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Taking a Bump With Kids

When my husband and I were dating long distance and flying to see each other every other weekend or so, one of the huge ways we funded such a project was to take every single bump available.

A “bump,” if you are not familiar, is the colloquial term for “voluntarily denied boarding,” or VDB.  The airlines make a practice of occasionally selling more tickets for a flight than they have seats.  They do this because they are reasonably sure that a certain percentage won’t make their flight for whatever reason based on past history.  If they miscalculate, and sell a few too many, they don’t really worry about it, because they can usually find one or a few people to give up their seat in exchange for some compensation ($100-600, depending on the airline and the severity of the situation).  Typically the tickets they sell at the very end are very expensive, and so the airline sees a net profit even if they have to compensate someone to fly later.  The volunteer walks away with some money.  The person who really wanted to fly does.  Everyone wins.

This situation used to happen a good bit of the time, especially on certain airlines.  We certainly recouped a significant amount of money doing it.  In the past year, it seems that the airlines who did this a lot have decided that it’s not the greatest business model, and have been far more conservative with ticket sales.  In 2013, we had no bumps at all… until today.

Flying on a holiday (and the day before a snowstorm) can set you up for a great shot at a bump.   There is no way to ever predict that you’ll get one, but this increases your chances.  Our flight today was oversold by *nine*.  That’s a lot.  They were more than happy to see our family of four and pay us to spend another night in Chicago.

Here’s the twist though – we’ve never taken a bump as a family of four.  As I mentioned, 2013 has been a dry spell.  During the fall of 2012, we only flew a few times, and then from there we were back to before Clara was born.  And when we were taking bumps before that, Andrew was an infant — much much less squirmy than the toddler/preschooler he is today.

Taking bumps can be a really great way to subsidize your travel as a family.  As a single person, you might get compensated $250.  As A family of four, that becomes $1000.  Any day is a good day to get paid!  But before those dollar signs appear in your eyes, here are some things I’ve learned over the years about taking bumps and today about taking bumps with a family:

1.  Check out whether your flight is full

There are various ways to do this with tools online, but for the average joe, you might just want to ask the agent at check in, “Hey, how full is my flight?”  If they say it’s full, have them put you on the volunteer list right there.

2. Pay attention

Go to the gate and hang around.  When you are at the gate, be alert.  Don’t pester the gate agent or anything, but if you happen to overhear a conversation about how oversold they are, a friendly reminder that you are on the volunteer list doesn’t go amiss.  Paying attention to the gate agent can be made more difficult when you are also trying to pay attention to a toddler that really really wants to do laps on the moving walkway.

3.  Decide if you can split up.

If they only need one or two volunteers instead of three or four, can one or two of you stay and take a later flight and the others continue on?  If so, make sure you let the gate agent know, otherwise they’ll assume that you want to keep the whole party together, and may not bump you if they only need one or two seats.

4. Weigh the benefits with the downsides.

I’m not saying that it’s always going to be worth the $100 or $1000 to get bumped every time.  Getting bumped, particularly with a family, might not be particularly easy.  Tonight, we were put up in a hotel.   We have no jammies for the kids, and none of my daughter’s stuffed animals (all were in checked baggage that went on to our destination).  But… the hotel had toothbrushes and deodorant, and we had spare sets of clothes for the kids and spare underwear for the adults in the diaper bag.  And so… it’s not so bad.

You have to be able to determine whether or not it’s worth it for you.  Don’t assume it’s automatically worth it to get paid.  Don’t assume it’s automatically not worth it for the hassle.

5.  Keep your kids in the loop

Today we explained to Andrew for the first time what we were doing by taking a bump.  “We got to help some people who really needed to fly on our airplane get where they needed to be, and we got some cool stuff and some more adventures!  Everyone wins!”  Remember that kids who are in on the plan make better travelers, even at 2.5 years old.

6.  Understand there will be waiting.  And more waiting.

I remember when I used to take bumps, it always felt like forever until they printed the compensation, printed the hotel voucher, printed meal vouchers…  If it felt like hours as a childless person, let me tell you it felt like ETERNITY with two kids under three.  Have patience.  Keep your eye on the prize.

Hopefully our experience today means that the bump isn’t a totally extinct creature.  If you come across one, you’ve seen a rare bird.  I hope that you and your family are able to take advantage, even if it’s a little bit of a hassle.  Consider it an investment for your future travel.

Keep adventuring! (and Happy New Year!)

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