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Why Mistake Fares Aren’t Exactly All That Great

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If you get a flight from the U.S. to New Zealand for $400 round trip, be prepared to freak out. Here’s a little known fact! A ticket does not confirm your right to board the plane.

It’s totally great at first. A mistake fare is exactly that: a mistake. And sometimes the boo boos are pretty darn bad. How do you think people snag international business-class tickets for the price of chump change and tax? Be sure to thank the travel gods if you ever stumble so fortuitously when someone behind the scenes “accidentally” drops a zero (oopsies!) or a website goes haywire. Then you’ve got yourself a killer deal on a ticket – if the airlines decide to honor it.

Last year, I caught a fully refundable one-way deal from Hong Kong to Los Angeles for $400 USD in their premium economy (business) cabin. I remember staring at the computer screen motionless. It was even cheaper than the economy flight. Curious, I started Googling around about my freak deal. People were literally gushing about being able to take the trip. “Don’t contact Turkish! They’re letting us on the plane!”

Usually what happens, though, is that the airlines catch the mistake – and they can decide whether they’re going to let you on the plane or if you’re lucky, ignore it. According to an article from Conde Nast Traveler last year:

Korean Airlines, on the other hand, recently cancelled tickets a full two months after they had been booked. At the beginning of September, tickets to Palau via Seoul were available for less than $500. Within the past two weeks they’ve been contacting customers to let them know that because the fare was a mistake, they will not be honoring the tickets.

The most recent brouhaha is a programming error that affected the United website letting people book tickets from the U.S. to Hong Kong for four measly award miles (plus taxes). That’s a Starbucks latte on your United credit card! Fuck me! But the problem is that United decided not to honor the agreement, sort of pissing people off. (Some airlines always try to honor their tickets; it’s a credibility thing.)

Basically, the moral of the story is that until people confirm that the airline isn’t canceling the ticket, don’t make additional plans. Especially at non-refundable hotels or anything like that. Sometimes if it looks too good to be true, it just may be. Though, according to the Wall Street Journal, United has typically honored mistake fares in the past – they even once sold a $28 flight to Paris!

And nope, I didn’t leave any zeros off of that sentence.

  • Rob

    I use to do a lot of traveling for work a few years ago and one of the skills you learn is when an “airfare just doesn’t seem right.”

    The company I was with at the time had their own “online” travel agency in which to book our flights. In the company travel policy it was strongly recommended to use the portal but it also encouraged us to compare prices. In other words if the same flight was cheaper then to go ahead and book it.

    One day I was booking my flight from San Diego to Maryland and I had travel there more than once so I had an idea of what the average cost was. The price from our company portal was much higher than in the past so I decided to hop onto the airline’s (in this case American Airlines) website to see what their price was.

    Needless to say I was in shock when I saw the same flight for $250 + tax (round trip). Oh… did I mention this was in First Class departing from San Diego on a Monday! Our company’s portal showed it as being $500 but in business class! I booked the flight for $250. Feeling giddy at first quickly turned to shame. I picked up the phone and called American Airline to confirm the price. The agent confirmed my payment was accepted and I was booked on the flight.

    I then told her that the cost seemed really low and wondered if it was some promotional price. I then could hear her typing away. She then confirmed my phone number and said that she would call me back. After about 15 minutes I got a call from the agent who first thanked me for bringing this to their attention and that there was an error in the system but because I called to question the price they said they would honor it.

    After hanging up I felt giddy again. :-)

    I then went to the site to try and book another first class seat and this time it came back with $800+. All that said, getting a great deal on an “error” is cool and I know of some people that would have exploited something like this but the airlines make very little money as it is and something like this is, well, just plain stealing IMHO (my parents raised me right, I guess… 😉 )

    When I called I felt the worse would be that they would not honor the low price and I would have to rebook it. But better that than to show up at the airport and learn then and then hope there was an available seat! I guess the saying “no good deed goes unpunished” applied here in my case. :-)

    • Erica Ho

      This and pens to lend out? Heyo, Mr. Class Act.

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