Five ways to protect yourself when getting bumped from a flight

It’s hard enough to cope with the risks of volunteering to give up your seat on an airline, but what happens when you get bumped? More than 63,000 passengers were booted from flights last year, despite the fact that they had tickets. Airlines are cutting routes in an effort to save some money, and this is leaving some passengers at the gate.

Nonetheless, you have rights, and the U.S. Department of Transportation is taking them seriously. It just nailed Delta with $375,000 in fines, though half of that could be forgiven if the airline improves how it handles oversold flights. You may remember, I dealt with this situation while traveling to the Gadling meet-up in Chicago a few months ago.

So, you’re about to get bumped … or you’ve been booted already. Here are five factors to keep in mind:

1. The airline has to start by asking for volunteers: if your travel plans are not extremely flexible, keep your mouth shut; you don’t want to get wrapped up in the drama of waiting and possibly missing your next flight.

2. Wait for big money: some airlines will work the numbers up slowly, starting with a voucher for $100. But, others will amp it up to $400 right away (Delta does this). At the $400 threshold, the airline‘s advantage goes away, so don’t hold out for more.

3. Delayed for double: if you are bumped to a flight that gets you home between one and two hours later than your original time, you’re entitled to the price of a one-way ticked, up to $400, in cash. If it takes longer than that, the amount goes to $800.

4. Be careful with vouchers: they may feel like cash, but they can come with restrictions, leaving you with less value for your sacrifice (willing or not).

5. Don’t expect the royal treatment: policies vary, but there are no government requirements that an airline feed you and put you in a hotel room for the night, even if it’s their fault. But, you do have room to negotiate, especially if the airline doesn’t look bad. If it’s the airline’s fault, you can use that to your advantage.