5 Tips to Consider Before You Volunteer to Give Up Your Airplane Seat

Posted on Posted in Flights, Insider Tips & Tricks
British Airways World Traveller Plus view from wing
Happy up in the clouds with a view like this

Last week I was out at sea when the United incident occurred. When I reached port the next day, it was all over the news and I was surprised by all the mis-steps taken by the airline and local airport security.  I’ve always known that the airlines oversold the seats hoping to maximize the space and revenue for no-shows, missed connections and cancellation.  Over the many years of traveling, I’ve only been on two flights prior to last week where the airline gate staff announced they were looking for volunteers to give up their seats.

In one case, I was on a business trip to New Orleans.  The announcement started at $600 to give up your seat and while I was tempted because it would have been a bonus to me since I hadn’t paid for the ticket, I was flying first class and had checked my TripIt Pro app to see when the next direct flight to Philly was (eight hours later) and how many seat were open (zero first class).  The agent eventually got a volunteer at $600 and we quickly boarded the flight home.  I wondered if they knew how long the wait would be prior to saying “yes”.

AA & Delta Volunteers to Give Up Your Airplane Seat at SJU

Fast forward to this past Sunday in San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU).  As I was walking to my gate, I heard a Delta agent sheepishly announcing that the flight was oversold and she was looking for volunteers to give up their seats for a voucher.  She sounded nervous and opened at $400.  I mumbled to myself “no way at $400” as I quickly boarded my American Airlines flight to Philadelphia.

This AA flight was a definite bonus as I booked first class, which at the time was about $200 more than coach, and during online check in realized that AA changed equipment so that my seat was on the A330, their international configuration of 1-2-1 flat bed business class seats. I had a flat bed, full entertainment system, aisle access and loved it for my four hour flight!

American Airlines international business class not give up your airplane seat
The business class transatlantic A330 cabin on American Airlines – the last row and I’m not giving up my airplane seat!

When boarding was complete, the AA gate agent boarded and announced they needed just one volunteer to give up their seat.  In more than twenty years of travel, I experienced the “at the gate” version of this and now in one day, I had two instances – one onboard.  The gate agent started at $600 and no interest.  He increased the compensation to $800 and the Captain exited the cockpit with his hand raised to show he had a sense of humor and gave us a nice laugh.  At this point, the coach cabin had banned together and chanted $1,000!  Now I was thinking “hmmm, would I take that as my family is on the next flight”.  The young guy who expressed some interest at $800 and for whom the coach cabin chanted “higher” took the deal.  Folks were clapping and as he exited, I heard him say “that’s enough for a few flights” which might not be true.  I’m not sure who the guy was that needed to board but he put his bags in the first class overhead and went back to the open coach seat.

I stretched out and reminded myself that I was not flying to London, just home to Philly on the spacious window seat. I texted my sister who was waiting for the next flight and told her the story of the $1,000 offer just in case they had the same offer on her flight.  Later when she landed, she said her flight was also looking for volunteers but found one at the opening of $600.

The Captain welcomed us and instructed us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors as we would all be in this together as travelers.  His words were kind, funny and appropriate and I wondered if this was his normal speech or if it was modified in light of the United incident.  Either way, it seemed that a new normal had emerged as travelers learned that their seat might not be their seat, passengers worked together to get the best deal and others contemplated what their time (and seat) was really worth.


My 5 Tips to Consider Before You Give Up Your Airplane Seat

So with all of the information flying around social media and the news channel related to travel, what’s your price?  How much would it take to get you to give up your seat on the airplane?  Would you now do due diligence to know if it’s worth it?  Always be ready with information that benefits you, not the airline.

My 5 Tips Before You Say Yes and Give Up Your Airplane Seat:

British Airways plane flying over London
British Airways flight
  1. Find alternative (direct) flights home and know what time(s) the flight is scheduled to depart as well as the flight number – you can do this with TripIt Pro (yearly subscription), Google Flights or the airline’s website. You need to have information ready at hand, don’t rely on the airport gate agent.
  2. Use TripIt Pro (or ask your travel agent), to see how many seats in each class are available.  F = First, J = Business, C = Coach, so you know what leverage you have.  If giving up a coach seat, I’d request the first/business seat on next flight (they can only say no and stick you in coach). I met a guy on my flight to San Juan who was scheduled to fly from Philly to Chicago but bad weather canceled his flight.  He requested that they fly him PHL-SJU-ORD, basically a free flight to San Juan for the weekend on the long way home.  He had family to visit so it was a free flight for him in Business class.
  3. Check to see if the airline has a lounge at the airport (in case the wait is long you can request to wait there, they may say no, but it’s worth the try). I’d rather spend time in a relaxing place than sitting at the gate.
  4. Request cash!!!  Vouchers are filled with small print of exclusions, black out dates, minimum spend/fares, etc.  Imagine giving up your seat, waiting hours for the next flight only to find out you can’t use that $600+ voucher!  Say no to vouchers and yes to cash! 
  5. Hotel and/or Food vouchers should be provided if the next available flight (with an open seat) is a long wait or the next day. Research what hotels are nearby so you can request a property if needed.  You want a full service hotel with a restaurant on-site at a minimum.

So, while I’m tempted at $1,000, realistically if #1-3 were all good options, I would probably raise my hand at $1,200 if cash, however, given that others buyout rate is lower, I doubt that I’ll get to take this gamble.  In the European Union (EU) they have explicit rules stating what happens if you are denied boarding against your will after the airlines fail to find a volunteer – you may be entitled, according to my Passenger Rights app, to €125 – €600 compensation depending on distance of flight and delays experienced.  During your wait, the airlines must provide care for you such as food, telephone access, hotel and transit between hotel and airport.  The EU has spelled it all out, why is the US so woeful in catching up to passengers rights for travel – air, train, bus and boat?

Have you ever volunteered to give up your airplane seat?  How much did you get and what was the experience like for you? Would you do it again?

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