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10 Tips for Negotiating a Lucrative Airline Bump

by on April 3, 2014 · 25 comments

in Points Guy Pointers, Top 10

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Tuesday night, I was set to fly a non-stop American Airlines flight from Recife, Brazil to Miami on a business class award. While booking my ticket several weeks prior, I had noticed the flight was pretty packed, with coach almost full and only two business class seats left. This wasn’t too surprising, as this is the only non-stop flight on this route, and only operates four times a week; most other flights on the route require out-of-the-way connections via Sao Paulo or Brasilia.

I hadn’t been bumped in a while, but I was feeling hopeful for this flight. I knew, though, that they’d need to make the offer a pretty darn good one for me to forgo a non-stop flight on an international business class-equipped plane to route via another city and lose a day on the ground.

Ah, the consolations of American Airlines business class

The bump deal would have to be pretty good to get me to give up my business class seat.

Sure enough, when the check-in agent at the asked me if I would be willing to stay in Recife another night, I felt pretty confident that the flight – and most likely the business class cabin in particular – was oversold. This probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence, but the airline would certainly have wanted to make sure they took good care of a passenger confirmed in a premium cabin on a unique international route.

When I said I’d be open to the idea, she was thrilled and told me I could get a comped taxi and hotel room, then take a flight the next day for free. Unfortunately, this wasn’t gonna cut it: I already knew there wasn’t a non-stop flight available the next day. I’d originally considered making that my day of departure, but seeing that there wasn’t a non-stop, I chose instead to leave Fernando de Noronha a day earlier, catch the non-stop, and land in  Miami by 5:35am – without losing an entire day of productivity.

She must have seen my dubious expression, because without any prompting she said she’d also throw in a $500 voucher. Now this got me interested. The likelihood of being rebooked into a mileage-earning fare class plus potentially being routed via Sao Paulo on a nicer plane (with WiFi, to take the sting out of the daytime flight) began to become a real possibility. However, I wanted to know all of my options before getting into final negotiations, so I told her I had to make a phone call and check with my assistant before officially volunteering for a bump.

To find your best bump options, research itineraries with Expertflyer

To find your best bump options, research itineraries with ExpertFlyer

I loaded Expertflyer.com on my laptop so that I could see both seats and plane types, by using their Flight Availability feature. I found an an 11:30pm connecting flight from Recife (REC) to Sao Paulo (GRU) that would get me in at 2:20am, then a 10:10am TAM flight from GRU to Miami the next day. The REC-GRU leg would mean an all-economy plane for three hours, but I figured it would put me in a good position to negotiate for a nice mileage-and-voucher payday. I noticed the TAM flight was wide open in business class and there was one first class seat available, so I decided I’d go for this itinerary if I could get all of the following:

1. A good seat on REC-GRU. To me, this would have meant an exit row, bulkhead, or several seats blocked off.

2. First class on the TAM flight. Honestly, though, I would have taken business class if it had been the only option; in my opinion, TAM’s version of business on its 777-300ERs is still a better product than American’s angled lie-flats on the 757.

3. A cash/voucher amount of $500-$800. Cash is always better than a voucher, and this is usually the golden dollar range on international flights.

4. A hotel room in Sao Paulo to accommodate my late night arrival there.

I went back up to the agent with my plan and she agreed to bump me to $800 (her best and final offer) and got her manager’s approval to put me in TAM’s first class, which is supposed to be really nice!  She informed me that I’d have to proceed as normal, but in the event I was needed, she would protect me on the other flights; as the AA flight was only oversold by two, I would only be needed if there weren’t any no-shows.

Either way, though, I was happy: if I got home as planned I’d have a day to work, and if I did get the bump I felt like my compensation would be more highly worthwhile. After leaving the counter, I pulled up Expertflyer Flight Availablity and sure enough, the F1 on my Sao Paulo to Miami flight was now F0, meaning she actually did protect me in first class on TAM and not business. In my American Airlines app, my new flights showed after I scrolled past the original MIA-REC leg. Score!

