Use These Travel Hacks to Get Free Stuff from Your Airline
Insider tips on scoring free flight vouchers, food or even a sweet hotel room.
Illustration by Jacqueline Lin
You know those friends you have—okay, not friends, Instagrammers—who seem to spend most of their waking hours jet setting around the world? Or sleeping in first class cabins? If so, you may be wondering how they can afford it.
Everyone says to use a credit card with mile rewards, but these illusive perks can be as confusing as cryptocurrency (fine, more confusing) if you’re not a seasoned traveler. To find out how to load up your next vacation with freebies, we asked the experts for perks that go beyond credit card points and frequent flyer miles from your favorite airline.
Here are a few pro moves to get you closer to sipping free bubbly in a fully reclining seat.
Volunteer your seat to get a free travel voucher
This isn’t selfless volunteering, this volunteering comes with free cash. Overbooked flights often ask for volunteers to re-route on a later flight, and that volunteer may be compensated with a travel voucher, meal vouchers and perhaps overnight accomodations, depending on the rebooking.
How to snag these deals? Especially if you’re traveling at a peak time—like before a holiday, when people are less likely to want to change their travel plans—arrive early to the airport, let desk attendants know you’re traveling alone (if you are) and flexible with your plans and then wait it out.
JT Genter, writer at the travel deal site The Points Guy plays a “yes, and” hardball-style game with airline representatives asking for volunteers, sure, he’ll take hundreds of dollars in airline credit, but what else will they give him. Lounge passes, meal vouchers and potential upgrades are all an option.
“They throw vouchers at you just to get you to go away,” he says. In some instances, don’t volunteer too early—read the room—if it’s mostly business travelers who could care less about vouchers and just want to get home or to a meeting, wait for the airline to up the ante.
Hoard literally every freebie the airline offers
Airplanes are loaded with free stuff. Seriously. “Depending on what airline you are flying, how long the flight is, and how amenable your flight attendant is—there are quite a few freebies travelers can snag in the sky, simply by asking,” says frequent traveler Sara Skirboll, Shopping & Trends Expert at RetailMeNot.
On the most basic level, you can ask for unlimited refills and snacks from the refreshment cart, but if you have a reason (like a delayed flight or faulty seat), ask for a comped glass of wine or a cocktail. It may seem like the person next to you is getting special treatment because they slipped the flight attendant a $20 while volunteering to check their rollerboard, but airline status (earned by staying loyal to one airline and accumulating points) also helps earn you perks.
Genter, who flies economy on American Airlines frequently has gotten used to flight attendants greeting him by name and offering him a free drink and meal, even on domestic flights. He also recommends just being nice and striking up a conversation with hardworking flight attendants. If a passenger is being obnoxious, just saying “I’m sorry you have to deal with that” or empathizing with “people can be such jerks” can score you status-worthy treatment.
“Just being nice can be the biggest trick,” Genter says.
Profit off delays, misplaced luggage and slow wifi
Airlines all have different policies, and weather delays typically don’t entitle you to any monetary compensation, but knowing what you can get for being slightly (or severely) inconvenienced is helpful. On a recent JetBlue flight I overheard a woman simply complain about the quality of her in-flight entertainment screen and a flight attendant credited her $10 in JetBlue credit. In the case of maintenance or crew delays, airlines are obligated to do something, Genter explains, though airlines can be inconsistent about what exactly they offer for inconveniences.
If it’s a maintenance delay or crew issue, the airlines are obligated to compensate for that delay, especially if it ruins your travel plans. “If the delay is going to cost you more than what the airline can offer and you missed a non refundable ride or hotel reservation, travelers have up to 30 days to try and negotiate,” says Skirboll.
If the airline isn't offering cash compensation, request airline miles. In my recent travel history, a nearly 24-hour delay on Norwegian Air from Paris to New York earned every passenger who filed the appropriate paperwork with the airline up to $700 (600 euros) of delay compensation, plus a free night in a hotel and three reimbursed meals, worth a total of $200 or more per traveler. And if your bag is delayed, airlines owe you inconvenience fees of $50 per day that your luggage is missing, or more, depending on the situation. If you paid to check that bag, ask for that fee to be refunded too.
Knowing who to air your grievances with is key: Tweeting to an airline about a missing pilot may get you a sympathetic Gif, but a formal customer relations complaint may earn you miles or credit. And kindly discussing any issues as they arise may earn you free mileage. “More and more airlines are giving flight attendants the ability to give away miles so they don’t have to direct [complaints] to customer relations,” The Points Guy's Genter says. In the case of outside services, like slow wifi, take up your issues directly with the wifi provider who billed you to refund your purchase.
Play your cards right and you might earn enough money from the airlines to take your next trip on their dime.