If Your Flight Is Overbooked, Here Are Your Rights As A Passenger

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You’re all ready for your vacation — you’re packed, you made a tentative travel itinerary, and you can’t wait to have some time off — but there’s just one problem: Your flight is full. When it comes to what to do when your flight is overbooked, you have a few options. Of course, everyone will take this news differently — while some may look forward to getting a flight voucher, others will still want to take this flight; they don’t want to wait one more minute to be on that Maui beach.

“Overbooking is more common than air travelers might think,” Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer at AirHelp, tells Bustle. “Overbooking flights is the practice of selling more tickets than there are seats on a plane.” He says that, this way, airlines can sell more seats than they have available, as they assume that not all passengers will show up for the flight. “If all passengers do show up, some may be denied boarding, or be ‘bumped’ off the flight,” he says. “Luckily, there are laws in place to ensure passengers are properly compensated if that happens. Knowing their air passenger rights will help consumers decide what to do next.” Below, Nielsen and other travel experts reveal what you should do when you’re in a situation where your flight’s overbooked.

1. Know Your Passenger Rights

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Nielsen says that air passengers in the U.S. have basic rights when they experience boarding denials due to overbooking. “Specifically, passengers are protected on domestic flights by U.S. national law, under which the maximum compensation amount is $1,350, and on European flights by the European law EC 261, under which the maximum compensation amount is $700,” he says.

For the former, U.S. travelers are entitled to compensation if denied boarding as a result of an overbooked flight, depending on the value of the ticket fare and ultimate delay in arrival to their final destination, Nielsen says. “If travelers find themselves in situations like that of Mayim Bialik, when she was denied boarding on a domestic flight and did not volunteer to give up her seat, they may be eligible for compensation, in addition to rerouting to their destination on an alternate flight.”

As for EC 261, it covers travelers who are flying to Europe on an EU airline, or out of Europe on any airline, and travelers can claim compensation up to three years after a flight disruption, he says. And, in cases of denied boarding, a passenger may be eligible to claim up to $700 as long as they did not volunteer to give up their seat in exchange for vouchers or perks. “It’s important to note that travelers are not covered for flight disruptions caused by extraordinary circumstances out of the airline’s control, such as weather conditions or political unrest,” Nielsen says.

Ben Mutzabaugh, senior aviation editor at The Points Guy, agrees about making sure you get compensated fairly. “Know that you are entitled to compensation if you are involuntarily denied a seat on an overbooked flight,” he tells Bustle. “The amount slides with how long you’re delayed, but it tops out $1,350 if you ultimately arrive to your destination more than two hours later than originally scheduled for a domestic flight or four hours for an international one.”

2. Ask Why You’re Being Denied Boarding

Nielsen suggests asking the airline why you are not able to board your flight. “Although the most common reason is being ‘bumped’ due to an overbooked flight, there are other reasons why air travelers might be denied boarding, as well,” he says. “This information might be important down the line if you decide to file a claim.”

3. Stay Near The Gate

Suzette Brathwaite, who’s been a flight attendant for a major airline for four years, tells Bustle not to venture too far from the gate, especially if your seat is not confirmed. “There is always a chance that someone will not show up and you may get their seat,” she says.

4. Determine Whether Or Not To Volunteer To Give Up Your Seat

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Mutzabaugh says that when a flight is overbooked, airlines will ask for “volunteers,” customers willing to give up their seat in exchange for a later fight and compensation. “If an airline gets enough volunteers, the problem is solved,” he says. “Typically, airlines will start with a low offer and increase until there are enough takers.” He says to know what price you’re willing to change your plans for — and be ready to jump if the airline gets to that number.

However, Nielsen says you may want to first weigh the pluses and minuses before giving up your seat. “If air passengers volunteer to give up their seats in exchange for vouchers or perks, they could be giving up their rights to any additional compensation,” he says. “Of course, if the airline makes a compelling enough offer, a passenger may prefer to take it. The final decision is up to the passenger.”

John Z. Wetmore, producer of Perils for Pedestrians, tells Bustle that he generally tries to schedule flights earlier rather than later, just in case. “That way, if my original flight is delayed, canceled, or overbooked, I still stand a chance of getting to my destination before the start of the conference, wedding, or cruise ship departure, whatever the main reason is for my trip,” he says. And if an airline needs a volunteer to give up their seat, Wetmore can do so and still make it to his destination on time. He says he asks himself: Is the level of compensation and the alternative flight they will put me on worth the trouble?

