Bumped from your flight? Here’s what to do.

The following is an excerpt from my new book, 300 Healthy Travel Tips.

Oh, great. You just got bumped from your flight. What can you do? What options do you have? Fear not, you must. Being stuck in a crowded airport thousands of miles from home when your 7-year-old daughter’s piano recital is scheduled to take place in four hours is not exactly what we call fun. The trick is keeping calm and knowing your options.

To get started, breathe slowly into that brown paper bag and find your inner bliss. It’s gonna be all right, mon. Just read on and we’ll help you find your way home.

What to Do If Your Flight Is Overbooked, and How to Avoid It

Even fully booked flights will typically have a percentage of no-show reservations. Knowing this, those pesky airlines often oversell a flight, using historical data to assume that a certain number of travelers simply won’t show up for their flight. But as the airlines become more efficient in filling (aka “stuffing”) their planes, the number of overbooked flights has increased. The more popular a specific flight or route, the greater the chance that you could be bumped, even if you’re holding a confirmed reservation.

How often does it happen? According to AirHelp, in 2014, for example, Delta Airlines denied boarding to over 40,000 passengers. Not fun.

So what can you do if your flight is overbooked? And how can you avoid getting bumped at all? Here are some helpful tips:

  • Don’t volunteer to get bumped. That’s a rookie mistake. When a flight is overbooked, the first thing the airline will do is to ask for suckers (volunteers) to be bumped in exchange for a voucher (typically valid for one year) or cash compensation. Sounds pretty good, right? Actually, no. The reason: The financial compensation for voluntarily being denied boarding is a maximum of $400.
  • Make them bump you instead. By contrast, if you are involuntarily bumped by the airline from your reserved seat, you can demand financial compensation of up to $1,300, and a full refund for your originally confirmed reservation. That’s a big difference.
  • If you are involuntarily bumped from your flight, your compensation will vary according to how long you were delayed from arriving at your destination. Specifically, let’s say your substitute flight delays your originally scheduled arrival by one to two hours for a domestic flight, or by up to four hours for an international flight. In response, you can expect compensation of double the cost of the one-way fare for that flight, up to $650.
  • If your delay is two hours or more domestically, or more than four hours for an international flight, or if the airline does not make substitute arrangements, your financial compensation doubles up to a maximum of $1,350. Wow. Mind you, the specifics of this depend on the price of your ticket and length of your delay.
  • You can also demand reimbursement for added cost items such as checked bag or premium seat fees if you don’t receive them on an alternate flight that you might have to take if you’re bumped from your original flight.

Caveat traveler: Travel expert Karen Schaler shared an important exception that if your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by an online consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.

Don’t accept a voucher. Demand cold, hard cash. The airlines will try to offer you a voucher in compensation for the flight you were forced to miss. That’s good for them. Instead, politely and firmly demand a cash refund. The airline won’t like it, but you are entitled to receive a check in compensation on the spot for being inconvenienced.

Up the ante and negotiate. If you do decide to volunteer to be bumped, or even if you don’t, ask for added compensation to sweeten the deal. Typically, the longer the flight delay, the better the compensation the airline will offer if you’re bumped. Use that to your advantage.

Let’s say the airline needs to make a second (or third) request for volunteers. Another scenario: Missing your flight will cause you to lose a day of vacation. If that’s the case, negotiate. Typically, rewards increase when the airline gets more desperate to find enough volunteers before the flight is scheduled to depart. You can get free meals, free drink coupons, or snag a free headset. In some cases, you can negotiate a business- or first-class upgrade, or receive a pass to the airline’s swanky airport lounge. All you have to do is ask.

There are some exceptions to when an airline might compensate you:

  • If the airline can place you on another flight that arrives within one hour of your originally scheduled flight’s arrival, they’re off the hook.
  • If the airline substitutes your original plane for one with less capacity (e.g., fewer seats), tough luck. Why? Because they can.
  • If you don’t comply with the proper ticketing, check-in, or flight reconfirmation procedures, sorry pal, but you lose.
  • You can be denied the right to board your flight because of safety-related weight restrictions on an aircraft with 60 or fewer seats (e.g., a puddle-jumper).
  • You often won’t be eligible for compensation if your flight gets canceled because of bad weather.
  • One last thing: You will need a confirmed reservation. If you’re flying standby, you’re out of luck.

So, how can you avoid the big bump? Below are some tips to remember.

Become a frequent flyer. Airlines take travel rewards (frequent flyer) membership into account when it comes to who gets bumped. If you’re a member of the airline’s frequent flyer program, it’s less likely they’ll point the finger at you.

Avoid flying during peak travel hours. Sure, it’s great to fly when it’s most convenient for you. But that convenience often increases the odds of reserving a seat on a fully booked flight. And that in turn increases the possibility of being denied a boarding pass. Much as we hate getting up really early, catching the first flight out is often less crowded and increases your chances of getting connecting flights if you’re bumped along the way.

When booking your flight, read the fine print. Sometimes, airlines get sneaky and include mind-altering legal fine print that you might either hop over or click a checkbox to get past when booking your flight online. Our advice: Grab a cup of coffee and read the darned thing. That checkbox you wanted to get past? It could contain language authorizing you to volunteer to get bumped or rebooked on another flight. Make sure to decline this option.

