Have you heard of mistake fares, one of the holy grails of travel addicts? Also known as error fares, these elusive flight prices make for some of the cheapest travel deals out there.
Perhaps you’ve heard the famous story from a few years ago when United sold a transatlantic business class ticket for just over $50.
There was a more recent situation when Cathay Pacific accidentally let a whole bunch of travelers book their luxurious first-class product from Ho Chi Minh City to New York for under $700 round trip.
Not impressed? The usual price is about $16,000! It’s safe to say that finding a mistake fare is about exciting as finding money on the street for people like you and me. So, what exactly is going on with these ridiculously cheap flights, and how can we take advantage of them?
We’ll take a look below at what exactly these airline price glitches are and how they happen. But more importantly, we will provide our best tips on how to boost your chances of finding one for your next trip.
Don’t skip the section on what to do if you are lucky enough to snag a mistake fare!
What is a Mistake Fare?
Airline mistake fares are the situation when an advertised fare is unintentionally priced by an airline or online travel agency. This could be an extremely high or low price, but it’s safe to say that most travelers are interested in the lower end.
We’ve covered how complex airline pricing is in our article on 10 of the influencing factors, and there is even more that goes into it behind the scenes in terms of getting those prices onto the websites of the internet. You can imagine that a computer glitch or human error can occur at some point in the process.
Mistake fares happen from time to time when that process doesn’t work as it should. One of the biggest sources of error fares is currency conversion errors.
This is when the traveler’s currency of the purchase is different from the airline’s home currency and converts based on the wrong rate, and it was the source of the error in the above-mentioned United flight, which converted dollars to the British Pound instead of Danish Kroner.
You can also find airline mistake fares thanks to someone (or some software) omitting fuel surcharges, which make up a sizable portion of some tickets. Failing to include that simple line of addition can lead to some seriously cheap fares.
Whether it’s a sleepy employee or an airline’s archaic flight booking systems, the average traveler doesn’t care how a mistake fare happened! As long as we can use them to score the cheapest flights, they are welcome mistakes.
See Related: Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now
How to Get Cheap Flights with Mistake Fares
Booking mistake fares isn’t all that difficult, as they are booked just like any other airline ticket you find. The hard part is being able to find a mistake fare because you need to be in the right place at the right time for that.
Simply searching your dates and destination on Google Flights probably isn’t going to cut it to land a great mistake fare, because you’d have to be lucky for everything to line up just right. Instead, use the below methods to better your chances of getting a crazy ticket price.
Be Very Flexible and Act Fast
Before we get into the specifics, there are important points to make about the nature of mistake fares. The fact is that they are very rare and don’t last long.
To find an error fare, you need to be flexible in many senses. Rather than searching for one specific departure date to return date, you should broaden your time range. Search over entire months, or even longer if possible, to maximize your chances of spotting one.
Also, try not to limit your search to one particular destination. When mistake fares happen, they can be very specific. That means you are unlikely to see a mistake fare situation run across the entire Delta network; instead, it may happen on one or two routes.
Even if you manage to locate a mistake fare to a destination that you aren’t interested in, that can still be good news. Using that deal and combining it with another (hopefully cheap) flight can still result in a heavily discounted trip. For example, have you found an error fare to Maui but have been there five times already? Take it and hop on a Hawaiian inter-island flight to Kauai for less than $75- you’ve still got an incredible deal.
The same idea goes for the departure point. This one makes people more hesitant, but it doesn’t have to. Living in the NYC area but found a mistake fare departing from DC? Amtrak or dozens of flights searchable on Skyscanner can get you there for cheap, and you can easily find a budget hotel on Booking.com.
Another way to broaden your search (for the better!) is expanding it out of the economy class. Just as mistake fares are usually found on individual routes, they can also be specific to the booking class. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a lie-flat suite with champagne for less than they paid in the economy?
Finally, it can’t be stressed enough that you must act fast if you believe you have spotted a true mistake fare. This is one of the few situations in which it is better to act first and plan later, as long as the mistake fare is something you can afford.
Mistake fares are usually caught by the airlines quickly and rarely last a few hours. By booking it and locking it in as soon as you see it, you are safe from the risk of missing out.
Remember that the Department of Transportation says that by law, any US airline ticket is eligible for a full refund if canceled within 24 hours of booking. You can use that time to see if the trip is realistic for you.
