t entitled to a hotel room or transportation, though some airlines will offer these accommodations in addition to the DBC.

2. Evaluate the Offer

When airlines start asking for volunteers to give up their seats on an overbooked flight, they won’t start by offering large amounts of cash right away. They’ll usually start with small offers and work up from there until they reach the maximum. They’ll only bump people if they don’t get enough volunteers.

In a way, you can wind up in a game of chicken with other passengers who don’t mind taking a different flight as you wait for a better offer to volunteer to give up your seat.

You should listen to the airline’s offer and consider its value when trying to decide whether to give up your seat. Remember that if enough passengers accept lower offers, the airline won’t ever reach the maximum and you won’t get paid at all. You’ll simply board the flight as usual.

Everyone knows cash is king, but airlines might also offer vouchers, gift cards, or even miles to help get people to volunteer their seats on an oversold flight. Think about how much those miles or vouchers are really worth to you.

Depending on how long it will take for you to get on the next scheduled flight, the airline may also offer:

  • Hotel and transportation vouchers
  • A food voucher redeemable at airport restaurants
  • An upgrade to first class on the alternative flight
  • Access to an airport lounge

While giving up your seat so you can sit in first class on a new flight can sound cool, think about whether that upgrade plus any other perks on offer are truly worth the inconvenience. Accepting an offer like this could mean giving up your rights to other compensation.

3. Negotiate

There’s nothing that says you can’t try negotiating with the airline to get the type of compensation that you want, especially if you’re already willing to wait for the next flight to your final destination.

If the airline starts asking for volunteers, you can go talk to the employees working at the ticket counter and offer to give up your seat on your terms. For example, if the airline is offering to give a voucher for $100 off your next flight, you could go ask for $100 cash and a food voucher.

If the airline is having trouble getting enough passengers to volunteer, you might luck out and get a better deal than other volunteers. What you negotiate for and how you do it is up to you. Just keep in mind that not every airline will be willing to negotiate and there’s no guarantee that you get the deal you want.

4. Keep Your Receipts

If you get bumped from your original flight, you might find yourself waiting around for hours or even overnight until you can leave on a later flight.

While you’re waiting for the next flight, make sure to keep receipts for things like hotel stays, food, transportation costs, and the like. Your airline may compensate you for some of these costs or you may need them to file a travel insurance claim.

5. File a Trip Delay Insurance Claim

If you have trip delay insurance — a common part of travel insurance coverage — you can get reimbursed for prepaid costs that you lose out on, such as your first night at the hotel in your destination. 

Trip delay insurance can also help you pay for meals, transportation, and even hotel accommodations while you wait to get to your destination. 

If you get bumped from a flight, you can file a trip delay insurance claim to get compensated for these costs. You can purchase this coverage independently, but some premium travel credit cards also offer it as a perk. 

Most trip delay policies won’t cover more than a certain amount of expenses. The typical maximum ranges from $250 to $1,000, depending on the policy. Read your policy carefully so you’re not surprised by partially denied claims later.

Final Word

Getting bumped due to flight overbooking can be a major hassle, especially if you wind up waiting a long time for the next flight or you have to be at your destination by a certain time. However, if you know your rights, you can ensure you’re properly compensated for the delay.

These kinds of situations are just one of the reasons that travel insurance can be a good idea. If you’re dropping a lot of cash on a trip, consider buying a policy, just to be safe.

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