Kiplinger’s “Win the Bumping Game” offers some advice on how to minimize the chances you’ll get left behind when your airline overbooks a flight. The main thing you can do is arrive early—it’s the last-minute arrivals, or worse, those who buy their tickets a half hour before departure, who are most likely to get bumped. The other thing you can do is avoid Delta, Comair, or Atlantic Southeast, which have the worst records of bumping passengers, and stick with JetBlue, which has the best. And make sure you have a seat assignment if at all possible.
The worst times for bumping are Sunday night, Monday morning, Thursday night and Friday morning. It happens more often on heavily traveled routes like L.A.-to-NYC, but there’s not much you can do about that.
Airlines are required to ask for volunteers before resorting to bumping, and to offer those volunteers compensation, so if you’re a good bargainer this is your chance to score anything extra airline tickets, first class upgrades, and hotel stays. However, you shouldn’t trade in your ticket “until you have a confirmed seat on a later flight and know whether vouchers you’re offered have blackouts or reservations restrictions.”
Lacking volunteers, agents usually target the last passengers to arrive at the gate. If that happens to you, you’ll receive a written statement describing your rights (small comfort as you watch the plane depart) and promising you a seat on another flight. If you can be booked on a flight that will get you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, you’re entitled to nothing except maybe an apology. But if you’ll be one to two hours late, the airline owes you cash: the cost of the fare to your destination, up to $200. If you are delayed by more than two hours, the compensation doubles, to as much as $400.