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16-November-2007 : "We Need A Volunteer To Give Up Their Seat In Exchange For A Free Flight" - The Ups & Downs Of Being Bumped
Anyone who has ever flown on a peak day or at a peak time has heard this familiar announcement over the PA system "We need two volunteers to give up their seats exchange for a flight later today and a free round trip anywhere in our domestic network."
I'll admit it, if I am in no great hurry and I see a packed flight I have been known to walk up to the Gate Agent and volunteer my name before the announcement is even made over the PA system. Much of my domestic travel this year was on "bump vouchers," which is going to be a problem for me next year......but we'll get to that later.
The official term for "bumped" is "VDB" or "Voluntary Denied Boarding" (rather than "IDB" or "Involuntary Denied Boarding"). I have at times booked certain flights knowing there would be a high likely hood of getting VDB'd or "bumped." In fact, a few years ago I did the rare, and elusive, triple bump, while already flying on a bump voucher with Southwest Airlines. What is the triple bump you ask? Let me tell you!
While flying home from Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) to Providence, RI (PVD) an announcement was made for volunteers. I quickly volunteered and offered to take a flight leaving 10 minutes later to Hartford's Bradley Int'l Airport (BDL). I was rebooked (I had no checked baggage so it was no problem) , handed my voucher and walked two gates over to the BDL flight. Once at this gate a request went out for volunteers to give up their seats, I volunteered, I was handed my voucher and immediately booked back on the flight I had just been bumped from! .............we all know where this is going don't we...............I walked back to my original gate, it was chaos at the gate for some reason, which is unusual for Southwest (WN) at BWI. Well we started to board and they announced they needed one volunteer to get off the plane, I was next to the counter, I leaned over, I volunteered and I picked up my third bump voucher in the span of 20 minutes! I ended up back in Providence about 90 minutes later than anticipated, but picked up three free flights along the way.
At first it seems like a great idea. Well in fact it is a great idea if you have the time to spare, but beware of the dreaded restrictions! That's right, the rules for using the free flight are not as straight forward as you think. These vouchers do provide a free round trip flight in the Continental U.S. Domestic (or Canadian on Air Canada and WestJet) Network, but getting seats is not always simple. The small print on most "Free Flight Vouchers" is so details that it needs to be printed on two boarding passes that are stapled together. Below are some of the usual restrictions
- You must fly on the carrier issuing the voucher only, code share flights are not accessible. What this means for you is this, if you get bumped from a US Airways (US) flight and you find a US flight, with a US Flight # , but the flight is operated by United Airlines (UA) you will not be allowed to take this flight. This is a "code share" flight. You must fly ONLY on the issuing carrier's aircraft only.
- You are restricted to a limited types of fare classes for seats available. Look on any boarding pass you have, somewhere you'll see "Class" and a letter under it, a Y/Q/S/T/W or some other letter. This is your fare class. Generally "Y" is full-fare economy, "N" is a discounted economy fare, "C" or "J" is full fare Business Class, "A" is a discounted First Class, etc etc etc. There are many fare classes, not just these I have mentioned. On the "Free Flight Voucher" you will often be limited to one single fare class, what does this mean for you? Well this means that you have a limited chance at seats.
- You must use the voucher within one year of issue. If you get multiple vouchers use them in the order they are issued. I have had vouchers expire for not using them in the order they were issued.
- You will NOT get any frequent flier miles and certainly won't get any "status miles" from using a bump voucher. This is why I will have no status on any airlines, except one airline, starting on March 1 2008. My flying this year was as much as many other years, but I used so many vouchers that gained me no miles and no status miles. How many bump vouchers did I pick up in 2006? How about a few dozen! I got so good at it , that it allowed me to try and save money this year, so I traded my "elite status" with four airlines in order to save thousands of dollars. Seemed like a fair trade, I'm sure I'll get my status back.........who did I keep my status with, and also reach the highest tier of status with? British Midland International, also known as BMI (BD).
- You must use book your seats a minimum of 14 days prior to travel. This makes the vouchers less ideal for last minute flexible business travel. Some airlines require you turn the voucher in at the counter or office within 48hrs of making the reservation. This is a rule that is going away with most airlines as it makes it impossible to use the vouchers at times (don't think the airlines don't know this). I have had to drive 120 miles round trip to either of my two local airports (not counting HVN which is close by, but is only serviced by US) to make sure my free seat was secured.
So if you are planning on taking five bumps, then taking your family to Vegas for Christmas on bump vouchers think again. It probably won't happen. If you split your family and travel at two different points in the day during a non-heavy traffic travel period it might work out for you.
Some airlines are harder than others (US), some are easier than others (WN), but overall if you can get five free seats for your family while sitting at the gate with no where to go........I say "GO FOR IT!"
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