By Hilary Kramer
At last, you’ve got the time for that full-on “Eat, Pray, Love” experience you promised yourself — but you don’t have the cash. Time to get inventive, like my friend who got bumped from flight after flight and earned enough travel vouchers to extend a simple trip from New York to Seattle all the way to Buenos Aires, across to Barcelona, and back home again before her “bad” luck ran out. All you need is the right combination of weather, overbooked flights, an appetite for adventure, and a credit card that rings up cash when you’re stranded on the tarmac.
- Bank on disaster. My friend wanted to get bumped, so she started her odyssey in late August, when flights are packed and hurricane season gives the airlines plenty of chances to get things wrong. Picking the last flight of the day boosted her odds, and sure enough, she got to volunteer her seat. Normally she’d cringe. This time, she jumped up waving her hand.
- Pick the right airline. Small carriers make more mistakes and have fewer options if you get stuck. United is especially sensitive right now, and Delta is fighting a reputation for bumping lots of passengers, so those are your best bets in the big leagues. But pick an airline that goes somewhere that interests you — otherwise, this adventure is in vain.
- Haggle harder. Nasty PR about passengers roughly bumped from flights has made some airlines sweeten their deals to soothe the mob, but they aren’t going to offer $10,000 in vouchers right away. Try for at least $500 and a meal, which is all it takes to extend your adventure one more flight. And keep your ears open: if anyone in front of you in line gets more, that’s where you start negotiating.
- Embrace “itinerary creep.” When you get bumped, wheedle the gate agent to reroute you to another city, ideally at least one or two connections away. You’re not going anywhere on a set schedule. You’re trying to get lost and rack up chances to earn another voucher, but the airline doesn’t need to know that. Find a flight on your phone while you’re standing in line.
- Watch the weather. Once you’re in the system, use your vouchers to buy one-way tickets into the biggest storms on the wall monitor. Set phone alerts to tell you which airports are overloaded with delays, cancellations and planes stacked on the runway. For once, that’s where you want to be. Chicago and New York are good bets.
- Any voucher is better than none. Don’t get so greedy that you miss your bump completely. Even a $300 voucher is worth a few shuttle flights and your next shot at an overbooking bonanza. In fact, the last commuter shuttle of the day can be a gold mine if you’re willing to sleep at the gate. (The airlines hate handing out hotel credits. Save your breath.)
- Get yourself a credit card that includes “trip delay” coverage. Some elite credit cards pay up to $150-$500 per day in reimbursements if your flight is delayed for a minimum of three hours and it doesn't even need to be cancelled or overbooked. This is a way to rack up some luxurious extras if you get stuck — it might extend your trip one more leg, or buy a luxury hotel room that will feel especially wonderful if you’ve slept in the airport. The coverage includes expensive toiletries and even high-end dining. Reward tickets count, so when you’re paying tax and fees, reach for this card. Call your credit card company or look at their website to see if your have this under-the-radar perk.
- Don’t get frustrated if everything goes perfectly. Industry statistics say 99.94% of all flyers end up making it to their destination in their original assigned seats. I think that’s on the high side, but even if you boost your odds of getting bumped, delayed or canceled, your trip may still go exactly as scheduled. That’s okay. You can’t lose ‘em all. Just make sure you’re ready to turn glitches into windfalls.