Involuntarily Bumped from Flight? Here's What to Do

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Last July, I was involuntarily bumped from a United flight, kicking off a 16-hour travel odyssey from New York to Seattle to Portland. While there are some people who try to get bumped from flights to collect vouchers and upgrades, this was the furthest thing from my mind as I tried to make my way to the northwest to attend a close friend's wedding.

The only redeeming outcome of missing my flight: "If people are involuntarily bumped, they should realize they have the right to insist on cash," Bill Mosley, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, tells Yahoo! Shine.

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How much depends on how inconvenienced you are. If you get to your final destination within an hour, don't expect anything. If you arrive between one and two hours late, the airline owes you 200% of your one-way fare, a $650 maximum. If you arrive more than two hours later, or if the airline doesn't help you get to your final destination, they owe you 400% of your one-way fair, or $1,300 maximum.

To be sure, this doesn't occur often, but "when it happens, it's horrible," says Jami Counter, the senior director of TripAdvisor and Seat Guru.

According to DOT stats (via SmartMoney.com), the number of people involuntarily bumped declined 11% from 2009 to 2010. In the first half of 2011, about 1 in 10,000 people were not allowed on planes despite buying tickets.

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(Unfortunately, my story doesn't end with a check in hand. Two months later, United still owes me $1,300 under federal law, and they've been giving me the runaround. A spokesperson for the airline -- which is probably too busy dealing with higher-profile issues like the death of supermodel Maggie Rizer's dog and this lost 10-year-old -- declined to comment for my story. A representative for customer care incredulously explained the check was delayed because United doesn't have the stationery and doesn't print checks in their actual office.)

So how do you avoid losing the traveler lottery?

"Part of it is a little bit luck of the draw, and the gate agent at the time. They're making announcements about it being oversold. If you're going on an expensive cruise or the vacation of the lifetime, I would definitely be upfront with the gate agent," suggests Counter. "Plead your case in a nice way so that when the gate agent is at the end of his or her rope, they're not randomly picking people out of the crowd."

The airline usually has a hierarchy of bumping folks off flights, says Counter. If you're considered an elite flier, or a member of a loyalty program with status (think platinum), you'll probably board. Getting to the gate early is important too, says Mosley.

But if you booked last minute, or aren't a very frequent flier, you may just be out of luck.