The Consummate Traveler: Woes of the Overbooked Flight

December 19, 2013 Updated: December 19, 2013

I recently had dinner with some international colleagues who had flown in from Rome to New York. During dinner we heard their travel tales of the impossibly long lines at the immigration area, and the good food on the flight (pasta of course). Then, one colleague shared his story of being bumped from business class to the back of the airplane into economy because the airline had overbooked the flight. Needless to say, he was shocked and not happy.

As a business person, I can understand why airlines overbook. They hedge their bets and sell more seats than they have on the airplane knowing that there are frequently no-show passengers. This allows them to have a better chance of filling every seat. However, on popular routes or busy days, this process can backfire and dumbfounded passengers find themselves trying to sit in the same seats.

After all of my years of travel, I have never been bumped from my seat. Maybe it has been my good luck, maybe it is because I fly business class, or maybe it has been because of the approach I use when flying. While I can’t offer any guarantees, I’d like to share my advice on how to take measures to lessen your chance of being bumped from your seat.

1. Opt for early check-in: It’s always a good idea to check-in, choose your seat, and print your boarding pass as early as possible. Preferably do this online a day or two before your flight, depending on the airline’s policy. This is especially important if you have no confirmed seat. Even if you do have a confirmed seat, I suggest you look at the open seats available during online check-in to get a sense of whether the flight is empty or full to capacity.

2. Board the plane early: The best advice I can offer is to be one of the first on the airplane to claim your seat. I always have business lounge privileges, but I have found that they tend to announce the flight-boarding quite late. This causes business class passengers to board the plane fairly last-minute. I frequently leave the lounge ahead of time and sit out the last hour at the gate to allow me to board early, if not first. Also, if you have frequent flyer access to pre-board the plane, use it. I have found that those who are in a seat are often not the ones to be bumped.

3. Be flexible if you can: On a few trips I’ve been on, when an overbooking situation exists, there is an announcement during the boarding process to ask for volunteers to give up their seat. They also announce the “cash and prizes,” as I like to call them, which will go to the brave volunteers (cash, airline vouchers, free ticket for a future flight). I remember on one particular flight the compensation “prize” kept going up, as if at an auction, because none of us were volunteering. Since I travel for business and need to be at my destination for work, I have never volunteered for one of these deals. However, if you have some leeway in your schedule you may get some reward out of an otherwise annoying situation.

As always, I wish you all the happiest of travels.

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