Oversold airline flight? Show up early to volunteer your seat and fly for free

Last month I flew a roundtrip same day mileage run on United Airlines from Los Angeles to St. Louis connecting through San Francisco. It was just an “okay” run since it didn’t net a huge amount of elite qualifying miles. The fare was $160.80 and I received 4,470 EQMs, which comes in at 3.60 cents-per-mile. Not stellar as the best mileage runs are generally less than 3.0 cpm, but it worked with my schedule and was really all I was looking for at the time I booked it.

I spent the summer flying American Airlines to achieve Platinum status in their AAdvantage program and this United trip was my first since the beginning of July. I normally obsess over monitoring my itineraries to watch how availability changes with the hope flights sell out and I can score a bump. About a week out, the second flight showed four seats open in First Class and at least nine in economy across all fare buckets.

When I checked-in online, availability for that second flight from SFO was zero in First (already had my upgrade) and showed 7s across all buckets in economy with even one saver award seat available (freebie seat). Ah, no chance it’s oversold, so I never bothered to look at it again. I had a three-hour connection in San Francisco and spent it working in the Red Carpet Club. Boarding for narrowbodies begins 30 minutes before departure, so I left the club about 40 minutes prior and headed to the gate.

The overhead monitors at the gate revealed passengers were confirmed awaiting seat assignments, the flight was fully checked-in with zero seats available for standbys and the message, “We are looking for volunteers.” Ack! I immediately went to the counter and the agent had just finished processing the last passenger they needed for a bump and told me, “Thank you Mr. Booth, we won’t need your seat today.”

Damn it! I totally didn’t follow my normal routine to ensure I had the maximum chance to score a bump and was so very pissed. Matthew over at Live and Let’s Fly also has tips on how to increase your chances of a bump, and I offer mine below:

  1. When you check-in 24-hours before your flight (you do that, right?), immediately try to book a ticket on the same flight to see what availability looks like. Look for the number of seats available. Zero coach seats? Only First Class open? Fantastic!
  2. If the flight looks like it might be sold out based on the above, I always search for alternate routings and have them written down and with me on the day of travel. When agents rebook you at the gate, they tend to find the “best” options in the airline’s opinion, but here you have an opportunity to suggest others that might earn you more mileage. Agents are more apt to agree with what you suggest since you’ve done them a favor.
  3. When arriving at the airport, ask an agent if the flight is overbooked and if they might need volunteers. Even if they say it looks fine, ask to be put on the volunteer list and get a confirmation card (boarding pass-type document).
  4. If you have Wi-Fi access, check availability again to see if sellable seats still exist on the flight. No? A great sign.
  5. Always, ALWAYS, go to the gate at least an hour before departure. Check-in with the gate agent and again ask how the flight looks. Confirm you’re on the volunteer list. If they say something like, “We might need your seat, thanks for volunteering,” stay very close to the counter.
  6. Monitor the screens showing the flight information. On United it shows how many people have checked-in, the standby-list, passengers awaiting seat assignments (if applicable) and the “volunteers needed” message if indeed they might be oversold.
  7. If boarding started and you haven’t been paged yet, I generally return to the counter to ask again how it looks. Agents usually know at that time if they need your seat. If they say no, I always tell them they can come onboard and pull me off should it change (it happened to me once, so I recommend it).

I made such a rookie mistake and won’t ever do it again. As many of you know, that $400 travel credit can earn you well more than 10,000 EQMs if you’re adept at scheduling flights. If your travel plans are flexible, always try to score a bump. It’ll pay dividends even if you’re only an occasional flyer.

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