The maxim that time is money was confirmed on my way back from a short holiday in Austin, Texas recently as I was extended an offer I couldn’t refuse: give up my confirmed seat on the last Air Canada flight of the night Toronto – Edmonton in exchange for a seat on the first morning flight, a future travel credit of CAD$800, airport hotel accommodation and a $10 breakfast voucher. Right place, right time never hurts but being flexible can pay off.

Given I really didn’t need to show up at work until 11 AM, I quickly calculated that whether I kept my confirmed seat and arrived into Edmonton past 1 AM and caught a few hours sleep at home or whether I slept for a few hours at an airport hotel and jumped on the first morning flight and showed up at the office near Noon it didn’t make much difference but volunteering would net me quite a haul considering I was travelling on an Air Miles award ticket. I spoke to the Air Canada gate agent letting them know I was willing to volunteer to give up my seat for the offered compensation and left my boarding pass to stand aside and watch the flight board without me, a bit of an odd feeling. One of the other volunteers who accepted the airline’s offer mentioned that the reason the flight home to Edmonton was sold out was because the previous flight had been cancelled and so there were more passengers than seats on the last flight.

After being given our boarding passes back and sent down to the customer service desk where we would be given our hotel and food vouchers and an $800 electronic travel voucher good for future use, a small group of us boarded the hotel airport shuttle bus around midnight for the short ride to our hotel rooms we would be in for a short time before heading back for the first morning flight. I caught a few hours sleep at the Crowne Plaza Toronto Airport hotel, rode the shuttle back to Pearson Airport the next morning, checked in and used my food voucher before boarding the flight back to Edmonton.

It’s worth noting that in airline parlance I’d voluntarily accepted a ‘bump’ in return for compensation and in cases when the flight is overbooked the airline is required to seek volunteers with announcements in the gate. Should nobody step forward to accept the announced offer then passengers can be bumped against their will, or involuntarily bumped, and should’ve received the same or similar future travel credit along with the hotel and food vouchers as I did.

This happens as the majority of airlines overbook their flights by as much as 10% knowing there will be a certain number of passengers who no-show or cancel last-minute based on  sophisticated computer seat management software. The fancy formulas work 99% of the time but there’s 1% of flights that are oversold when an airline needs to bump passengers and as a result of this 2013 Canadian Transportation Agency ruling must compensate them $200 for a delay of less than two hours, $400 if the delay is between two to six hours, and $800 if it’s six hours or more. If you don’t have the flexibility to alter your travel plans there are some strategies to avoid being bumped:

  • Confirm seat assignment as far in advance as possible either without charge if your fare allows it or for a small fee if it doesn’t and don’t be too picky as any seat assignment such as a middle seat is better than none at all and often these seat assignments can be adjusted at airport check-in
  • Check-in as early as possible for your flight; online check-in for most flights opens 24-hours prior to departure so it’s well worth the few minutes it takes to complete this process
  •  Consider how you travel as airline’s are far less willing to bump one of their frequent flyers,  especially those who hold elite status
  • Avoid peak travel times of the day such as the first flight of the day or last flight of the night in favor or midday departures

If you have the flexibility to accept a voluntary bump the compensation can be several times the fare paid so it can pay to get to the gate early and listen for announcements seeking volunteers although it helps your cause if your don’t have checked baggage. If volunteering there are a few things worth considering:

  • Ensure your delay is worth the advertised offer; airlines will usually start with low compensation offers meaning that the last holdout might get more than the first volunteer
  • Confirm when your next flight out is and that it’s a confirmed seat
  • Confirm that overnight airport hotel accommodation is included
  • Ask for a certificate with a specific dollar amount instead of a more generic ‘free flight’ voucher as often these have restrictions such as blackout dates, limited seating or ineligible flights
  • The travel credit value may be used toward a future ticket’s base fare only, not airline fuel surcharges or taxes

I’d often heard the announcements while killing time in boarding gates but hadn’t accepted the advertised offer however based on my recent experience may be far more willing to consider it in future as being self-employed and not having to conform to an employers work schedule is a hugely liberating factor. My travel credit is valid for a year and may be parcelled out to be used against several smaller trips or one big journey so appreciate the flexibility it offers. The only challenging decision is deciding where to travel with my credit but something tells me I can find a few destinations.