Back before we had children, traveling by plane was easy: No child seat or bag of toys to carry around to keep them entertained, little luggage, and enough flexibility in our schedules to allow for the occasional free flight voucher when our plane was overbooked. We might someday try again for a free flight voucher, but having a kid can make it difficult.
You can never be sure when flights will be overbooked and a few free flight vouchers will be available, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead – with or without children – when taking a flight so that you can be the first in line when the announcement is made. For giving up your seat, most airlines will give you a free flight to anywhere in the continental United States, although some will limit it to $200 or so worth of travel. If they don’t bump you to a flight later that day, they should also give you a meal voucher, a free hotel room for the night, transportation to the hotel, and, of course, a flight out the next day. Deciding where to go with the voucher should be the fun part.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Add Extra Days
When planning your trip, add in a day or two at the end so that you have a few days off at home. That way if a free flight becomes available, you’ll already have the time off work and can stay away an extra day or so. If you take your normal flight home, you can always go into work a few days early, although who wants to do that?
2. Arrive Early
The overbooking announcement can come at any time while you’re waiting at the gate, but airline workers will often announce it early so they can get passengers taken care of quickly and get them on the plane on time. When you get to the gate, even if you have your boarding pass in hand, it’s a good idea to check in with the gate agent and let them know you’re available if they need volunteers. Vouchers are given on a first-come, first-served basis, and many people quickly jump up to get in line when an announcement is made. It also pays to be nice to the gate agents, since they decide who does and doesn’t get the vouchers, and no one wants to see another JetBlue employee lose it.
3. Jump at the Chance
Families won’t likely get bumped, because the flight likely won’t need that many seats. But if they do, jump at the chance. But remember that with children it might be more hassle than it’s worth to shuffle everyone to a hotel and spend another night in a new surrounding, instead of getting them home to a familiar bed after a vacation has already put them off their schedule. If you’re at the other end of the airline bump and lose your seat even though you arrived on time, remember there are plenty of reasons why airlines bump passengers on overbooked flights, including keeping regular customers happy.
4. Stick Around
Once you’re told you’re getting a voucher, don’t leave the gate. You’ll have to wait for the attendant to get the waiting passengers on the plane you just got bumped from, and then you’ll get your voucher and other instructions. If seats are still available on your plane, which flight attendants may realize at the last minute, you still may have to board the plane, although you should get to keep any compensation they’ve offered. Once you’re called back for voucher details, make sure you’re booked on a later flight before leaving for your hotel or to find something to eat.
5. Luggage, Food
Because any checked luggage you have will likely already be on the plane and sent to your destination to wait for you, it’s a good idea to have a carry-on bag with one change of clothes in case you’re bumped from your flight. A hotel will have toiletries. The food voucher will likely only be good at the airport, so be sure to use it for the entire amount since you won’t get any change for it. If you’re not hungry now, you will be in a few hours, so at least buy a cold sandwich with your food voucher or get something that can be warmed up in the hotel microwave oven.
Lastly, be sure to check the expiration date on the flight voucher. Most expire in a year. And be sure to keep it in a safe place. It would be a shame to lose a free flight after doing all of that work.