/ Travel & Leisure

Overbooked flight – would you voluntarily get bumped?

Rest and relax sign in airport

Flight overbooking is a common practice for many airlines. While some shy away from the policy, others overbook in order to compensate for no-shows at the gate. Would you volunteer to get bumped?

If a flight is overbooked, standard practice is to ask for volunteers to be bumped off the flight. Volunteers must be offered compensation and assistance in line with the Denied Boarding Regulations. Some airlines even offer generous benefits too, depending on your circumstances.

It all sounds like a nightmare to me. I’ve been a lone traveller on a number of occasions, so I’m prime candidate for bumping. However, I find the flying experience is stressful enough without waiting even longer in the frenzy of some faraway airport.

Bumped flight benefits

My colleague Chris begs to differ. After discovering the system on an overbooked transatlantic flight, he’s first in the queue as a volunteer ever since, regardless of whether there is any hint of overbooking.

And it’s paid-off, too. Chris’s short transatlantic delay (he was booked onto the next flight) was spent eating complimentary muffins in the airline’s business lounge, and gained him an upgrade to business class, and $800 in flight vouchers.

He’s since been put up in a flashy hotel in Vancouver, relishing the extended holiday with free drinks and meal vouchers, and using the $500 of flight vouchers to fly back to Canada the following summer.

A word from the airlines

A brief ring around airlines revealed differences in policy.

Short-haul carrier Ryanair does not overbook flights at all, whereas Easyjet overbook by around 1%, offering compensation in line with the Denied Boarding Regs when necessary. Easyjet told us that around 5% of passengers are no-shows, so it is very rare to get bumped.

When a long-haul Virgin flight is overbooked, volunteers are given compensation and the mysteriously termed ‘generous benefits’, dependent on the circumstance. Should no volunteers be found, the last to the gate will be denied boarding, and offered compensation but no benefits.

Your rights and the rules

Getting ‘bumped’ (or volunteering) is a fantastic option for some, and is relatively unknown. But is it worth it?

As a backpacker, Chris is used to being flexible and is prepared to delay his holiday or extend his stay if necessary. For me, I’m generally just too stressed to delay myself, and when I know I’m going home I’d rather just get it over with, even if the alternative is a plush hotel. Flight vouchers are tempting, but not so useful if you don’t want to holiday alone.

If there are no volunteers on an overbooked flight, it’s likely that the last people to arrive at the gate will be denied boarding. Not ideal for many, but you’ll have the same entitlement to assistance and compensation as if your flight was cancelled.

It’s a lottery win for the loan backpacker, but likely a no-go for the nervous flyer or business traveller. Would you go there? Or have you already?


I think I would consider volunteering for this if I didn’t have anything urgent to go to or from, but I don’t often have that flexibility.

I do like the thought of a free upgrade, especially for a long-haul flight where extra comfort can make a big difference. I’d have to weigh up the benefits against the extra stress of gambling on a good outcome.

richard says:
30 July 2013

If a short holiday – I’d object – But if no pressure – I don’t really mind – Once went to Barbados first class as a updated bonus instead of normal class – I prefer first class

I’d happily get bumped if the perks were good enough! I’m probably more likely to agree to it at the beginning of a holiday than the end, especially if I knew I had to get back to get to work. But I flew First Class once to the US (a friend of mine worked for the airline and let me use one of his previous ‘friends and family’ passes) and it was so nice – space, comfort, champagne and ice-cream. I’d happily sacrifice a bit of time to get to do it again.

I’m surprised to see so many companies routinely overbooking, though – it’s hard to imagine so many people booking a flight then not turning up for it at the last minute!

SW4 Mark says:
30 July 2013

I’ve volunteered once (in USA) and still arrived at my destination only a few hours late. In return I got a free flight in the USA which I used to fly from DC to San Fran. It was a no brainer as I was flying alone and in no rush.

On the other hand, I was caught out flying to USA in 2011 when the plane was overbooked and only 3 out of 5 of my party had a seat. Initially this seemed a disastrous start to our family holiday but the disaster was definitely ameliorated when I realised the compulsory compensation was roughly 500 Euros each because it was involuntary denied boarding. Initially we thought the compensation was 500 Euros in total and we’d have to fly next day. I think because we didn’t make a huge scene, the airline (run by a man with a beard) put us all on the next flight and in fact we arrived only 5 hours late. Sometimes making a scene does not pay dividends.