April Fools!
But…I didn’t get bumped, after all
. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. Despite the roundabout new schedule I would have been flying and an overnight in Sao Paulo, the chance to try out TAM’s first class and earn $800 in cash had made my mouth water. I didn’t feel too bad, though, since I would be getting home as planned in business class.

Or so I thought! After a two-hour delay due to mechanical issues, my original non-stop flight got cancelled. And at 2am with only 2 agents working at the airport, the line to get rebooked and a free hotel was probably 2 hours long.

Pandemonium in Recife after a 1:30am flight cancellation

Pandemonium in Recife after a 1:30am flight cancellation

So I called AA and rebooked a brand new saver level award via Sao Paulo and canceled my original award (in doing so I tacked on a February 2015 itinerary to Hawaii, for 50,000 miles all told – more to come on that in another post!), I had to shell out $250 for a hotel room in Recife, catch a three-hour flight to Sao Paulo in TAM economy class yesterday morning, wait through a 10-hour layover in Sao Paulo (where I actually got to hang out with good friends, so that became a positive thing), and at 11:30pm, finally settle into a business-class seat on a 777-200 (old plane) to Miami.

Farewell, Sao Paulo - it's been real (and long)

Farewell, Sao Paulo – it’s been real (and long)

If only I’d been green-lit for that original bump, it would have been the ultimate travel triumph: I would have avoided this cancellation ridiculousness and been been paid to get home earlier!

All disappointment aside, though, here are 10 tips for maximizing your own bump opportunity:

1. Go into the airport with a Plan B if your flight is oversold. A good, but not perfect indicator in Expertflyer that your flight is full of zeroes across the board in all fare classes, or Y 1/2/3.

2. Come up with an acceptable amount of compensation – but be reasonable. If you get too greedy, the airline can take other volunteers that require less. Some airlines  (like Delta) even have auction systems to identify volunteers who require the least compensation. However, in most outstations (the AA counter in Recife is staffed by subcontractors) they care less about compensation limits and more about getting the flight out on time – and without any angry passengers who get involuntarily bumped.

3. Befriend the agent! Push them for max compensation, but smile a lot and reiterate that you want to make their job as easy as possible. If they like you, they can do a lot for you. This goes for pretty much every aspect of travel (and life in general).

4. Come up with your own routing options by learning how to use Expertflyer. Agents have a lot of flexibility and can book you in other classes of service and via quirky routing – allowing you to maximize mileage!

5. It never hurts to ask. You don’t need to be a hardcore litigator to get what you want. Simply ask for what you think is more than sufficient and see where you land. I can’t imagine how many people take bumps having no idea they can ask for a higher class of service on the next flight. It’s no skin off an airline employee’s back and you’ll often get the bonus for premium classes of service when rebooked – so always try!

6. Don’t check luggage, if possible. Checked bags add another level of complexity to rerouting you – especially if they need volunteers last minute and they don’t have time to offload bags. Some airlines won’t take off with bags if the passenger isn’t on the flight, so you could lose the edge if you’ve got a bag in the belly of the plane and they need last-minute volunteers.

7. Play it cool. If they sense that you’re overeager, they may be less forthcoming with compensation. Let them know your time is valuable and you paid extra for that flight for the convenience, airplane type, etc. – whatever means the most to you. Give them good reason to compensate you well.

8. Once you’ve agreed on your compensation amount, ask for cash instead of a voucher. Airlines will default to vouchers, but some may be willing to give cash or checks, instead. Especially in Europe where flight bumping regulations and passengers rights laws are strong, they may be more than happy to give you cash. Remember that cash is much more valuable than airline vouchers, which can expire and come with restrictions. Once again, see number 5!

9. Be at the gate before boarding time. If you show up last minute you may miss the call for volunteers.

10. Protect yourself in case it falls through. Hold onto your original boarding pass with your seat assignment, and make sure it’s acknowledged by the desk agent; you don’t want the airline to give your seat away to another passenger until you’re fully rebooked on a new flight. I know I would never volunteer to get bumped if I thought I’d risk losing my premium seat and ending up in a middle seat at the last minute.

