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Travel Adviser

Win at the airline bumping bonanza

By Chris McGinnis
Special to CNN

Air Transportation
Department of Transportation

(CNN) -- When was the last time you saw an empty seat on a plane? With airfares at record lows, airlines are packing in as many passengers as possible on each flight this summer in the hope of just breaking even.

And as the airlines become increasingly desperate to fill every seat, oversales are becoming more common.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the airlines bumped 235,052 passengers in the first quarter of this year, up by nearly 50,000 from the fourth quarter of last year when they bumped 185,952 passengers. That's a hefty 21 percent increase, and a trend that is sure to continue into the peak summer travel season.

To keep their planes as full as possible, airlines oversell their flights, knowing that a certain percentage of passengers will not show up. But as most frequent travelers know, sometimes everyone does show up, and that's when the bump bonanza begins.

Voluntary bumping is much more common than involuntary bumping. When you volunteer to be bumped, the free market reigns. Some airlines offer travel vouchers of a certain amount -- usually starting at about $250 -- which can be redeemed to buy tickets for future flights.

Other airlines offer free roundtrip tickets, good for travel for up to a year. Some bumping pros feel that cash value vouchers are a better deal than free round-trip flights because the free round trips can be restricted. Similar to frequent flyer award tickets, only a certain number of seats on each flight are set aside for those using bump certificates. So be sure and ask the gate agent about any restrictions before you start negotiating.

In the much rarer case of involuntary bumping, the scenario can mean cash payments as well as free tickets. According to federal law, if you show up for your flight on time, and the airline can't accommodate you, you are entitled to compensation -- depending on how inconvenienced you are.

If the airline can get you on another flight and get you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, you get nothing. If the replacement flight gets you to your destination between one and two hours late, you are entitled to a cash payment of up to $200. If you get there more than two hours late, you are entitled to a cash payment of up to $400.

If you are involuntarily bumped, don't let the airlines try to buy you off with an offer of a free ticket, or a travel voucher -- they owe you cash if you are involuntarily bumped and subsequently delayed.

IMPORTANT: The federal requirement that airlines compensate passengers does not apply in cases of flight cancellations or delays.

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