As I write this, I’m sitting in my hotel room in Jackson Hole, Wyoming enjoying the remaining days of fall in one of my favorite places in the world. Though it’s a relatively short flight from Phoenix, I ended up getting here about four hours later than I had planned, spending the majority of my day in the Salt Lake City airport. Unlike most of the weary travelers that I sat next to in the terminal, I could not have been more pleased by the delay. This is because today, I got to use my all-time favorite travel hack to get myself a free flight.
Getting free flight vouchers from airlines
Calling this a “hack” may be a bit of a stretch, since people have been doing this very effectively for years. Yet, it is something that has been surprisingly effective for me and I don’t know of all that many people that do it as frequently as I do. The only thing that I do to get a free flight from the airlines is plan some extra flexibility into my schedule when booking so that I can volunteer to give up my seat when a flight is oversold. I’d imagine that you have heard of this tactic before, but it may not be something that you deliberately plan for every time. In its simplest form, this tactic involves giving yourself extra time, finding a flight that is likely to be oversold, then putting yourself in the best possible position to get a free voucher when the time comes.
How oversold flights work
The reason that this travel hack is possible is that airlines, like hotels and other businesses, will run their reservation systems based on predictive algorithms. Since they have a limited number of seats that they can sell, to make their business as profitable as possible, they must ensure that they have as few empty seats as possible. As a result, they have statistical models that determine how many seats they can sell on a flight over the number that are available to make it as profitable as possible. When they oversell a flight (which happens frequently), they assume that some of the travelers will not show up. If they all show up, the airline offers a travel voucher to entice one of the fliers with a reservation to give up their seat and take a later flight.
These vouchers are typically the cost of your original flight, plus some kind of bonus amount like $100. The flight that I got bumped from today from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole earned me an $800 travel voucher that can be used for any future flight on Delta Airlines. I’ve also done this on United, American Airlines and Southwest in the past. There are a number of things that you can do to set yourself up to receive a travel voucher, which I’ve listed below:
Allow yourself some flexibility
If possible, when planning your travel, try to allow for as much extra time and flexibility as possible so your schedule is able to absorb a flight change to earn a free flight voucher. Depending on how far I am traveling, I will either allow an extra half or full day of travel to plan for this. I just think of it as a “travel day” where I will get work done in the airport and enjoy a leisurely pace. If you need to be somewhere on Friday evening, plan to leave early in the day, or the day before so you can have some additional cushion.
Find oversold flights
When booking, you can find flights that are more likely to be oversold than others. One way to do this is with simple common sense. If there are 15 flights from Los Angeles to San Diego every day, chances are that the morning flights will have people trying to get on them. If you book an earlier flight, you can give up your seat for a free flight voucher and you will still have dozens of chances to get to your final destination, probably only a couple of hours later.
The more effective way to do this is to do a bit of research first to find flights that you can tell are going to be oversold. There are websites like Flight Stats that allow you to see how many remaining seats there are on a flight at the time of booking. Look for lower numbers and you will have a higher likelihood of giving up your seat.
Get there early and pack light
On the day of your travel, plan as if it is a certainty that you will be bumped from your flight. Show up an hour or more early at the gate and immediately tell the agent that you will volunteer to give up your seat should they need it. Most of the time, they will make an announcement that the flight is oversold, then people will rush up to the counter to give up their seat. If you proactively tell the agent that you will give up your seat, you will be the first one on the list if they have oversold the flight.
If possible, pack light for your trip. Since you may end up waiting for a later flight, you don’t want to check a bag that ends up going with the first flight, then trying to retrieve your bag later from your destination. Also, it is fairly common to end up giving up your seat for a free flight on more than one flight for a voucher in a day, so it is much better to travel light and be ready for a bit of uncertainty.
Receiving your free flight voucher
When you do get selected to give up your ticket, make sure that you have all of the details of the replacement flight, including a reserved seat number (or boarding number if you are flying on Southwest). You do not want to end up flying stand-by, because if the next flight is oversold, you will not be compensated for it if you are a stand-by passenger.
If you end up needing to stay for a long delay, don’t be afraid to ask for additional perks. In the past, I have received meal vouchers to use at restaurants in the airport for long same-day delays. I have also had airlines pay for my hotel a number of times if I end up departing the next day. Once you have solidified the voucher, there is nothing wrong with some friendly negotiating. Other potential freebies that you could target include upgrades to first class, drink or food vouchers on your next flight, or access to an airline club lounge while you wait. If you have the time after getting your voucher, you may want to listen to the deal that other travelers get when they give up their seat to see if someone negotiates a better deal that you can then go back and ask for.
As you can see, the whole process is actually pretty simple. By giving yourself a few extra hours and going into a travel day with the right mentality, you could end up with a few hundred bucks for your next vacation. If nothing else, you have some extra time in the airport to grab a meal, read a book, or whip out your laptop and make some money on your side gigs. Give it a shot and let me know how it goes in the comments!