Flying for Free

As many of you know I returned from a trip to DC/Maryland yesterday.  It was the first time I visited my old hometown in 10 years!  How does that happen?  I honestly don’t know but I’m grateful that I finally made it out out there. Rain aside, it was a wonderful trip full of visits with cherished friends.

Why no posts during the trip you ask?  Well, I purposely decided to hold off my blogging/facebook photo posting until the end of my trip.  During my recent vacation to Hawaii I had a lot of fun blogging while I was on the island; however, when I came home everyone had heard all of my stories!  It was kind of anti-climatic.  What good is going on a trip if you can’t brag a little about it? 🙂

Anyway, this weekend I will be doing a number of posts describing different parts of the trip and photos.

To begin with the vacation started on a fantastic note.

$400 credit vouchers!

Since 2007 I have flown 6 times for free, 5 of those times have been on United (7 if you include the free credit I just got).

What’s my secret?  Volunteering my seat.

Here’s the situation- airlines typically oversell their flights by 10 to 15%.  This is done because a certain percentage of travelers, particularly business travelers, don’t show up for their flights (the more frequent flier you are the more lenient the airlines are on refunds, and rescheduling of tickets).

Different airlines are more comfortable with overbooking then others.  From my empirical observation United and Delta seem to overbook a lot whereas Southwest, Frontier and Jet Blue rarely do (According to Smart “JetBlue only bumped 10 passengers out of the more than four million travelers who flew the airline during the first half of 2003, so good luck volunteering with them!).  Perhaps being a larger airline with longer routes makes United and Delta more willing to take the risk of overbooking?

Most of the time this system of overbooking works out for the airlines; however, when more passengers come then there are seats they are required by law to offer reward to volunteers before they can bump anyone off of his or her flight.   They will ask if anyone is willing to give up their seat in return for a free plane ticket or a credit voucher.  The amount of this reward depends on the length of the flight and the amount of time they ask the volunteer to wait.  Typically it is not more then 2-3 hours of waiting.  If an overnight wait is asked then the airline must provide a hotel accommodation for the traveler.  The same is true for meal vouchers eaten while the volunteer is waiting.

My situation for volunteering is particularly attractive to the airlines.  Typically I fly alone and they usually only need 1 or 2 volunteers (finally, a benefit to being single! Most of the time I get penalized- taxes being the prime example).  I also specifically plan my trips with wiggle room for my arrival.  This gives me the flexibility to spend more time at the airport without inconveniencing family or friends.  When I have a mind to volunteer I also schedule a shuttle to take me home because then I do not have to worry about contacting rides or checking with them before going up to the desk.  As soon as they make the call for volunteers I sprint up there and offer my name.  Some times I (as I did this time out in Chicago) I will go up to a busy looking desk and offer myself as a volunteer before they make the call over the PA.

Another factor in my favor is I carry my laptop with me wherever I go and with my back up hard drive and high speed internet (available usually for free in most major airports) I can work from anywhere.  There have been days where I have put in a full day of clocked time while waiting for flights.  This means I am making money in 2 ways- one from the airlines, and one from my employer!.  It is a pain to take out your laptop for security but I find it is well worth bringing on any trip for a variety of reasons including use at the airport.

The other key to volunteering your seat is to actually plan connecting flights.  Nearly every time I have given up my seat it has been on a connecting flight.  Why?  Well, the airlines usually connect through their hubs.  If you think about it which are they more likely to overbook on- a flight from DC to Salt Lake or a flight from Chicago to DC?  Adding that connection can be a royal pain and it is a risk but I have found (especially with United) it is worth while.  In the San Francisco airport I have gotten 4 of my free tickets while connecting.

Another key tip is to arrive at the airport as early as possible (or to give yourself as much leeway time at the connecting airport).  This ensures you won’t be waiting in security when they make that appeal for volunteers.  Plus, I find I am more relaxed and ready for travel when I can arrive at my own pace and am not rushing.

I also try to book my trips at a rush time such as on a weekend or Thursday nights.  According to Smart, “Planes also tend to be more crowded on mid-morning and early-evening flights. In short, take all the advice you’ve read about avoiding hassles and delays and do just the opposite.”

So, just think what would make my flight more enjoyable and do the opposite!  That’s when you are likely to volunteer.  It may sound like a glutton for punishment but I look at the flight as the price to pay for an enjoyable trip.  The vacation is the prize and the more I volunteer, the more vacations I can take.  To me, it is well worth the sacrifice and risk of an uncomfortable afternoon.

What was particularly exciting for this trip is I received a $400 credit voucher in return for waiting 3 hours at the Chicago airport.  Not including the work I was able to do I made $133 an hour to wait and get a free dinner to boot! In addition, it is a credit voucher as opposed to a free ticket which United has given me in the past.  This allows for me to use the $400 on any United fare where the tickets are usually good for only the continental United States.

My hope is that I can continue to volunteer and get free airfare.  According to Smarter “Planes are fuller not just because more people are traveling, but also because many airlines have cut their schedules due to weak demand, so there are fewer available seats.”

With United I have had 4 years of continuous flights free (meaning I am already flying on a free ticket and get another free ticket).  I had one day where I got 2 free tickets and got to spend the evening with my sister and fly out the next day! It was great!  I have also been asked to volunteer, been given the reward, and then found room on the plane after all.  It is worth offering if you have the time and flexibility in your schedule.

Let’s hope the streak of free travel continues with whatever I decide to use my $400 voucher for!  I’m so excited to embark on more travel in the year to come (most free tickets expire in a year- that is the ticket must be purchased, not necesarily used, within a year from the issue date).

Happy Free Traveling!


5 thoughts on “Flying for Free

  1. You can also use your free credit/ticket to purchase a ticket for someone else but who wants to do that? More travel for me! 🙂

  2. Also, a free flight does not exempt you from baggage fees or other upgrade fees (although you can ask for upgrades on the flight you are being bumped onto but I’ve never gotten one).

  3. Rachel, I proudly consider myself frugal….I loved this post so much that if I were a man I think I would have to ask for your hand just from reading this!! Loved it!
    Meredith Tolley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s