Some tips, and cautions, about airline vouchers

Getting Started

Your Money

July 24, 2005|By CAROLYN BIGDA

THE TRAVEL voucher was an enticing deal. For sacrificing my seat on a flight in December, US Airways promised a free round trip anywhere in the contiguous United States. The only catch, it seemed, was that I had to redeem the voucher within a year.

So far, I haven't had any luck.

Volunteering to give up a seat on a flight, also known as being bumped, is the poor man's ticket to free air travel. It happens when airlines oversell seats - a regular practice - and passenger demand overwhelms no-shows.

Accordingly, the odds of being bumped increase during busy travel seasons. This summer, for instance, airlines expect to carry about 200 million passengers, up 4 percent from last year, according to the Air Transport Association.

But before you volunteer your seat, learn these nuances of the bump - tips that could have secured me a vacation in Seattle and spared untold frustration.

Check in early: If you want to get bumped, ask at the gate if the flight is overbooked (JetBlue and Independence Air are two airlines that do not oversell). Because volunteers are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, it's recommended that you get to the gate 90 minutes before takeoff.

You can research bumpings. Although the U.S. Department of Transportation officially tracks the number of passengers who give up seats, the data lag by a few months. A more current listing is available at, which breaks out specific dates, flight numbers and itineraries. But since the site relies on travelers' reports, it is not comprehensive.

Confirm your next seat: If you are called to volunteer, make sure you're given a guaranteed seat on another flight. Otherwise, during heavy travel days, you could spend hours at the airport flying standby on one flight after another.

Ask for a discount voucher: Before sacrificing your seat, learn what compensation the airline is prepared to offer you.

US Airways gave me a round-trip ticket, which I delightedly accepted. But free vouchers often are loaded with travel restrictions. Free vouchers also are relegated to a limited number of seats, often the same ones slated for frequent fliers.

"Get in line if you're trying to use it for a trip to Orlando during Christmas," said Tom Parsons, chief executive and founder of

So I learned: It was impossible to book a flight to Seattle during the 4th of July weekend, even though the airline was selling tickets as late as June 30. Even for a mid-October trip to Miami, I can't find a return flight using my voucher.

Instead, you should insist on a discount voucher for a specific dollar amount. Typically, you'll receive $200 to $300, but it can reach as high as $1,000, depending on the flight and the airline's need for volunteers.

These vouchers act like a store credit and can be applied toward any flight, regardless of holidays, weekends and other peak travel times. Plus, if you buy a ticket for less than the dollar value of the voucher, the balance can be put toward another ticket.

Read the terms and conditions: Both free and discount travel vouchers generally expire after one year. Although you can reserve a seat through the airline's Web site or by phone, you have to "purchase" the ticket at the airline's ticket counter within 24 hours of making the reservation.

In other words, there are rules to follow. Carefully read through the terms and conditions, which are printed on the voucher.

The involuntary bump: When a plane is overbooked and there are not enough volunteers, the airline will select passengers for what's called involuntary denied boarding.

Airlines often select passengers for involuntary bumps based on check-in times (the later you check in, the more likely you are to be picked) and whether or not you have a confirmed seat. The airlines also follow a universal formula for compensation: up to $400 in cash or voucher, depending on how delayed your arrival is as a result of being placed on the next available flight.

Regardless of how you're bumped, don't be afraid to ask gate agents for meal vouchers, a free telephone call and other perks if you're stuck in an airport for more than two hours.

But be courteous, Parsons said: "Big bottles of honey will work much better than big bottles of vinegar at the airports this summer."

E-mail Carolyn Bigda at

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