Why it pays to be kicked off your plane

Number of serious offers for swapping any sensible backpack for the Expandable Carry-On Upright with little wheels and a pull-out handle that I found myself saddled with last week: nil. Number of inquiries about how to get thrown off a plane: dozens.

Number of serious offers for swapping any sensible backpack for the Expandable Carry-On Upright with little wheels and a pull-out handle that I found myself saddled with last week: nil. Number of inquiries about how to get thrown off a plane: dozens.

Plenty of you have written, e-mailed or phoned asking for more information on how to get cash in return for giving up your seat on a plane. Before Continental Airlines rendered my backpack unusable by placing it in uncomfortable proximity to a vat of rotting seafood, or similar, and offered an Expandable Carry-On Upright as a replacement, I earned a $300 (£200) flight voucher for volunteering to travel on a later plane.

The rationale is straightforward. Almost all airlines sell more tickets than they have seats on some flights. The logic is that the sort of people who can afford full fares quite often decide to travel on a different flight from the one described on their ticket. Airlines need to make an educated guess about how much overbooking can safely be made. Otherwise, they would end up with some seats empty - and to pay for that, all the fares would need to go up, they say.

In travel, Murphy's Law applies frequently, and sometimes everyone who is booked on a flight turns up. This can lead to ugly scenes at check-in, with angry passengers playing a particularly vitriolic game of musical chairs: when the music stops, some passengers find they have no seats on the plane.

To avoid upsetting too many customers, some airlines - particularly in the US - take pre-emptive measures. If they suspect they have an embarrassment of passengers, they will ask for volunteers who are not in too much of a hurry to give up their seat in return for a financial inducement.

The incentive may be a flight voucher, or a return ticket to "anywhere Delta flies in the continental USA". Usually the initial offer is enough to persuade people to travel on a later flight; if not, the bid is gradually improved until enough people bite, even if it means paying out more than the cost of the passengers' tickets. (Don't feel too sorry for the airline; even though I was travelling on a bucket shop ticket, price £450 for a total of five flights, and therefore recouped a lot of my original expenditure, some passengers were paying Continental £500 for a single Seattle-Cleveland sector).

To become a successful candidate for free tickets, you should book an itinerary to and within America largely featuring Fridays and Sundays - the days when overbooking is most common. And be poised to volunteer when the announcement is made: sometimes there can be a real scramble for the pickings.

Make sure you are flexible about your arrival time, and don't fret about missing connections on the same airline - these will be automatically rebooked. But do worry a lot about missing connections on a different airline, particularly one where you are holding a separate ticket.

Taking only hand luggage confers extra freedom. If your destination is, say, Yale University at New Haven in Connecticut, you might not care whether you fly to Boston or New York.

***

Once you get kicked off the plane, things start to slow down. At the departure gate, staff will tap away to find another way of getting you to your destination, which may involve a change of planes or airlines. Once you are a victim of "overselling", all that stuff on the ticket about which airports you might touch down at, and the restriction "Valid CO [Continental Airlines] only" becomes irrelevant.

One good reason for staying "online" (nothing to do with computers - an aviation term meaning you remain with the original airlines) is that you may get better treatment, eg, more legroom on board. Some people push their luck and ask for an upgrade on the later flight, but these are hard to come by. Other travellers demand vouchers for meals for the duration of their wait. Even if you remain quiet and polite, you can expect a voucher or two for a meal at the airport and a free drink when you get on board. But doublecheck the new bookings that have been made on your behalf: when I was offloaded, my seat was double-booked on the subsequent three flights. The reason: somewhere in the Continental Airlines computer system I was shown up as having failed to appear for a flight, and, therefore, had the rest of my itinerary cancelled.

***

Instead of Lake Erie appearing below the port wing of the plane I was on, the Hudson River turned up, the dawn sun revealing all its oil-streaked glory. Being "bumped" can stretch your horizons, by taking you to places you weren't expecting to be, and by giving you the chance to travel more widely in future. Theoretically, there is no limit to how often you can claim denied boarding compensation. If the flight you are re-booked on also turns out to be overbooked, then you can volunteer to offload from that one, too. Your earnings can soon exceed the amount you paid for the ticket. On average worldwide, though, there are 60 empty seats on every 200-seat flight, so it shouldn't be long before you are found a seat.

***

The highest chances of taking advantage of an "oversell" are in the US, but Europe can be good territory too. Swissair actually hands out leaflets promising "Cash now - fly later". Passengers who find themselves on flights overbooked by the Swiss airline are urged to "give us your seat. We'll give you up to $600". That works out at a handy £400 for people who are booked to travel 3,500km or more and are prepared to postpone their journey, and who arrive more than four hours late as a result.

***

British Airways also overbook, and sometimes announces the fact on video monitors at the departure airport (usually Heathrow). But the only occasion when I was bumped from BA was entirely involuntary: the airline decided that neither me nor a dozen other people who were also carrying Air Miles tickets would be going to Amsterdam that morning, and gave us £125 each.

***

George Stephenson started a trend in 1829. Not in overbooking passengers, but in awarding a name to the first effective steam locomotive, Rocket. Ever since, railway man has felt impelled to bestow a name upon every loco, whether that of a classical god or a present-day local TV news programme. But if developments in Canada and Germany are followed here, passengers will find that their train is hauled by a 1,000-horsepower advertisement.

German commuters on the Cologne to Dusseldorf line, for whom delays are a headache, could get relief from the train when it finally appears. The route goes through Leverkusen, home of Bayer Pharmaceuticals, which has plastered an ad for soluble Aspirin all over a locomotive. You could wash the medicine down with Kool-Aid, a North American soft drink, whose garish colours are now plastered all over the engine hauling the Skeena train through the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. Gordon Lightfoot, writer of the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, may need to rewrite a verse or two to cope with the new age of sponsorship: the Canadian Club Railroad Trilogy?

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