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Sep 10

VDB and your road to free airline money

My good friend Mike runs the website Travelzork, which is one of the best sources I’ve seen for two of my favorite topics, European travel and beating the gaming loyalty programs (i.e., doing to casinos what a lot of people try to do to airlines and hotels, namely, being one of those people who represent the cost of doing business*). He’s my go-to source for SkyMiles details and high-end alcohol.** So when he asked me to write a post about being “bumped” from flights, I was happy to oblige. Mike calls me the “king of bumps,” although I find that a lot of it is just good luck. Still, my family and I have earned over $4,000 in cash and travel vouchers this year, just by being willing to change around our travel plans (Thank you very much, Delta!), sometimes by as little as a few hours. Here’s an updated look at what I talked about on his site and some of the keys to getting bumped.

There is a difference between a voluntary (VDB) and involuntary (IDB) situation. The latter occurs when the airline denies you boarding due to an overbooking situation and the former is when you give up your seat to somebody else in exchange for compensation. I’m going to talk about VDB, but you can read about IDB here. And because the penalty for IDBing a passenger is so severe, the airlines are desperate to get volunteers.

VDB scenarios can be very profitable for you if you have any flexibility in your schedule. For example, earlier this year, Delta was so desperate to get volunteers for a flight that they offered a $1,000 American Express gift card to passengers on my flight to Las Vegas. All the volunteers were put on a flight about three hours later, which valued my time at over $300 per hour. I was on vacation and was going to arrive late, anyway, so that was one profitable trip. That number is an exception, rather than the rule, but most offers I see are for $400-800, usually as credits for the airline (Delta is unique in offering gift cards.). There’s no secret to finding situations in which you can offer to give up your seat, but there are ways you can help yourself.

  • Ask away. If you check bags, ask the agent if they will need volunteers. Then, ask again at the gate. They all know the game, but they also appreciate knowing that their jobs are a little easier if the flights are oversold.
  • Be the first in line. As soon as you hear the agent start the announcement (along the lines of, “Ladies and gentleman, we are looking for four volunteers…), get to the desk. Volunteers are generally taken in the order in which they volunteered. And remember, if you don’t like the offer, you don’t have to accept it.
  • Feel free to accept the first offer. If the airlines offer you $400, for instance, but later raise the bid to $500, they will almost always give the initial volunteers the same. You can always verify it with them.
  • This is the time to get as much as you can. The airline will offer you monetary compensation and a hotel (if you are staying overnight), but feel free to ask for food vouchers, lounge passes or to be upgraded on the next flight. If you don’t ask for something, you won’t get it, and the worst they can say is no. On my flight to Las Vegas, everyone who asked was upgraded. Everyone who didn’t sat in coach

                     Sometimes, you’ve gotta fight for your right to VDB                             


  • You can always volunteer and back out if you don’t like the alternatives, but never let them take you out of your seat without knowing that they will need you. If they ask for volunteers and give your seat to somebody else, only to realize that they don’t need volunteers, you’re stuck with whatever seats remain.

Bottom line: If you have any flexibility in your travel schedule, overbooked flights are the golden ticket. In exchange for taking a later flight, the airline might offer you enough money to pay for your next vacation.


*Thank you to reader PME for her grammatical assistance

**I should clarify that I’m referring to questions about high-end alcohol. He is not, to the best of my knowledge, a liquor dealer.

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