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Got Bumped? Overbookings & Pre-assigned seats

Did you know that all airlines overbook flights by at least 10%?

Yes, this is true. This happens because airlines want to protect themselves in the case of cancellations and no-shows. There will always be people not showing up for their flights or those who need to cancel a trip at the last minute. If airlines do nothing, there will be many empty seats on planes and airlines might not be able to fill those up the last minute. Therefore, airlines sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane.

Pre-assigned seats – Get Seats Reserved

If you travel on peak days or during the peak season, always get a seat confirmation (a seat number) as soon as possible even if the ticket is not purchased yet (yes, it is possible). If there are no “good” seats left or no seats together (if you need more than one seat), get whatever is available. The fact is that if the flight is full and overbooked/ oversold, and you do not have a confirmed seat, i.e. you do not have a seat number, you will be the first one bumped off the flight. Some statistic show that one in every 10 people gets bumped off the flight because of overbookings (especially in the US); this seems rather exaggeration, but on some airlines it might be true.

Therefore, make sure you have seat numbers as soon as you get the flights booked. If you do not like what is available at the time of booking, you can try changing the seats at check-in.

TIP Most airlines have a number of seats reserved for check-in only. So get to the airport early and you may even get a bulkhead or exit row seats (with more legroom). However, some airlines, especially in Europe, might not be able to book you seats in advance, only at check-in. So arrive early to the airport.

Voluntary or involuntary rescheduling?

Yes, when an airline sells more tickets than there are seats on a plane and the flight full, it is very likely that some passengers will be left behind or bumped off the flight.

It may be voluntary or involuntary. Funny, ah?

When a flight is full and oversold, the first thing an airline agent does is look for volunteers who agree to give up their seats and be rebooked on a next flight. Usually airlines give some kind of incentives or compensation for a passenger to give up a seat. These might be frequent flyer miles, food vouchers, ticket vouchers, cash, free tickets, etc.

Want to Volunteer?

If you are not in a hurry and want to try to reduce the cost of flying, this might seem attractive and you can volunteer to be bumped. Usually airlines are more willing to compensate you (cash, vouchers, tickets, etc.) if you volunteer to give up your seat. But remember that not every agent or airline will give you a voucher, extra frequent flyer miles, or a free ticket if you don’t ask for it. So go for it, it does not hurt to ask.

If you decide to volunteer to switch to a different flight, always weigh your options and know the restrictions of the “free” stuff you are offered.

Always ask:

  • What you get if you give up your seat; money (don’t confuse with airline dollars, it is not the same), hotel voucher in case of overnight, food, miles, etc.
  • When is the next flight and How long you need to wait until the next flight and whether it is worth waiting
  • Whether the airline offers a standby or a confirmed seat for the next flight (if you get a standby, it is not a confirmed seat and you will be on that flight ONLY if there are seats left)

No Volunteers?  – No Problem

If there are no volunteers to switch to another flight, any passenger may get bumped off the flight, there is nothing illegal in this. Usually passengers with children or high tier frequent flyers might be the last ones to be bumped, but all depends on the airline agent.

If the airline needs to do the involuntary rescheduling for some passengers, it always (unless some rules changed) has to issue a written statement to include who and why gets bumped, the passenger rights, etc. Usually airlines are not willing to compensate for the involuntary rescheduling unless it requires an overnight stay, so they may just provide some minor incentives.


If you get rescheduled for a flight that will get you to the destination within 1 hour, you will not get compensated in any way for the inconvenience.

If the airline arranges some transportation for you to reach the destination with 1-2 hours of your original scheduled arrival, you should be compensated. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, you should get “an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $400 maximum.” Some airlines are just ignoring this regulation because people do not know and they do not ask for that.

The later you reach your destination due to the involuntary rescheduling, the more compensation you are entitled to receive given that you:

  • had a confirmed reservation
  • checked-in on time and were present within the given deadlines at the gate

You can read more on the Department of Transportation regulations on the matter here

Always demand compensation of any kind if an airline schedules you on a flight that requires you to spend a night or if your rescheduled flight gets you to the destination 2 or 4 or more hours of your original scheduled arrival time.


As always there are exceptions to the rule, when delay/rescheduling occurs due to safety or weather conditions or when traveling internationally (especially inbound travel to the US, e.g. flying from Europe to the US). In these cases airlines will rarely provide you with any kind of compensation.

If your travel involves European countries, you can find more details on air passenger rights from European Commission .

Good news is that if you get bumped off the flight, you always get to keep your original flight ticket that can be used towards another flight with the same carrier. If you choose so, you may also seek for “involuntary refund” for the portion of flight that you got bumped.

Check out other travel tips:

How to Find the Best Airline Ticket Deal
Paper Ticket or E-ticket?
Information on Your Airline Ticket
How to Change Your Airline Ticket

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