See Related: Most Beautiful Places in the World
Use a Flight Deals-Finder like Scott’s Cheap Flights or Thrifty Traveler Premium
This first tip is a real lifesaver for those who don’t have the time or patience to sit at the computer searching for mistake airfares. Services like Going (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) and Thrifty Traveler Premium can save you more than a few hours of search time.
These services are staffed by teams of real human beings who spend hours surfing the web looking for great travel deals. When they detect airfare drops or a cheaper fare on a route, destination, or departure city, they alert their members via email or text.
You’ll only get notified of deals that pertain to your chosen departure cities and other parameters that you set, so you don’t need to worry about getting spammed.
Plus, you will make your ticket purchase with the airline or other seller of the ticket, so you can be sure that their only objective is to let you know of a great deal.
Scott’s and Thrifty Traveler search all kinds of flights: Round-trip and one-way, domestic and international, economy and first-class.
Thanks to this, they have a maximum chance of spotting error fares. They will let you know when they have detected an error fare specifically rather than a simple price drop.
As you can imagine, this is a highly valuable tool. You save the time of doing this search yourself, and you benefit from the fact that their searches are very broad. You will see mistake fares that may not be your ideal dates, but wouldn’t you rather know about it than miss out on the opportunity?
Time is really of the essence when you want to book mistake fares, as they are usually detected by the airline and corrected relatively quickly. Scott’s and Thrifty Traveler will make sure you know about it as soon as they do, and you, therefore, get the best chance at snagging one.
Keep in mind that both Scott’s and Thrifty Traveler require their premium (paid) subscription to access mistake fares. But, this can be a worthwhile investment when you are saving in the neighborhood of 90% on airfare. You will also get cheap travel tips and regular deal alerts on top of error fare notifications.
See Related: Thrifty Travel Review
Search Wide and Far Using Kayak or Skyscanner
Favorites for booking affordable travel, these sites allow you to search for the cheapest flights, hotels, and car rentals for an entire destination with one simple search.
Most airlines can be accessed on Kayak and Skyscanner, so the fact that you can see all of their prices at once helps you avoid going one airline by one on individual websites.
If you are going to do it yourself with one of these tools, there are some ways to use them specifically for finding mistake fares. For one, you’ll need to have some flexibility in all aspects of your potential trip. This goes with what we said about flexibility before.
You will need broad searches that are not dead set on a particular departure date, creativity when it comes to origins and destinations, and overall openness to see where the mistake fares may take you.
Here is one that seems counterintuitive: you should not limit your search to economy class. Mistake fares can occur for any type of seat, and sometimes it’s not economy. So, keep an eye on business and first-class for other mistake fares that might blow your mind a bit extra.
To avoid nonstop searching, save yourself that torture and set up e-mail alerts. Skyscanner in particular is useful for this, thanks to the flexibility that they allow in this.
You can get price alerts set up over an entire month, and you should broaden it as much as possible to increase your chances of capturing mistake fares.
When searching yourself, there will be no explicit information that a fare you are looking at is a mistake fare, as there would be with Scott’s Cheap Flights or Thrifty Traveler Premium. You will need to recognize it on your own, but that usually isn’t hard- if you see something from LAX to the Maldives for $200, you can probably bet that it’s an error fare.
When you spot them, book error fares quickly as they never last long, as we said above. You’d rather have a ticket for 90% off and try to think of a way to use it than not have the opportunity at all.
Keep an Eye on Relevant Blogs and Social Media Pages
This tip will help you act fast when someone else spots a mistake fare and passes on the information. Follow the accounts on social media that post about mistake fares and keep an eye on certain blog sites.
Scott’s Cheap Flights tweets about mistake fares every so often, but to access all of their finds you’ll have to sign up as a premium member.
There are also plenty of travel bloggers and fare-watchers that will post when they see something too good to be true. Following the hashtags for mistake fares and error, fares are a good way to see them all.
Forums where travelers post threads often have an error fares section, such as FlyerTalk. You can set up notifications on many of them to be informed when a certain topic is discussed so you have maximum chances of being able to book error fares.
Of course, this tip still requires your fast action and a bit more effort in monitoring these posts. But besides the potential mistake fares, it’s also a great way to get trip ideas, advice on other travel deals, and all kinds of tips.
See Related: Best Alternatives to Skyscanner
Always Book Direct With the Airline
At this point, we’re assuming you’ve been lucky enough to find a mistake fare. Congratulations! Now, there are a few things to remember among all the excitement.
