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Why Mistake Fares Aren’t Exactly All That Great

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.

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