How to find and book mistake airfares
Christmas morning started off rather uneventfully for Paul Jebara. In 2014, the New York-based travel writer was scanning flight fares online in the hopes of stumbling across some bargain beckoning him to a part of the globe he had yet to explore. Nothing out of the ordinary, given his chosen line of work. After landing on the Etihad Airways site, however, he was about to receive the holiday gift of a lifetime.
“I saw this number on the screen and just couldn’t believe it — $180 round-trip between New York and Abu Dhabi,” he recalls. “It was one of those things that was just too good to be true. It had to be a mistake.”
In fact, it was. But that didn’t stop Jebara from reaching the popular Middle Eastern hub two months later for the advertised price; roughly one-tenth the going rate.
He had taken advantage of a temporary digital glitch known as a mistake fare.
Though the causes are myriad, airlines regard mistake fares solely as a big headache. They cost them millions of dollars in potential revenue each year. That loss is your gain, if you know where to look and how to hunt.
How mistake fares happen
Even though much of the online booking process for flights is automated, there are still some humans required on the service side — and with them comes the propensity for human error, according to industry experts. Most often they occur when a revenue manager misses a decimal point, or flubs an exchange of currencies in the back-end system. Mistake fares can also happen on the technology side, too, through a glitch in the airlines algorithm or error between the airline and third-party booking sites.
“Finding a mistake fare is like coming across a four-leafed clover,” Going.com travel expert Katy Nastro said in an email. “When you do find it, it’s extremely lucky so act fast. Typically they have a very short shelf life.”
Nastro says the team at Going, formerly known as Scott’s Cheap Flights, recently found a mistake fare from Los Angeles to London for $252 round-trip, but the deal was gone within the hour.
Frequent flier Zach Groth found his four-leaf clover simply by clicking through to the Delta website from a Google Flights search. In 2017, airfare from his native Indianapolis to New York was listed at a not-so-affordable rate of $450, which he was prepared to pay. But when he followed the link to the airline website, it was listed at $99.
“I thought about going backwards in the browser or closing the tab, but I just moved forward to see if it would stick,” he said in an email. “It did. It really felt like I was getting away with something!”
How to find mistake fares
Because they are mistakes, there’s no telling where or when they will happen, but there are some tools to spot them when they do.
Across social media there are hundreds of travel hackers offering advice on how and where to find these fleeting bargains. On TikTok, @TravelTipsWithJay recently notified his more than 71,000 followers of browser extension he built called Travel Arrow, which analyzes any Google Flight search and automatically cross-references for error fares along the associated routes.
Going also has systems in place to monitor industry pricing and automatically alert subscribers to any glitches. This year alone, the team has stumbled upon round-trip flights between New York and Paris for $230, returns from Boston to Tel Aviv for $209, and even a there-and-back across the Pacific from Seattle to Tokyo for a paltry sum of $316.
Booking engine Skyscanner lets you set price alerts for desired routes in an app. Your phone will then receive a push notification anytime there’s a sudden drop detected between those chosen points of travel. But if it is the result of a temporary glitch — especially a significant one — there’s no guarantee the carrier will even actually issue the ticket.
Because mistake fares can disappear fast, there can be little time decide whether you can actually take the trip before buying. But you can act now and decide later: Under U.S. law, you can cancel any flight within 24 hours of booking and get a full refund.
Can the airline cancel a mistake fare ticket?
Going estimates about 10 percent of mistake fares get canceled. They recommend that once you’ve been issued a ticket number and it’s been a week or two since booking, you are likely in the clear to book other parts of your itinerary.
“Some airlines will not honor fares that were priced unbelievably low and should not have been booked due to common sense,” Laura Lindsay, Skyscanner’s global travel trends expert, explained in an email. “It’s also possible that flights with error fares will be canceled entirely. In these cases, airlines will typically give you your money back, so there is no risk of losing it.”
In February 2015, United Airlines accidentally listed business class seats on a transatlantic flight for as little as $51 per ticket. They were supposed to be offered at $4,000, but something was seriously lost in translation when converting kroner to pounds on the Danish version of United.com.
The company began canceling the affected tickets as soon as the error was detected, blaming a hiccup in a third-party vendor’s currency exchange rates. It was one of the most high-profile examples of a mistake fare, leading to questions of whether the airline could be legally liable for false advertising.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in May of the same year, the Transportation Department issued a mistaken fare policy statement, formally allowing airlines to cancel tickets that were demonstrably priced in error. United has subsequently codified the disclaimer into its contract of carriage.
Thankfully for Jebara, Etihad Airways didn’t deploy a similar disclaimer. As it turns out, he wasn’t the only recipient of an outsize gift on that fateful Christmas morning. In fact, enough on-the-spot bargain hunters seized on the mistake fare to warrant a public response from the airline. “A system filing issue caused ticket prices for a promotion in the USA to be temporarily listed incorrectly,” said a spokesperson at the time. “The issue has since been rectified. Etihad Airways will honor these fares.”
Jebara respects the carrier for accepting the financial repercussions of its gaffe. “If you mess up and accidentally book the wrong day of travel as a passenger, the airlines are all-too-willing to hold you accountable, so it should cut both ways,” he adds. “If an airline didn’t honor a mistake fare, it would definitely change my perception of them.”
Nevertheless, cancellation is increasingly becoming the standard industry response. So, file your would-be good fortune under: “if something seems too good to be true, it most often is.” And if you haven’t learned that by now, that’s your mistake.
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