In a mistaken fare situation, it is always going to be better to book directly with the airline. Even if you are loyal to one of the online travel agencies like Booking.com or Expedia, you don’t want to utilize them in this situation- unless they are the source of the mistake fare and the only place you see the deal.
This is because they are more inclined to locate and correct their mistakes once they realize them. Their business models are based on commissions from selling you that ticket.
When they realize they sold you something for $100 instead of $1,000 and that they are only going to make $5-10 off of you instead of $50-100, they are most likely going to cancel your ticket and apologize for the mistake.
There is absolutely a risk of this when dealing with the airline directly (more on that below) but cutting out a middleman will be best in any case.
Besides, booking direct allows you to earn frequent flier points and take advantage of credit card benefits if you have the right card, so it’s not like it hurts.
Don’t Make Any Other Non-Refundable Purchases
Finally, this one touches on the risk of booking mistake fares. For at least the first day, and if possible the first several days, refrain from making any other non-refundable plans involving the trip.
That means do not prepay your rental cars, do not book hotel rooms that require a deposit, and do not reserve tours or activities that you cannot get your money back on. It is safe to book cancelable things, but wait some time for anything requiring payment.
Why? Because you cannot be certain that the airline will honor the mistake fare that you’ve booked. They will surely lose money on the seat they sold you, and it is not guaranteed that they will let you keep it.
We’ll look at this more in-depth next, but the point of this tip is to remind you that your flight is not certain right away. If the airline is going to take it away from you, it will usually be quite quickly and within the first 24 hours. Waiting a few days is the safest bet.
See Related: How to Get Cheap Last-Minute Flights
Do Airlines Honor Mistake Fares?
Here is the somewhat depressing part, because the answer is not always. There aren’t true and reliable statistics on what percentage of mistake fares are honored, but it’s safe to say that it’s a mixed bag.
The crazy Cathay Pacific deal we mentioned is one that was honored, as was the United one. On the other hand, Air France had a first-class mistake fare situation that was highly publicized because they took the tickets away from lucky travelers.
In the end, those fliers were still pretty lucky- management offered for them to keep the ticket if they agreed to downgrade from first-class to business. Not a bad deal in the end at all.
The truth is that you may expect a call or email from the airline’s customer service desk after booking for a price that seems too good to be true.
Unfortunately, this is within their rights. No law or policy forbids them from taking back a purchase, especially if there was some sort of error. It’s the same protection retail stores get if someone puts a $15 price tag on a $100 bottle of wine.
Mistake fare situations are often highly publicized, and this can work well in the favor of travelers. The more an airline is in the media for a mistake, the less they want to be seen correcting their mistake at the expense of the innocent traveler. They don’t want the bad press of looking like the bad guy.
So, the best thing to do when you are lucky enough to grab one of these is to sit back and wait it out before packing your bags. That doesn’t mean you can’t be excited, though!
See Related: Ways to Book the Cheapest First Class Flights
How do I find a mistake fare?
Flight deal-finder services like Scott’s Cheap Flights and Thrifty Traveler Premium are the most convenient ways to access mistake fares because they will alert you as soon as they spot a mistake fare. Searching as broadly as possible on Skyscanner and Kayak, and setting up email notifications for price drops, will also increase your chances.
What if the airline cancels my mistake fare after I book it?
Sadly, there’s not much you can do in that case. The airline does have the right to withdraw from the transaction. Remember to be polite but it doesn’t hurt to firmly ask what they can do for you in return. You never know when you’ll be offered a solution such as a downgrade for the same price, a future flight voucher, or a lounge pass.
Are mistake fares common? Do mistake fares happen every day?
Not; mistake fares are rare. They also don’t last very long because technology allows airlines to spot their mistakes and correct them quickly. That is why when you see one, it’s important to act fast and book it. Remember that you always have 24 hours to cancel for a refund after booking a flight, so you can use that time to see if the trip is realistic for you.
How do I know if I have found a mistake fare?
Services like Scott’s Cheap Flights and Thrifty Traveler will tell you if they’ve found a mistake fare, and it’s safe to believe them as this is their expertise. When searching on Skyscanner or Kayak, there is no real way to know if a cheap flight is a mistake fare or just a great deal.
For example, airlines like Ryanair and Wizz Air often have sales for flights of $5 or less; which is not a mistake. But if you see an intercontinental American Airlines flight for a price that seems too ridiculous to be true, your instincts are probably correct.