What’s a Mistake Fare?

I have booked a few mistake fares, and let me tell you, they are awesome. Basically, you are getting a great deal on an airfare, hotel, car rental or really any other form of travel at an extremely discounted rate. In this post we will look at what exactly a mistake fare is, how to find them, and what to do once you get one.

What’s a Mistake Fare?

A mistake fare is exactly what it sounds like it is. It is a mistake in the pricing unit of an airline ticket, hotel or pretty much anything else. Think of it as you go to the supermarket, buy some chicken that is supposed to be $3, but at the register it really rings up as $1.

Mistake fares can come from various different errors in the coding and loading of prices into the airfare database. Sometimes, they are referred to as “fat finger” mistakes because sometimes it is as simple as simple as missing a key stroke when typing the code into the system…think about it, if you are trying to say that a ticket will be $1000, but instead input it as $100, that one little zero causes a $900 difference.

Mistake fares are obviously not supposed to happen, so once the airline sees that there are an aweful lot more tickets being purchased in Danish Krones than usual, they will start to check it out. Once an airline figures out that something abnormal is happening, then, they try to shut it down. This means that mistake fares are usually around for an hour or two, maybe more, maybe less, you never know who is on the other end trying to shut one of these things down. Ya just don’t know.

How to Find Mistake Fares?

There is no formula to finding these guys, other than stalking airfare all the time. I check Flyertalk’s Mileage Run Forum several times a day, along with a few other websites found in my Resources section, and some others of course.

Honestly the only way to find these is to stumble across them. You never know when they are going to happen, how they are going to happen or to where they are going to happen. With that, checking the correct websites a few times a day does not hurt, since these suckers disappear pretty darn quick, especially within our technological lives which are always connected to things like Facebook and Twitter. With that, social media makes mistake fares travel like wildfire and usually get shut down a lot quicker than they used to. Just the state of the game.

My Mistake Fares

In 2013, the day after Christmas, Delta had a mistake fare where they were offering flights anywhere in the US in first class for under a hundred bucks. I snagged a few of these:

  • 4 days in ALaska with my dad.
  • 4th of July in DC with the whole family.
  • A one way to New York before I left for Africa.

Between now and then, I have not booked many, mainly because they were not really pertinent to my school schedule, although staring at the Etihad fare in January for about 4 hours was stupid, and instead I should have found somewhere to go for spring break, but whatever. Aside from that, i have seen a few other ones, like the KLM one to Africa/ the Middle East and such.

On Wednesday, United had  a fare that they were offering business class seats from the UK to anywhere for about $100. I bought a one way back from Europe for spring break with that one, and a round trip from the UK to the US and back to the UK again, leaving at the end of Thanksgiving break, then heading back to Europe before Christmas so I can see grandma again. This one, we are waiting to hear what is going to happen.

Flyertalk Quote:

During this weeks United fare, MatthewLAX posted this sequence of mistake fare moods on the Flyertalk thread from the recent United fare (it is located in the Wiki section), which I thought was 95% accurate, and 100% funny:

Now comes the fun part.

  1. Discovery – mistake fare is posted on FT. Novices frantically checks how much vacation time they have and if the dates of availability mesh with their schedules. Experienced FTers just book it and worry about contacting spouses or their boss later. Word spreads like wildfire.
  1. Excitement – Tickets purchased, confirmation emails received and dates of travel shared with other FTers. Discussions of what to see and do and where to stay crop up in other threads. Novices contact source to change seats or inquire about upgrades, Seasoned FTers sit back and enjoy reading the discussion threads.
  1. Stress Stage 1 – Concern over paper ticket delivery – Novices Frantically check otheFedEx website every few hours, constant monitoring of driveway for FedEx truck. Seasoned FT veterans sit back and relax.
  1. Glee and happiness – Paper tickets in hand, vacation request submitted, spouses finally informed, hotel reservations made and bragging to friends and co-workers begins. Both novices and experts get very excited.
  1. Stress Stage 2 – Rumors of fare not being honored, discussion threads about the airline and ticketing agency ensue. Rumors crop up like crabgrass at this stage. Many FTers begin to worry excessively about whether or not the trip will happen. Novices make non-refundable and financial committments to their trip. Seasoned FTers make mixed drinks (and maybe a sandwich) and is patient.
  1. Reality Check – Accurate information is obtained – usually takes place a week to 10 days after mistake fare is published. Confirmed information from the source as to whether or not tickets will be honored.

7a. Pure Joy (Icelandair style- Fare is Honored) – Lots of happy people, FT threads on shared information regarding hotels, restaurants, tours, etc. Jealousy from others sets in. First “FT guinea pigs” embark, post confirmation threads that all is ok.

7b Hostile Feelings (Copa Airlines Style – fare is not honored) – Many angry and disappointed FTers. Refunds are issued. Novices have multiple discussion threads of lawsuits and hostile correspondence, FT pros mutter “c’est la vie” and look for the next fare mistake.

8a Success (Honored) – Trip Report thread becomes very active

Another version of this (although it has 13 steps and is slightly funnier, especially the Guantanamo part) was posted on Will Run For Miles, also found in that infinitely long Flyertalk thread.

In reality, this is exactly how mistake fares go, except people need to chill the fuck out a lot more. If it happens, cool, if it doesn’t, maybe next time.