Nothing live live-tweeting and bump - and missing out! Thanks to all of you who were cheering me on!

Nothing like live-tweeting a possible bump – and missing out! Thanks to all of you who were cheering me on

Despite the fact that I didn’t get chosen for a bump this time around, I’m happy with my decision to volunteer and wanted to share my tips.  Thanks to all of you on Twitter who were so positive about my near-bump experience – you really made my night! To follow along with realtime updates of my travels, always remember to follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Feel free to share your stories of airline bump compensation with fellow TPG readers in the comments so we can all know what’s being given out by different airlines these days.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Robert

    My favorite bump ever was back when CVG was a hub for DL. Was flying home SAN-CVG-CMH. They bumped my family of 4 @ $300 each (vouchers), put us in a van, and got us back in time to get dinner before the original flight arrived.

  • Emily Lai

    GREAT posts! Too bad you didn’t get bumped. I had no idea you can ask for cash instead of voucher. I’m always learning something new!

  • nellwal

    One of my mottos is ‘everything is open to negotiation’ and the points you made aren’t just good for flights but for about everything! Thanks for the info!

  • Robert

    If the “sweet spot” for international flights is $500-800, what would it be for domestic flights?

  • thepointsguy

    $200-$400

  • Shaul Yaakov Morrison

    I got really close to getting $500 DL credit on a regional flight from dtw-ewr. Considering the flight was under $200 to staet, that would have been a great deal. Sadly, they didn’t end up needing anyone in the end.

  • flyme2moon

    #1–Tell them you write a popular travel blog…

  • Rich

    American was awesome last month and kicked me $500 for taking the later flight from SFO to ORD. I was able to even negotiate a free dinner.

  • Mark Licciardo

    Question: Couldn’t you somehow get the seats you had reserved for your bump?

  • dbennnett38

    Took an awesome bump with Delta at CDG. We each got $1000 vouchers, a hotel room in Paris, dinner and drinks, breakfast, and lunch. Flights were switched from CDG-ATL (overnight) SLC-PIH to CDG-SLC-PIH. We asked and received business class (we had low level economy award seats). In the end we got home at the same time as originally scheduled but in business class (lie-flat seats)! It NEVER hurts to ask about the seat upgrade.

  • thepointsguy

    Did you earn miles as well? Awesome bump regardless!

  • dbennnett38

    No but that would have been the true unbelievable bump for Delta! We scored overall on the trip as our first outbound flight was cancelled and we were put on the non-stop to CDG in business as well. I now see the allure of business/first on long haul flights.

  • GatorEngineer

    I hope you get a chance to fly TAM’s new first class on their 777-300ER. I led the team designing the ceiling architecture and integrated the entire interior focusing mainly on first class. Don’t pay attention to biz class. They had this new seat design that never made it to delivery so that is their old biz seat and the color and decor doesn’t really match the rest of the airplane and leaves awkward open areas in the zone. Their first class is a 60′s modern look and is awesome!

  • Jordan Woods

    I’m guessing my previous post was flagged for spam because I put a link in. I wanted to ask if anyone used AirHelp to get money out of the airlines because of a bump or cancelation? Apparently there are very strict laws in the US and other parts of the world regarding flight cancelations and massive delays. The funny part about this story’s $800 dollars is that this is the magic “up to” amount airlines supposedly HAVE to pay up for violations of these laws. (according to what I have read, I could be wrong, thus why I’m posting this question)

  • Duncan

    I also had an awesome bump CDG to ORD on Delta. Both my wife and I were bumped with $1000 vouchers, meals and hotel on Saturday, then bumped again Sunday for a total of $4000 and two extra days in Paris. Key is to return on the weekend with no urgent plans for Monday! Asked, but no upgrade to biz:/. Used all the vouchers but good to know we should ask for cash since vouchers are now much more restrictive.