“The last time I was on an oversold flight, I received a travel voucher for $500, and I was rebooked on a nonstop flight that got me home sooner than the connecting flight I had been scheduled to take,” he says.

5. Request Compensation

Nielsen says that if your flight’s overbooked, make sure to request compensation. “In both the U.S. and EU, this is covered by the law in situations where denied boarding is caused by overbooking,” he says. “And in Europe, EC 261 says that provided a passenger is eligible, the airline should pay them compensation in addition to offering a rerouting on an alternative flight.” Nielsen adds that you can also check AirHelp’s eligibility checker to see what you’re entitled to.

6. Consider Various Forms Of Compensation

If you choose to give up your seat on an overbooked flight, Mutzabaugh says to keep in mind how you will be compensated. “Airlines frequently will offer compensation in the form of a voucher for future travel on the airline, and, sometimes, they’ll offer more in a voucher than for a cash payout,” he says. “But these vouchers tend to only cover travel that occurs within a year of receipt. So, if you’re not a frequent traveler, maybe this isn’t the best option for you.” He says other airlines offer compensation differently, such as in the form of gift cards. “Make sure you don’t get stuck with something you’ll never use,” he says. “You can ask for cash, but an airline may give preference to those willing to take vouchers or cards.”

Nielsen points out that in addition to the airline providing you with a new flight to your destination, you may be able to get even more compensation. “In addition, in Europe, EC 261 gives travelers the option to request a refund of their fare and a return flight to their original point of departure, if necessary,” he says.

Nielsen also says to make sure to ask the airline if they will cover your meals and refreshments while you wait for another flight. “If passengers are forced to wait at the airport longer than planned, the airline can provide food and drinks to keep them comfortable,” he says. “It’s not just good hospitality — in Europe, it’s a requirement.” He also says to ask the airline about covering your hotel if you need to spend the night, as well as transportation to and from the airport, if necessary.

7. Ask For Additional Perks

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Katherine Fan, senior travel features reporter at The Points Guy, tells Bustle that when a flight is overbooked, you have a good amount of flexibility to ask for perks you might not usually get if you were requesting a rebook for your own sake. For example, you can possibly be rebooked on a direct flight if you were on a connecting flight before. “And you might even be able to get an upgrade to business or first class if there is open seating available, or see if there’s an airport lounge nearby that the airline would be willing to let you visit for the day if you have a long layover,” she says. “Just ask nicely and see where it will take you. But make sure you get rebooked and have a confirmation before the agent removes you from the oversold flight.”

8. Keep Receipts (Just In Case)

If you don’t take your initial flight, keep receipts if you end up spending extra money. “Whether it’s missing out on a prepaid reservation, hotel, rental car, or other unexpected costs, passengers on international flights may be able to recover expenses caused by travel disruptions,” Nielsen says.

9. Use Apps To Find New Flights

There are various apps you can use, such as Skyscanner or KAYAK, if you want to look for new flights. Similarly, Kelly Soderlund, travel trends expert for TripIt, suggests using its “Alternate Flights” feature if your flight is overbooked. “It can be an invaluable tool, as it helps travelers find available open seats on other flights if the current flight has been delayed, canceled, ‘overbooked,’ or if they simply would like to leave on a different flight,” she says.

10. Make The Most Of It

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Rachele Gillmar, senior director of marketing and eCommerce at Speck Travel, a new blesiure travel brand, tells Bustle that you should make the most of it if your flight is overbooked and you find yourself unexpectedly spending the night in the city you’re in. “I recommend that you use this as an opportunity to be spontaneous and explore the city you are visiting,” she says.

While finding out that your flight is overbooked may be frustrating, it’s good that you have many options in terms of what to do next. And although you may be late arriving to your destination if you take another flight instead, at least you’ll have more travel money for the future, whether it’s in the form of a travel voucher or getting compensated later by a company such as AirHelp. Although people often say travel’s about the journey, not the destination, in the case of an overbooked flight, it may help if you stay focused on the (eventual) destination instead.