What to Do When Your Flight is Overbooked

Overbooking is a reality of air travel. Here's how to stay sane within the process.

It's a reality of air travel: the overbooked flight. Getting bumped from an overbooked flight and can cost time and money.

It helps to know your rights—and the airlines' policies—before you make your way to the gate. 

What is Overbooking and What Can You Do?

First off, overbooking is not illegal. It is a practice the airlines regularly deploy to make up for no shows. But it is regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

According to the DOT website, "When an oversale occurs, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren't in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation."

Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and syndicated columnist, said that the DOT's Fly Rights website should be a traveler's first stop to learn about his or her rights. Of particular importance, he noted, is the written statement describing a traveler's rights when getting involuntarily bumped—it explains how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. 

"If you don't get it voluntarily, ask for it," said Elliott. "It you don't ask for it, the airline can claim whatever it wants to."

Man writing on a dark-wood table

By law, passengers who are bumped are required to receive compensation; however, that compensation varies according to whether a traveler is voluntarily or involuntarily bumped. According to the DOT's most recent Air Travel Consumer Report, more than 40,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped from flights on the nation's top 12 airlines in 2016. More than 400,000 were bumped voluntarily.

Elliott also said you should be aware of when the next flight to your destination is leaving and how long the delay will be, in order to lobby for hotel accommodations and meal vouchers.

"There comes a time when you have to start negotiating," said Elliott. "Don't leave it to the generosity of the airline—even the best airlines are not generous, they are programmed to say 'no' at every turn."

Woman sitting on a plane

How to Avoid Overbooked Flights

There are some key things you can do, said Elliott, to reduce the likelihood you'll get involuntarily bumped from your flight. One is to not fly during peak days, such as the Fourth of July or a day or two before Thanksgiving. Also, if you can, stay away from regional carriers, who are the worst offenders when it comes to overbooking.

The second most common offenders, said Elliott, are legacy carriers such as United, American and Delta; low-cost carriers such as Jet Blue and Southwest are rarely guilty of overbooking, he said.

According to the DOT website, those who get bumped first are usually those with the lowest-priced fares and those who check-in last, so if it's important you make the flight, check-in and arrive as early as possible. 

"Your civil rights are suspended on a plane," said Elliott. "You can be kicked off a plane for any reason. It's a different dynamic."