Also, be sure to read your airline’s Contract of Carriage. Yes, I know it’s about as much fun as watching paint dry. But knowledge is power. Understanding your passenger rights and what the airline can or can’t do can make all the difference between getting involuntarily dragged off your flight or receiving a hefty reward. It’s a smart idea to spend a few minutes reading the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel, especially the section on overbooking.

Reconfirm and arrive early. Being prepared is the best way to avoid getting involuntarily bumped from your flight. The night before your departure, visit the airline website and reconfirm your flight online, call the airline, or use the airline’s mobile app to do this. Print out your boarding pass in advance, or if you’re using the airline’s travel app, download your electronic boarding pass the night before. Be sure to get to the airport and to your gate in plenty of time before your flight, especially if you expect your flight to be full.

While the airline’s Contract of Carriage varies by airline, remember this: Be checked in at the gate with your boarding pass and a positive ID at least 20 minutes prior to the flight’s scheduled departure. The airlines are strict about that, so be sure to comply if you want to have any rights if you’re bumped. When it comes to getting bumped, the last passengers to check in are often the first to get booted. So, being the early bird will increases the chances to making your flight.

Pro Tip: Look at the airline’s seating chart for the plane and flight you’re trying to reserve on their website. If your flight looks like it will be full, get to the airport and your gate early. It’s also a good idea to check online for the anticipated TSA security line wait times before leaving for the airport — you might need to allow extra time to get to your departure gate.

Got status? To avoid being involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight, having status matters. Typically, airlines offer the highest protection to their first-class and business-class passengers. Next in the pecking order are full-coach passengers, and then members of the airline’s frequent flyer programs. If you are none of the above, cross your fingers. At the very least, being a member of the airline’s frequent flyer program will offer you some protection, and more so if you qualify as an elite member.

Be nice and ask. Once upon a time, the FAA had what was called Rule 240. It mandated that an airline with a delayed or canceled flight had to transfer passengers to another carrier if the second carrier could get passengers to the destination more quickly than the original airline. Sadly, Rule 240 no longer exists. (RIP, Rule 240. We miss you.)

But a few airlines still follow the practice. Those that don’t can and do help bumped passengers by booking them on the next flight, even if that means booking you on a competing airline, or upgrading you to first class. Just ask. Pro Tip: Even if you’re upset about being bumped, do your best to be polite, pleasant and humble with the airline agent. They’re probably having a lousy day too. Being nice can work wonders, as the airline agent has powers far beyond our comprehension to make things happen.

If all else fails, politely raise hell. Feeling screwed by the system? Below are some options for lodging a complaint, raging against the machine, and getting help:

A.    Make sure you have the airline’s toll-free number in your phone contacts. It’s time to use it.

B.    If you have advanced frequent flyer status, calling the airline’s rewards travel number can often help. The more status you have, the greater the clout. The greater the clout, well, you get the idea.

C.   Go to the airline’s passenger service center at the airport and talk to a representative in person. If you’re flying first class, you have more leverage. But even if you’re stuck in economy, you have rights. Use them.

D.   If you belong to the airline’s premium airport lounge program, you can often get better assistance by working with one of their representatives. We’ve found airport first-class lounge reps can frequently be friendlier (and less stressed out) than the airline’s gate or ticket counter agents. If you’re a frequent traveler, having access to your airline’s customer service representatives inside the peaceful and less crowded airport lounges may be worth the annual fee on its own. If you’re not a premium lounge member, this might be the time to purchase your airline’s one-day airport lounge pass.

E.    If you booked your flight through a travel agent, they can add a world of value by taking this load off your shoulders. Grab your phone and call them. They’re pros, and helping you is what they do best.

F.    Turn to social media. Not every airline responds to traveler complaints or problems on Twitter, but the major U.S. airlines are getting into the act. If all else fails, it’s worth a shot. You might be amazed at how fast you can resolve your problem this way. (For details, see “Use Twitter. Yes, Twitter.” later in this chapter.)

G.   If you’re mad as hell and aren’t gonna fake it anymore, file a complaint online with the U.S. Department of Transportation Consumer Protection Division. (Pro Tip: Don’t vent your spleen. It won’t help. Instead, be concise, state exactly what happened, and provide details, including your airline, flight number, dates, names, locations, as well as ticket and frequent flyer numbers. Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.) You can also take your airline to small claims court. Sure, you could try appearing before Judge Marilyn on The People’s Court, but you’re probably better off with the real thing.

Travel insurance can be your friend. Purchasing optional travel insurance seems like a big added cost. But if missing that sales meeting in Chicago or losing a day’s vacation in Hawaii are important (and we think so), a good travel insurance package can compensate you should your flight be significantly delayed or canceled. But be sure to read your travel insurance’s trip cancellation fine print in advance of booking a policy. No two policies are created equal, and some might not cover a delayed or canceled flight.

Getting bumped is no fun. These days, it’s a frequent occurrence. That’s why knowing your options in advance is so important. Armed with knowledge, you can turn a bumpy day into a trip with a pretty happy ending.