That's the Ticket

Airlines are more than willing to fly you around for free. All you have to do is ask nicely.


Want to get paid to travel? You don't have to sign up as a dishwasher on the Love Boat, drive a stranger's car across Kansas or carry a top-secret parcel overseas. Just book a flight on America West and make sure it connects in Phoenix. Chances are good that you'll be able to exchange your seat for $300 to $500 in America West vouchers, just for spending a few extra hours in a heavily air-conditioned airport. They'll even buy you a meal at the restaurant of your choice. (Tip: The best food, unless you're into hot dogs, can be found at the ersatz Mexican cantina in the northernmost terminal. The Grande Burrito isn't bad.)

Consider it airline arbitrage and remember that like all other forms of arbitrage, your opportunity is not likely to last long. I stumbled across this deal in late June, when my wife reluctantly booked us cross-country on America West. (The Baltimore to San Diego fare was too low to pass up.) When we showed up, gate agents were asking for volunteers to be bumped in Baltimore. The payoff: a $300 voucher and a later flight to Phoenix. We offered our tickets but ended up on the plane anyway.

Our luck improved on our connecting flight in Phoenix. Too many folks were going to San Diego, so they paid us $400 each and sent us, meal tickets in hand, to the nearest restaurant. We split a burrito and downed a beer and a margarita. (America West won't pay for alcohol in the terminals, so we had to cover those ourselves.) A couple of hours later we were on a flight to Carlsbad, California, which was closer to our final destination in North County San Diego anyway. Total take for three hours inconvenience and a free lunch: $800 in travel coupons.

America West is a flexible airline, with many partnerships, both of which make flying the airline and playing the bump game more fruitful. I was traveling for work and pleasure my wife came along for the pleasure leg of the trip and so we had different return flights. As it turned out, she mistakenly booked my flight home for the week after I needed to return. No sweat. One call and a $75 change fee later I had a seat on the right day.

That $75 was an excellent investment. I turned it into $500.

At the airport, America West was offering volunteers $300 to give up their seats from San Diego to Phoenix. After securing a promise for a first-class seat on the next flight, I took the deal. The agent reneged on the first-class seat and put me on the plane anyway but not before giving me a free drink ticket to make up for it.

No matter. The vein of gold was richer in Phoenix, where a gate agent paid me $500 for my seat, gave me a meal voucher and put me on a Continental flight to Houston and another from Houston into Baltimore, arriving sometime after 11:00 p.m. My wife wasn't thrilled about having to make the drive north from Washington during prime partying hours on a Saturday night, but I figured we had to make some sacrifice for the money. I was wrong. Houston is a Continental hub, and they had a flight going to Ronald Reagan National Airport, a short Metro ride from home. The America West gate agent happily bent the rules and put me on it.

We shelled out just under $700 for the two round-trip tickets, plus the $75 change fee. Reunited in D.C., we had $1,300 in America West vouchers and, on each end, managed to arrive at airports closer to home only a few hours later than we'd originally planned.

Between a commuter marriage, apartments in D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut, and a job that's based in Los Angeles I spend a lot of time in airports and in the air. I knew this money was no good if America West went out of business, and without consulting the financial press, I figured that if they kept this up they'd soon be auctioning off their fleet of 757s to an airline better able to count seats. I had a speech to deliver in Palo Alto in June, and I cashed in $900 in vouchers to book passage for my wife and me a trip that we wound up parlaying into another $800 in free travel and a return flight home in the first-class section of a USAir jet.

Travelers who have more time than money, or who have flexible work arrangements, ought to always be alert for the bump option even if they aren't flying America West. In some cases they should book flights with getting bumped in mind I often do.

Federal law requires airlines to pay involuntarily bumped passengers up to $400, depending on how long they are delayed. If it's less than an hour, they aren't required to pay anything. But most airlines are far more generous with those who volunteer. When I first started playing the bump game, Alaska Airlines used to hand out free round trips on its domestic routes. In 1997, when I became a frequent coast-to-coast flyer, I discovered that American Airlines hands out American scrip that is fully transferable and divisible. Purchase a $300 ticket with a $400 voucher, and American would hand back $100 in scrip to be used at another date. (America West vouchers are fully transferable and can be combined: You can purchase a $700 ticket with two $400 vouchers, but unlike American they do not provide the $100 change.)

One's odds of being bumped and the inconvenience mitigated can be upped with a little planning. Flying home for Thanksgiving? Book a flight for early evening Wednesday night, but tell the folks you'll be coming in late Thursday. When you check in, offer your seat to the gate agent even if there's been no announcement made. (Voluntary bumps work on first-come, first-served basis, so you want to get to the airport early and always ask the agent if they need your seats.) Ditto for Christmas. Pack light and I can't stress this enough carry on your baggage. (Nothing kills the buzz of landing at National Airport, which is practically in downtown Washington, like having to drive to Baltimore the next day to retrieve a suitcase.)

Also, don't be afraid to negotiate. I have had little success in moving agents on price, but they'll often put me in first class on the next available flight. For coast-to-coasters, the cuisine, complimentary booze and cushy seats alone are worth the wait.

Finally, the odds of a big payoff are increased if you're flying into a resort, a place where the rich are likely to be bound or a destination where people who think the world revolves around them are headed. My single biggest round trip hit came on a junket to Palm Springs in 1998 a flight I didn't pay for in the first place. The American flight from Dallas to Palm Springs was overbooked, and the offer was $400, which I took. I ended up getting $700 and a first-class seat on the next flight. My return flight out of Palm Springs was overbooked as well. My reward for giving up my seat was another $300 in American scrip and five-and-a-half hours in first-class comfort.

Playing the bump game isn't for the uptight or high-strung. A certain amount of flexibility is required. But for those who have what it takes, it's obviously a personal- finance winner. My wife and I have enjoyed many other trips courtesy of the airlines. Last March, American took her to Peru, where she spent a week checking out Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu and Cuzco on their dime. Last November we cashed in American miles, many earned on bumped tickets, for a vacation in Japan. America West flies to Mexico. Perhaps we'll spend next New Year's in Acapulco. Getting there won't cost us anything, and we won't have to arrive on the Love Boat with dishpan hands.