Getting paid not to fly: a traveller’s dream come true

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If you fancy yourself a seasoned traveller, you take pride in using a few tricks of the trade — what’s known as “travel hacks”. And of all the travel hacks out there, one of the biggest and best is getting paid not to fly.

This is a pretty common occurrence: an airline overbooks a flight, and when all the bookees unexpectedly show up, it offers perks to any passengers willing to give up their seats and take the next flight. The big perk is usually a voucher for an additional flight, worth hundreds of dollars.

A lot of U.S. travellers cash in time and again on this little bonus, but I live in Canada, where things like this are rare. So in all my years of travel, it’s never happened to me.

Until recently. After a 12-hour flight from Beijing to Detroit, my friend Brian and I were waiting in the departure lounge for our connecting flight to Toronto. As we satAirport lounge there, we heard the Delta Airlines people announcing one overbooked flight after another. And the amounts they were offering for getting “bumped” were amazing — in one case, a voucher worth $1,200.

“Great,” I said. “Why doesn’t that ever happen to me?”

A few minutes later, it did. The agents started preparing for our flight, and suddenly there was an announcement: anyone willing to surrender his seat and fly out on the first flight the next morning would get a $400 airline voucher and a free night in a hotel.

My eyes lit up. At last, I was going to get a shot at the holy grail. It meant arriving home a day late, but that’s the beauty of being retired: what did I care? I was in.

But there was a problem: when you fly from Asia, you’re travelling backward through time — or at least, through time zones. That means when you land in the Eastern time zone after flying for 12 hours, it’s about the same time as when you left.

That makes for a long, long day, and the morning flight they were offering took off at 7 a.m., so I’d be up before 5. I didn’t fancy the short night’s sleep. Plus, I’d have the pleasure of a second run through the airport’s aggressive security system — the one that even objected to the Kleenex in my pockets.

I talked to the Delta agent. Could I get a later flight? The next one on the sheet was Airport walkwaynoon — pretty much a wasted day by the time I got home. I thought about it, considered how tired I was, and decided to pass.

A few minutes later the agent came back. They could get me on a 10 o’clock flight, he said. I was still a bit reluctant. Maybe I could up the ante. Would they go to $500? The answer was no. “But I can give you a first-class ticket to Toronto,” he said.

His supervisor came over. The first-class ticket was out, he said: the seat had to be in coach. The agent hesitated a moment. Then he surrendered: “I’ll give you the $500,” he said. 

A few minutes later the flight was gone, and the agents were chugging out a stack of official-looking vouchers entitling me to $500 toward a flight anywhere Delta flies (and they fly pretty much around the world), as well as a night in the nearby Holiday Inn.

Even better, they issued me a pre-checked boarding pass for the next morning so I could take the easy path through airport security instead of doing a Statue of Liberty pose for the X-ray machine in my stocking feet.

It all went like clockwork, and I arrived home around noon the next day after a comfortable night and a painless flight. And sometime in the next year, I’m going to have a very cheap trip with a free air flight.

And hey, if my luck holds out, maybe one of the flights will be overbooked, and I’ll be getting paid not to fly again …

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

8 Comments

  1. To go full bore in the volunteer to be bumped mode, check out the rules of carriage of the airlines you fly most. There are often an international one and a domestic (or North American) one.

    These spell out the maximum compensations gate agents are authorized to grant. This arms you in any negotiation.

    Also, very importantly, you have a huge advantage if you travel with carry on luggage only. That means that the airline does not have to search for and extract any bags already stored on the plane. Confirmation usually comes at the last minute. There’s no time to deal with suitcases in the hold.

    One more thing. Once you’ve volunteered, if you have to leave the gate area for any reason, let the agent know that you’ll return in a minute or two.

  2. Great tips, Don. I didn’t know airlines published the amounts they will pay, but you’re right, that really gives you an advantage in negotiating. Another good reason to carry a tablet or some other wireless device at the airport — you can look it up right in the departure lounge. And now I’m even more happy I decided to go carry-on. I
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