Getting Free Money From The Airlines For Volunteering

This morning, I packed up my family of four to go from Boston to Orlando, by way of Atlanta (As the old saying goes, it doesn’t matter whether you’re going to heaven or hell. You still have to change planes in Atlanta.). And, to my utter delight, there are only three of us on the flight. We left my wife in Boston. On purpose.

$1,000 to Arrive Early

“Goodbye airplane! Thanks for the thousand dollars!”

It’s not what you think. Actually, if you’re a regular reader, it probably is what you think. When we arrived at the gate, we discovered that the flight was oversold*, and they needed volunteers to give up their seats, Otherwise, they’d have to involuntarily deny boarding (colloquially called “bumping) to somebody, which opens a whole new airplane of worms. That’s why airlines will do just about anything to get somebody to volunteer, particularly after the 2017 David Dao incident.

Delta was offering $1,000 gift cards to anyone who was willing to take a later flight*. It was an American Express gift card, which means that it can be used anywhere, not just on Delta. They didn’t have four seats together, but they did need one, so my wife volunteered to stay behind while my kids and I boarded without her. Most days, she would pay $1,000 to have six hours to herself, so everybody makes out in this deal.

Added bonus: They’re putting my wife on a non-stop to Orlando two hours after the original flight was supposed to take off, which means that she’ll actually get in before we do.

Sign Me up! How Do I Volunteer?

Airlines have gotten very good at revenue management, so opportunities to get bumped and score some cash are fewer than they used to be. It still happens every once in a while, so here are a few hints to put yourself in the most advantageous position. Remember, they’ll ask for

  • Airlines are most likely to face oversell situations at the busiest times, particularly for leisure travelers. Think the Saturday at the beginning of a vacation week (Spring break starts today in Boston.), the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, etc. Business travelers are often on refundable tickets, so they don’t care if they miss their flights. Leisure travelers are rarely that flexible.
  • Get to the gate early and ask if they need volunteers. The worst that they’ll say is no. The best is that you’re at the top of the list if they do need people.
  • If there aren’t enough passengers who accept the first offer, the gate agent may raise it. Fortunately, they’ll almost always give every passenger the highest amount. So if you accept $600 and they later raise the bid to $800, they’ll likely give you the $800 as well. Remember to ask if they’ll do so for your when you accept an early offer.
  • If you’re sitting in Coach and you give up your seat, ask them to put you in First Class for your new flight.
  • On the other hand, if you volunteer, do not let them take your seat until they are sure that they will need it. Here’s why: Let’s say that you are in your favorite seat, an exit row aisle. You volunteer and they move somebody into your seat. At the last minute, though, they decide that they don’t need your seat after all, so you’ll get to board the plane. But now, somebody else is in your favorite seat, and the only seat left is a middle seat in row 43. They’ll be anxious to get the plane moving, so the chances that they take the time to switch everyone around on the plane is, at best, slim. Thus, if you volunteer, tell them that you want your original seat back if they don’t need volunteers.
  • And finally, if you have some extra time, feel free to ask again at your next flight if they need volunteers. There’s nothing as great as the elusive double-bump.



*Beginner’s Hint: Airlines often sell more seats than are actually available on the plane, taking the chance that somebody won’t show up, allowing them to keep the extra revenue. This policy is called “overselling” the flight.

**Note that the amount is often negotiable. Remember, you’re doing them the favor, so ask for the moon, e.g., food vouchers, overnight accommodations, Hamilton tickets, etc.



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