Insider’s Guide to Voluntary Denied Boarding

If my plans are flexible, I’m a huge fan of voluntary denied boarding, since it’s an easy way to walk away with some vouchers worth several hundreds of dollars in exchange for what could be an only few hours wait in an airport.

To help define things, voluntary denied boarding is the process of offering up your seat on an oversold aircraft in exchange for some form of compensation. It is not being kicked off of the plane unwillingly (that’s involuntary denied boarding).

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This guide will help you voluntarily give up your seat, and the steps that best improve your chances of receiving compensation.

Determine if your flight is oversold

First, determine if your flight is oversold in advance. This is key here as you need to find out before anyone else, and be the first one to volunteer, since most volunteer lists are done in order, using the time the person was entered onto the list. The easiest way to see if your flight is oversold, though not always guaranteed, is to check the seat map. If you see every single seat on the flight occupied, then good chances that your flight is oversold (keep in mind that some seats may be blocked, and this doesn’t exactly reflect the passenger load on the aircraft, though gives you a rough indication). For a more accurate reading, use a paid subscription service like ExpertFlyer. When you see all of the fare codes listed as “0,” then you know no more seats are left for sale for your flight. To double-check, contact the airline and ask them if the flight is oversold. Some agents may tell you that the flight is oversold, and others may tell you by how many. In my experience, this is agent discretion, so you may not know how “bad” the situation is until you’re at the gate. Of course, the most evident way that the flight is oversold is receiving an email asking you to input an amount that you’d be willing to pay to give up your spot.

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Get onto the list as quick as possible

Phone agents generally cannot add you onto an airport volunteer list, so you need to get to an agent as fast as possible for this one. If you haven’t checked in, see a check-in agent and ask if the flight is oversold, and if it is, that you’d like to be placed on the volunteer list. If you’re already within the gate area, my suggestion is to go directly to an airline club, since you’ll get the fastest service there. I’ve gotten on volunteer lists hours before the flight, simply by looking at the seat map and checking ExpertFlyer, and also knowing how to get to an agent quickly. When you get onto the list, ask when the gate agent will arrive at the gate the flight is scheduled to depart out of. Once you’re on the list, relax in the airport club or stroll around the airport, and head to the gate 10 minutes prior to when the gate agent is scheduled to arrive. This could sometimes mean an hour or so ahead of boarding, and it’s essential you make your face known to the gate agent, as they’ll be the ultimate ones to deal with your bump and any compensation.

Do not check a bag

I never check a bag anyways, but it goes without saying that if you wan to voluntarily give up your seat, you better have your bags with you. If your bags are checked and are separated from you, the airline is less likely to choose you in giving you a bump. Actually, by bigger fear here is my bag being stuck on a flight that I’m not on, and ending up halfway across the country where I’m not.

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Know your alternate plans

If you’re willing to give up your seat, know the situation first. Know what the next scheduled flight is, and if there’s availability on it. If there’s now other scheduled flight, look at other airline’s schedules, and be prepared to offer up a plan, since the agent working with you may not know all the options (or be willing to check them). I find that knowing the alternate plans is a great way of saving the agent work, and the better way of being preferred for voluntary boarding. If there’s no coach seats left for sale on that next flight and only First Class, ask to see if you can sit there. After all, you’re doing the airline the favor, and they may be willing to work with you.

Pull the status card

I hate to ever suggest this, but if you’re giving up your seat, your status can generally help you get in front of other passengers, though this actually becomes a catch 22. Airlines will generally avoid involuntarily denying passengers with elite status, since they are preferred customers, so you’ll want to make it known that you’re willing an able, and also that your elite status generally allows you to be placed on the list in front of other people. On American, this has always been the case for me.

What’s the right compensation?

This one varies by airline and your elite status with them, but generally you can expect:

  • some form of meal vouchers for use in the airport
  • some form of bonus miles or a voucher that must be used on the airline within one year
  • if late at night, transportation and a night at a nearby, pre-determined hotel

What types compensation have I received?

  • I was flying from SFO to DCA, via DFW. My SFO to DFW flight was oversold, so I decided to bump to the last flight of the day, forcing me to miss my connection in DFW. I was provided a $500 voucher, accommodations and meals in DFW, and a confirmed First Class seat on the first flight the next morning to DCA.
  • I was flying from DCA to PSP, via ORD. Once in ORD, the flight to PSP was announced as oversold, and I had paid for a First Class ticket on that segment (not a complimentary upgrade). For $900, I was offered a spot on a flight 9 hours later, though it would be in economy in a middle seat. I decided not to take it, since I’d have to wait the day in the airport, miss seeing family, and lose my First Class seat (in order of priority).
  • I was flying from TPA to DCA, via ATL. The TPA to ATL flight was oversold and they were offering $500 to fly out the next day. I couldn’t re-arrange my schedule, so stuck on the flight anyway.
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  1. Jeff says

    All of these are great recommendations following ticket purchase, but do you have any recommendations regarding choice of flight times and dates?

    For instance, are there particular times of day, airlines, and airports that have higher frequency of sell-out than others? Are there specific days of the week more likely to sell out (Monday? Wednesday?). And particular “seasons”? (Spring Break comes to mind).

    I realize a lot of this seems intuitive, but for instance Christmas would be a heavy travel time – but is it more likely? Do airlines bump the number of available flights during that timeframe? Or do they reduce over-sells for that reason? Etc.

  2. says

    Hi Jamie,

    I enjoyed the insights on Voluntary Denied Boarding, particularly about using the highly trained agents in the Airline Clubs I get you on the list – In my case the great folks in the Admirals Club.

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    Christopher Reavis

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