Air travel opens up incredible avenues of exploration. If you want to soar the skies and land in a faraway location, there's an airline that can get you there.

But the availability and convenience of such expansive coverage comes at a cost. Add in the price of fuel, maintenance, manpower and more, and air travel can quickly become cost prohibitive for many.

If you want to travel by air but don’t want to pay the exorbitant cost, there are some inventive ways you can earn free — yes, free — transport. This article is the second in a travel series to show you how.

The Technique: Volunteering to get "bumped"

It sounds too good to be true — the possibility to volunteer for a later flight in exchange for a free trip at a future date. But as airlines try to squeeze the most revenue from each flight, they often overbook, which is happening now more than ever before. This overbooking occurs because the airline bets on a passenger or two not showing up (delayed, emergency, non-refundable ticket, etc.). But when all passengers do arrive at the gate, the airline quickly learns there's a problem — too many passengers and not enough seats.

The easiest remedy to try to make everyone happy is for the airline to ask for volunteers to give up their seats to waiting passengers in exchange for confirmed seats on later flights and travel vouchers good for future flights. If you volunteer, you have still, in essence, paid for your seat, but the future travel voucher can offset the price of your current travel or, in some cases, exceed it, turning your current trip into a moneymaker!

The Window: How and when to volunteer

You can volunteer at different stages of travel with different airlines. For instance:

1. With some airlines (like United), you may be asked at check-in (whether through self check-in screens at the airport or by airline personnel when checking your bags) if you would like to be placed on a volunteer list. At this point, you are under no obligation to volunteer — you are simply listed as a potential candidate by the airlines for your upcoming first leg of the flight or an appropriate connecting flight that same day (depending on which are overbooked).

2. With other airlines (like American Airlines), announcements are made via loud speaker at the gate. This is more of a last-minute approach, though announcements can happen anytime prior to actual boarding — usually at the point at which overflow passengers have attempted check-in and the airline senses a problem with the number of available seats.

3. With still other airlines (especially for international flights), you may choose to simply ask a counter attendant at the gate about being bumped. This is especially helpful when traveling abroad, as some international flight personnel may be reluctant to make a volunteer announcement for fear of passenger confusion or animosity. So if there is a short line and a healthy window of time available before boarding, kindly ask an attendant about the fullness of the flight and whether volunteers might be needed before boarding.

Preparing: Increase your chances

Consider these do’s and don’ts so you have an improved chance of being chosen from a volunteer pool:

  • Do pack light. If you are a volunteer who is bumped, you'll want to carry the minimum amount of your personal belongings through the airport. Pack only the necessities for your trip.
  • Do not check a bag. Passengers with checked bags are less likely to be chosen as volunteers than those with carry-ons only, since the airline would have to do more work to retrieve and change the previously-checked bag's path.
  • Do be as flexible as possible. When volunteering, you may have to choose an alternate airport for landing, take a flight over meal time, or change your pick-up plans. If you have the means to do this, you're a good candidate.
  • Do not be demanding. Remember: you're a volunteer. You can ask for additional services or compensation on top of what is offered (some ideas include preferred seating on the next flight, time in the airline's VIP lounge, a food voucher or a free set of earphones), but the airline may not cater to your every whim. Bottom line: they want to make money, so they aim to minimize passenger payout, even in a volunteer situation.

Learning: My personal experience

Last month, I was rewarded with a $300 flight voucher by American Airlines (good for one year!) after a flight I was on from Austin to Dallas oversold. I was a perfect candidate for being bumped because I:

  • Checked in early
  • Arrived to my gate well before board time
  • Had no checked bags
  • Had one small carry-on
  • Was traveling alone
  • Had no connection after Dallas

So although my ticket for the roughly 40 min. flight only cost around $100, I still received the announced $300 voucher. I got placed on a later flight, only about one and a half hours after my regularly-scheduled departure time. So my 90-minute wait turned into a "free" trip and a $200 money maker!

Share

Have you been a successful airline volunteer for a leg of your travel, or have you known someone who has? With what airline, and what was the experience? Share it in the "comments" section below.

If you are interested in flying for free but don't want to chance being a volunteer, stay tuned! More articles in this series will show you can make your travel dreams a reality.

More articles in this series:

How to Fly for Free: Organizing Group Travel