The call from the check-in desk is all too familiar to any regular flier: "We are looking for volunteers to take a later flight in exchange for a voucher."
Airlines regularly overbook seats on flights, knowing that a percentage of passengers who booked likely won't show up. The number of overbooked seats has gone up in recent years—as all travelers were reminded on Sunday when a passenger was dragged off of a United flight.
What should you do if your flight is oversold (as the airlines call it)? AirHelp lays it out clearly. First, do not volunteer to be bumped. Volunteers will usually be compensated with a small voucher, but if you are involuntarily bumped, you are entitled to more under federal law. If you are put on a plane that will arrive an hour to two hours late on a domestic flight (or one to four hours on an international flight), the airline owes you 200 percent of your one-way fare up to $675. If you are delayed more than two hours (or four hours for an international flight), the airline must pay you 400 percent of your one-way fare, up to $1,350, the Department of Transportation explains.
There's fine print, of course. The rules don't apply to international flights headed to the United States, to flights where the airline has to replace a larger airplane with a smaller one, to flights using planes that hold fewer than 30 people, or if the airline needs to bump someone because of the weight or balance of the plane.
Being involuntarily bumped is rare, but there are ways to lower your chances of it, including being a frequent flier, opting to fly at a nonpeak time and being careful not to check the box saying you would volunteer to be bumped while checking in. Also, keep in mind that Delta, United and Southwest have the highest overbooked rates, while Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue and Virgin America have the lowest.
If you are bumped, take comfort in the fact that a growing number of airports have solid dining options, so at least you won't go hungry.
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