How I Got Punished for Volunteering My Seat — Reader Mistake Story

Apr 16, 2018

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Jeff, who changed his travel plans too early when his flight was oversold. Here’s what he had to say:

Recently, while traveling to Chicago on United just prior to a snowstorm, I was informed that my flight was overbooked and looking for people to give up their seats. I was only going for one night, so when the offer for compensation rose to $1,000, I volunteered. I asked the gate agent if I was definitely being taken up on my offer, because I needed to cancel my hotel room and meeting to give fair notice to my co-workers. He told me to proceed, and said I would be called back up to get my voucher after the flight boarded.

I canceled my travel plans, but then just before the flight left, I was called up and ushered onto the plane because a seat had opened up. The in-flight Wi-Fi wasn’t working, so I had to wait until we landed to re-book my schedule. My hotel ended up costing me $50 more on late notice, and I was unable to reschedule my meeting because my co-workers scheduled another meeting after I canceled. As a result, I ended up paying more for my trip and flew to Chicago for no reason.

The lesson I learned is that when volunteering my seat on a plane, I will never again completely cancel my travel until after the entire process is complete. I was able to get some restitution by emailing United to complain, as they sent me a $400 travel voucher for my trouble. Still, I hope others can learn from my mistake.

Volunteering your seat on an overbooked flight is a high-risk, high-reward situation. You can score a huge payday like this Delta passenger did in September, but you may instead (or also) end up dealing with an inferior seating assignment, missing luggage or some other mishap. To take advantage of overbooking, you need to have a plan. Be clear about which aspects of your itinerary are negotiable and how much compensation you need to make getting bumped worthwhile. If the offer isn’t good enough or the flight alternatives don’t suit your needs, don’t agonize over it; just politely decline and wait for the next opportunity.

As Jeff pointed out, his mistake was changing his plans prematurely. A lot can happen between when an airline first asks for volunteers and when the aircraft pulls back from the gate, so I recommend waiting until you have a voucher in hand before making other arrangements. If you do end up getting bumped, you’ll have plenty of time to update your itinerary and notify others from the airport. That said, airlines could do a better job of setting expectations when flights are oversold. Volunteers deserve to know the range of possible outcomes, and Jeff’s gate agent should never have presented the voucher as a done deal if that wasn’t the case.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Jeff for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

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