  • http://www.free-range-humans.com/ Marianne Cantwell

    Great tip!

  • Seattle Flier

    can you remind me/us of the European regulations and passengers rights laws for getting bumped/volunteering and if those differ depending on the carrier (i.e, do they apply to US flagged carries flying out of Europe?)

  • Federico

    Last October AA was looking for ten (10) volunteers for MIA-EZE, the offer was $1000+ Hotel/transportation, I had to refuse that because my trip was too short (3 days) and since it was on miles, they did not want to change my return flight.
    On Sunday, American Eagle (MQ) was looking for volunteers on my return flight, CLT-MIA, the flight was full (just 45 seats on ERJ145) and their offer was a $300 voucher. I don’t know why they offer just $800 for your J seat, the first time I got an offer for a Y seat (EZE-MIA) it was few years ago for the same amount ($800).

  • Larry

    get I was on AMS to LAX last year on a United award economy. They were asking volunteers. I volunteered. They were fine after all. Before door closing, they said they were desperate for a seat. I told the agent its gonna cost u. My mom was with me and I’m all buckled u p. She said name ur prize. Then we started walking.I checked my schedule. I had another week off. I asked my mom if she’s OK connecting in ORD to Lax. She said she is cool. I gave her a figure. 1500 voucher. Rebook my flight to London to Lax inBiz class and hotel taxi and food voucher. To my surprise she said done. I just had to endure a two ht flight with Ryan air ams to lutton and I had another week in Lindon and 1500 united voucher. It pays to be bold. You never know if they gonna say yes. The worse that could happen is you get home ad planned . I always volunteer.

    Its not over. I get to ORD. pandemonium. I got another 400$ for my seat and a united club pass and a flight late that night.

    Needless to say I was a happy camper. Made 1900 voucher. That’s a nice chunk for a fewinconvenience….

  • scott

    Was this a business saver or business standard award? Surprised you got a saver award in that full a cabin if true…

  • cotoneloc

    My girlfriend and I were flying ASE>IAH>LGA in January, with a 2+ hour layover at IAH. ASE>IAH was oversold so we volunteered and each received a $400 travel voucher. We were rerouted ASE>ORD>EWR, with a much shorter layover in Chicago, so we ended up touching down at more or less the exact same time as our original itinerary. All in all, UAL paid us $400 each to take in two more hours of scenic views from the calm of the Aspen gate area instead of the interior of chaotic IAH.

  • http://redmonk.com/dberkholz Donnie Berkholz

    I wonder whether you happened to call in and ask whether you could just fly on your protected itinerary?

  • lindseywagners

    I think it’s funny how you talk about productivity and the value of your time. The truth is NO ONE’S time is valued as much as they think. You could miss an entire week of work and the world would go on, and you’d shuffle back into your place within it when you returned. It’s a nice gimmick for those who are easily fooled, but I’d feel foolish myself fooling myself about the value of my time, no matter how much money I can make during it.

  • girlycheckin

    Last month when I was returning from SXSW (AUS>LGA w/connex thru DTW in coach), I knew all the flights would be oversold so was first at the gate and, sure enough, they needed volunteers. Got a $600 Delta voucher plus hotel for the night and a seat on a non-stop early the next AM. I asked if he could upgrade me to First Class but that was a no-go. Only one seat on the plane. Next morning, sure enough, oversold again. Offered another $600 but unfortunately I couldn’t do it because they would not be able to get me back home til well after midnight. Really tried to work with them on routing to get me back a bit earlier but everything was full. So, I didn’t get $1200 but I got $600 and was really happy with that. I think $600 for a domestic bump is on the high end of what I’ve gotten in the past. I always try to get bumped. Have had great luck with it and some fun stories, as well.

  • The Guy

    I really dislike flight vouchers and have never used any that I’ve received. Like you say they expire and come with various restrictions. These include such as only redeemable against a full fare ticket = hardly a cost saving or benefit.

    I’d much rather cold hard cash, but this is sometimes hard to receive as an offer.

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