While some people argue the ethics of booking mistake fares, let’s be honest – the thrill of booking a ticket at incredibly low price as you race-against-the-clock is just exhilarating. Ironically enough, I am publishing this post at cruising altitude… on a mistake fare.
Back in June, I was able to book a $1700ish round-trip ticket to Seoul from Boston on United GlobalFirst. I didn’t think too hard about it before booking, because I knew it booked under a fully-refundable “A” fare class.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post asking others to help me decide if I should actually take the trip, and as you can see, I obviously decided to go with it (primarily because I will be earning a ridiculous return in redeemable miles).
Over the past few years, I’ve gotten in on quite a few of mistake fares, including a sub-$300 round trip to Tel Aviv, $30 tickets from New York to Chicago on United, $300 and change to Brazil and Argentina, and those infamous United 4-mile HKG tickets (which were not honored in the end). I’ve also booked mistake fares that were clearly a mistake on my end.
I’ve also kicked myself in the butt for missing some noteworthy mistake fares including the recent Wideroe $125 Europe round trips and the $7 tickets to Hawaii on Delta (which were honored!), but I understand that these fares disappear in a blink of an eye, so it’s not always possible to get in on them.
When I tell friends and family about mistake fares, the first question they ask me is, “well what exactly is a mistake fare?”
Simply put, there are two types of “mistake fares”, and the most common of the two are computer glitches/pricing errors.
A second, and more malicious type of mistake fare, is human manipulation. That’s when the consumer intentionally scams the system by tricking it price out a ticket at close to nothing (I’m referring to the $49 Dublin tickets last fall, where people would trick the United booking system into thinking they had enough award miles for a ticket).
Going back to my current flight situation, the Boston – Seoul tickets were an obvious mistake.
As shown in Gary’s original post about the glitch, you can see below that whoever was inputting the fares at United that day clearly missed a 5th digit in the price.
The next big question I get asked a lot is this one: Will my mistake fare get honored?
There are many variables that come into play when answering that question. The first thing that gets analyzed is the nature of the mistake – was it a pricing glitch on the airline’s end or was the ridiculously-low fare a result of a human hack?
Almost all consumer manipulation fares do not get honored, but I’ve also seen some mistakes at the fault of the airline not get honored as well.
Another consideration that comes into play when determining if the fare should be honored is “the customer should have known“, meaning that from a customer stand-point, if a deal is “too good to be true”, then it probably is.
For instance, we all know that tickets to Hong Kong do not cost 4 reward miles. Ever. So I believe that the fact that United did not honor those tickets in the end was a completely fair ruling.
But then there’s the case of the $300-$500 mistakes, which makes things a bit more complicated. A customer could argue that a $400 ticket to South America could have been a legitimate sale; therefore they should be able to fly on the ticket they purchased. That’s when the DoT steps in.
The DoT is a powerful organization that strictly prohibits airlines from refusing post-purchase price increases, false advertising, and not disclosing the full price of the fare including taxes and fees up front. They will also issue huge fines to airlines who violate these terms.
When a mistake fare makes an appearance, many customers quickly turn to the DoT when an airline announces they will cancel the tickets that resulted from the mistake. This usually sparks an outrage and a flood of DoT complaints. I’ve witness numerous occasions where airlines were forced to reinstate a canceled mistake fare ticket after a DoT ruling.
Aside from fearing the DoT, there are plenty of other factors that greatly influence whether or not an airline will honor a mistake fare. These include social media (El Al Israel tickets were originally not going to be honored until after a virtual protest against the airline on twitter) and striving to maintain good press/PR (such as Delta taking a loss to “make good” on their $7 Hawaii flights).
The most frightening part of a booking a mistake fare is the “waiting game” that can sometimes linger for days until a final ruling is made.
Now on to the good stuff: So How Do You Find Mistake Fares?
1. Be social. I like twitter (here’s mine) because it is real-time and when deals are being broadcast on Twitter, it’s easy to get in on them rather quickly.
2. Stalk FlyerTalk and TheFlightDeal: Specifically bookmark the Mileage Run Forum and check it several times daily. Do the same at TheFlightDeal (though most of their postings are about amazing deals to begin with).
3. Have friends in the know: I love my travel friends because when a mistake fare surfaces, we can contact each other at all hours of the night. Usually that results in us dropping everything and planning an impromptu group trip. It’s best to meet these people at points and miles seminars, happy hours, and other travel-related social gatherings.
4. Follow the blogs: So what if people say blogs “kill the deals”. In the past I’ve been alerted of several mistake fares and general fare sales by following other points and miles blogs.
5. Act now, think later: When a mistake fare surfaces, you do not have time to call your grandma in North Dakota to ask her if she wants to take her very first airplane ride that she wants to coordinate next spring with 12 other relatives. You have to book immediately and then “sleep on it” (thank goodness for 24-hour cancellation polices). I’ve had deals die on me as soon as I hit the “purchase button” because I was a second too late. Yes, I cried out loud a little.
I hope this post can give a little bit more understanding about how mistake fares work. If you have any other strategies you can add, please add them in the comments. If not, I would love to hear about your mistake fare stories, so please share!