Which flights are best to book if you want to be bumped? It is not an exact science. Even if the flight is overbooked, a high no-show factor can mean that the plane takes off with plenty of available seats. High-demand business flights offer no guarantee, because many passengers are flying on unrestricted tickets without penalty for no-shows. We've been on flights that had 148 seats and 189 passengers booked, but the plane still took off with empty seats. We've been booked on flights few people would expect to be overbooked, yet the gate agents had to scramble to convince a couple dozen people to accept voluntary bumping.

Bumping can be unpredictable. Bad weather can force flight cancellations that load up later flights and affect flights throughout the airline's route system. Mechanical problems can send a planeload of people to flights that are already heavily booked. Bumping increases in summer and at other peak travel periods due to heavier passenger loads. Throw in higher temperatures, which force planes to carry more fuel and allow less passenger weight, and you could be bumped even on a flight that takes off with empty seats.

Overbooked flights can be a golden opportunity. If you have a little time to spare and play your cards right, you could walk away with a free round-trip ticket -- not a bad return for an investment of a few hours. Best of all, many free round-trip certificates allow you to fly with no advance notice -- the perfect insurance to tuck away for times when you might otherwise be forced into paying an exorbitant last-minute fare. Over 900,000 people received free or discounted travel last year by volunteering to be bumped. The compensation is given to every member of your party who does not fly on the scheduled flight. A family of four, for example, can get four free round-trips. In situations where quite a few people must be bumped, airlines love to make these four-in-one deals. It makes their job quicker and easier.

Here are basic strategies for people who don't mind being bumped and want to get the best possible payoff.

  1. Call your travel agent within 24 hours of departure. Agents can review the seat charts and the allocation of remaining seats. If the agent says there are no seats able to be assigned or if the airline says the seats are under airport control, it's a good indication that the flight is overbooked.

  2. Arrive at the airport approximately 90 minutes before flight departure time.

  3. Get to the gate before it opens for your flight and make sure you're the first person in line.

  4. Ask if the flight is oversold and if the airline is looking for volunteers to be bumped. If the answer is yes, ask the gate agent what compensation you'll receive if you voluntarily give up your seat. If you like what's being offered, volunteer to be first on the list.

  5. Be a savvy negotiator, but don't assume that the ante will be upped if you play a waiting game. If you hold off, you could be out of luck.

  6. Ask the agent what flight you'll be protected on. If you can't be guaranteed a seat on the airline's next flight out, ask that you be protected with a guaranteed seat on another carrier's flight, per the airline's interline agreements.

  7. Carry a flight schedule so you can tell the gate agent which alternate flight you want. You may find that after being bumped from a connecting flight, you can pocket a free round-trip certificate and also get confirmed on a nonstop that will allow you to arrive at your destination earlier than you would have with your original schedule.

    If you're bumped and have more than a two-hour wait, ask for all the extras: a free long-distance call (or five-minute calling card), a meal ticket, free admission to the airport club, and free drink and headset coupons to use during your flight. It's important to be courteous and imperative to be presentable.

  8. If you've been rebooked with the guarantee of a seat, and your next flight appears to be overbooked, go back to step one and observe the same strategies for your new flight. You could end up with another free ticket or airline voucher. You can be double-bumped more frequently than you might imagine. It's great to come home from a trip with two free round-trips as a bonus.

Remember that most airlines require that you check in at the gate at least 10 minutes before a domestic flight. Standing at curbside to check your luggage or waiting in line at the ticket counter doesn't count. Being 10th in line at the gate doesn't count. If you don't meet this requirement, the airline is not obligated to give you a dime, even if the flight is overbooked with 100 extra passengers. Most airlines routinely use the 10-minute limit but they can change it on a whim. Always ask your travel agent or airline reservation agent for the current policy. If they don't know the answer, make them track it down.

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