When Scott Ford was laid off from his job in New York City back in 2008, he headed to JFK International Airport without thinking of anything other than getting on a plane to visit friends in sunny San Diego.
And when the Delta Airlines gate agent announced he needed a volunteer to be bumped from the flight because the plane was overbooked, Ford idly lifted his hand and accepted a voucher for a future flight.
"Suddenly, it clicked," says Ford, a native of Dayton, Ohio, who now makes his home in Portland, Ore. "Since I was unemployed I had the free time and flexible schedule to travel as much as I wanted if I could find a way to afford it."
As Ford accumulated travel vouchers and frequent flier miles by getting bumped from as many flights as possible, he developed a plan to spend every week of 2011 on vacation.
400 cities in 365 days
Ford started that year in San Diego, went on to San Francisco, and eventually flew 489,000 miles and -- thanks in part to the ability to earn bonus miles on some flights -- accumulated 1 million frequent flier miles.
He visited 400 cities in one year, including Tokyo, Honolulu, Mexico City, and Amsterdam, and ended the year of travel with a spectacular Christmas celebration in St. Mark's Square in Venice.
"My first international trip was a $900 flight to Tokyo that I paid for entirely with vouchers," says Ford, who has now been to Hawaii dozens of times. Costa Rica is another favorite destination; he has vacationed there five times.
His accumulated vouchers and frequent flier miles have allowed him to repeat his travel experiences this year. "2012 has been almost a carbon copy of 2011," says Ford, who went on to become the founder of PackaBagandGo.com to share his tips.
The Currency of Free Travel
While vouchers for a free flight were once commonly given to passengers who had to be bumped for an overbooked flight, most airlines now hand out vouchers in specific dollar amounts -- typically $200 to $800, says Ford, depending on the length of the delay.
"Always negotiate the amount of the voucher," says Ford, "and emphasize your frequent flier status to make them more willing to negotiate." Vouchers can be used to pay for more than just future flights -- they're exchangeable for hotel rooms at major chains and for vacation packages, too.
Vouchers typically expire within one year. Ford says the rules vary by airline and sometimes by flight as to whether you can combine vouchers or will only be allowed to use one per trip. In addition to vouchers for future travel, an airline may provide vouchers for meals or a hotel stay while you're waiting for the next available flight after being bumped.
10 Tips for Snagging Travel Vouchers
While not every traveler has the time and flexibility to voluntarily miss a flight, Ford's experiences offer a blueprint that some fliers can use to garner some of their own free travel. Ford's suggestions include:
Stick with one airline. Ford says that if you want to accumulate vouchers and frequent flier miles, it's much better to build them up with a single airline. You can also leverage your loyalty to the airline for extra perks and upgrades.
Travel at peak times. Your likelihood of getting bumped increases when you travel when everyone else does, such as Friday and Sunday evenings or around holidays.
Book multistop flights. Ford books as many connections as possible to increase the chances of being bumped on one or more sections of the trip.
Look for full loads. Before you book any flight, check the seat map to see how many empty seats are available or call the airline to find out if a flight is nearly full. Book your ticket on the flight that has very few seats left.
Be flexible. If you can't always be flexible and offer to miss a flight, try to add some extra time to the beginning or end of each business trip or vacation when a few extra hours at the airport won't matter.
Volunteer. Ask the gate attendant as soon as you arrive if the flight is full and let that person know you're willing to be bumped if they need someone.
Arrive early. If you're at the gate early, you'll have time to tell the gate attendant and the person at the check-in counter that you're available to be bumped.
Learn the lingo. Ask the gate attendant if there will be a "weight imbalance" on your flight. Instead of dumping too-heavy bags, the airline will sometimes reduce the plane's weight by bumping one or two passengers, says Ford.
Pack light. If you do get bumped, it's much easier if you only have a carry-on bag rather than having your luggage pulled from the flight. Alternatively, pack belongings for one night and meet up with your bag later.
Be nice. Always be calm and polite with the gate attendants so you're the one picked if there are several volunteers.
Thanksgiving is a great time of year to try out Ford's strategies. "So many people are traveling and flights are often overbooked," he says. "At this time of year you also have weather issues that can cause flights to be canceled, which then means other flights are overbooked."
Ford says a family of four can turn their Thanksgiving family visit to the Midwest into their spring break trip by volunteering to be bumped.
"Build some flexibility into your trip at the beginning and the end and offer to give up your seats on a crowded flight," Ford says. "Chances are high at that time of year that you'll end up with vouchers to pay for a Florida vacation in 2013."