*Ok, not EXACTLY free, but close, here’s how:
Oftentimes, Southwest Airlines (and other airlines) will sell more seats than the plane actually has. They do this assuming that a small percentage of the travelers will change or miss their flights. You may have experienced this while waiting for your flights, they will sometimes ask for volunteers to give up their seats and take a later flight, in exchange for airfare vouchers, and sometimes, hotel rooms. Most people need/want to get on the plane at that point, and don’t volunteer.
Just like trading, you can put the odds in your favor, here’s how:
1. I like to use SOUTHWEST, because they don’t assign seats, and they don’t have “change fees”, so its not uncommon for people to change their flights last minute. Other airlines have assigned seats and use “standby” tickets so they may not oversell like Southwest does, and this plan may not work.
2. Start with booking a flight, but try to choose a day when you have some flexibility. Instead of looking for the cheapest flight of the day, focus on getting an earlier flight. That way, if you give up your seat, its no big deal. Plus, the cheapest flight may be the least likely to be full. You will need to pay for at least one flight to get the free ones, but if you follow these steps, you will have to pay less for future flights, because you will use vouchers. Avoid booking the first flight of the day as they are rarely delayed (and a delay means less people will miss the flight, increasing your odds. Repeat, a delayed flight is good.)
3. Before you go to the airport, have two plans in your head, one where you get there on time, and one where you get there hours later. Wear comfy shoes, bring snacks and books to read, etc. You will need to have some stamina and patience, so be prepared.
4. Check your bag(s) as normal (2 free on Southwest) being careful to keep your phone charger and laptop charger, headphones, snacks, toothbrush, and maybe some extra clothes in your carry on. Be ready to camp out in the airport. Your checked bags may beat you there.
5. When you get to the gate, immediately make friends with the gate attendant. Walk up to the desk slowly with a big smile on your face, don’t interrupt them, ask how they are doing, and introduce yourself by first name. Make it clear you are not complaining about anything. Flirt a little and see if they are the flirty type too.
6. Nonchalantly ask if the flight is full. If they say “yes” or “probably”, tell them that you have _voluntarily_ given up your seat in the past in exchange for a voucher. Then, ask them if they are looking for volunteers to give up their seats on your flight.
7. At this point, you just became their best friend. Even if they are not overbooked, they will take down your name and tell you to stay in the gate area and listen for your name to be announced over the PA. Because most people don’t walk up and volunteer, you will probably be at the top of the volunteer list, increasing your odds.
8. If they don’t need your seat, you simply get on the flight you booked. I always pay extra for “early bird checkin” (guaranteed Group A) because when you volunteer, they will often refund/pay you with a $25 to delay your boarding. If it doesn’t work on the first flight, be sure to try steps 5-7 on all layovers. If it works you will get a voucher for the full one way trip (all legs).
9. If they do need your seat, they will announce your name and then give you a ticket for the next flight, which may have a different layover. They will also issue you a voucher for the price of your one-way flight plus $300. Sometimes, when they are desperate and have no volunteers, they may offer $500 or $600 plus the cost of your flight. They don’t refund the fees, and you pay fees on the next flight, but its still a huge savings.
10. Once you have given up your seat, you have some time to kill. Buy yourself a nice meal, walk the airport end to end, read, work, sleep, stretch often. I sometimes bring my guitar or uke to pass the time.
If you do this consistently every time you fly, you will find that you will save significant money on airfare. The flights are not exactly free, there are still fees, but it usually totals about $20-30. You have to use the vouchers within one year, but you can apply them to more than one flight, even share them with others!
Example: Thanksgiving 2015, I booked a round trip flight to the East Coast for about $500. I gave up my seat during the layover in Las Vegas for a voucher worth about $500. I used that voucher from Thanksgiving 2015 to pay for a flight for a wedding June 2016, and gave the remaining $170 in voucher to my friend who took care of my cat while I was away. I again volunteered up my seat on the flight home from the June wedding, and earned another $500 voucher which I used to pay for my recent Holiday trip, Christmas Eve through my birthday. And then once again, on the way back in January, earned another $528 voucher. So I basically bought one round trip and got three free, plus shared the excess with friends. And I can keep going and going; it’s not exactly free, but close.