What to do Once You Find a Mistake Fare?

Book this shit as fast as you can. Seriously. You can not be wishy washy with one of these fares, otherwise they will disappear, never to be seen again.  But what if I am not sure if I want to go to where the mistake fare is being listed to? Well, you are in luck. MOST websites here in the US of A have a thing called Free 24 Hour Cancelation.  That is right, most of the time, most websites offer free cancellation for your freshly acquired tickets. I can not tell you how many plane tickets I have purchased, even if I think they are just a good deal, and canceled within 24 hours of booking just because the logistics didn’t work out (getting to Mexico City to catch that $200 ticket to Iguazu Falls for 5 days over spring break was a bit much…). Of course, don’t always assume that every website is the same. For instance, on United, you can book and then just call them to cancel, where on American, you have to put the ticket on hold, where they hold it for you until the next day, or something like that. In short, ALWAYS check the website that you are buying something on before committing to it…which really means reading those Fare Rules that no one really reads (there is some good stuff in there actually).

The next thing is to get your ticket number. Ticket numbers are really important because they mean that the airline has physically booked the ticket that you requested to buy. Look at it this way: You are trying to buy a house, so you go to a realtor. The realtor takes you around in circles showing you houses until you find one that you like. You put an offer in on the house at 5% below the asking price (in this case, maybe that asking price is the one available on the airline’s website). The realtor contacts the seller and tells them the offer that they have, and the seller can wither accept it or not. If they accept it, you get the house, if they don’t you don’t get the house. In airplane terms: If they accept the offer for the ticket that you purchased, you get a ticket number. If they don’t, you ain’t goin’ anywhere.

Once you get the ticket number, you wait. See if the airline honors the ticket. This is the part where people start to freak out and shit, but in reality, everyone just needs to calm down and hang out. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. You do have something going for you, though. The Department of Transportation has a law that says some cool stuff. What kind of cool stuff? Basically, it says that an airline cannot cancel a ticket on you if you have payed in full, and it cannot increase the price of the ticket either. The exact law is as follows:

399.88 Prohibition on post-purchase price increase.

(a) It is an unfair and deceptive practice within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. 41712 for any seller of scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, or of a tour (i.e., a combination of air transportation and ground or cruise accommodations), or tour component (e.g., a hotel stay) that includes scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, to increase the price of that air transportation, tour or tour component to a consumer, including but not limited to an increase in the price of the seat, an increase in the price for the carriage of passenger baggage, or an increase in an applicable fuel surcharge, after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of an increase in a government-imposed tax or fee. A purchase is deemed to have occurred when the full amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer.


(b) A seller of scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States or a tour (i.e., a combination of air transportation and ground or cruise accommodations), or tour component (e.g., a hotel stay) that includes scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, must notify a consumer of the potential for a post-purchase price increase due to an increase in a government-imposed tax or fee and must obtain the consumer’s written consent to the potential for such an increase prior to purchase of the scheduled air transportation, tour or tour component that includes scheduled air transportation. Imposition of any such increase without providing the consumer the appropriate notice and without obtaining his or her written consent of the potential increase constitutes an unfair and deceptive practice within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. 41712.

Link to Cornell Law Website where this was found is here.

For some more of an English interpretation of the law, check out this post on The Flight Deal about it. There is some rumor that this law may soon change, which would be too bad, since it is one of the better ones out there, but if it does, we will just have to rely on airlines like Etihad, who said “honoring a mistake on our behalf is just the right thing to do.” That’s what you want to see.

Once you find out if the airline honors it or not, you can do a couple things. If they don’t, you can file a complaint with The Department of Transportation saying that they are breaking the above law, which is probably what I would do to be honest with you. It is the law, it is a good law, so why not use the law. Beyond that, if they strike you down, I would drop it. What is the point of fighting something like this beyond the elementary level. That is where the entitled ass holes seem to come out.

If the ticket is honored, book your interior things like hotels, car rentals, other flights and the works. Don’t do this though until you know for sure if it is honored or not, otherwise you might have just wasted some money, and time.

The Morals of Mistake Fares, and My Views

A lot of people think that mistake fares are immoral to book, and should not be taken advantage of, whereas some other people feel that it is someone’s mistake so let’s go and book a solid 10 tickets from it to capitalise on it as much as you can. I don’t know how you feel, and that is for your opinion, but this is how I feel:

If someone makes a mistake, they should pay for it. With that, I think all mistake fares should be honored. Look at it this way:

  • If an engineer designs a bridge that then fails shortly after construction, they will be held responsible, and an explanation will be demanded from it, and maybe even charges.
  • If a surgeon makes a mistake during an operation, like leaving a sponge inside of you, they will have a pretty hefty lawsuit waiting for them, and maybe a career that is down the drain.
  • If a store marks something for sale at a certain price, then you get to the register and the price is different, they can’t just say “I am not going to charge you the price that is advertised.” (If it is King Soopers they give it to you for free!).
  • If someone mischarges you tax while purchasing a pair of skis (I am looking at you K2), then demands you to pay the tax, that is wrong. You messed up, so you have to figure it out.

See where I am going with this? If people make a mistake, and don’t check their errors, you should give the benefit of the doubt to the receiving person. You can’t just advertise certain things and then not deliver. With that, you also need to check your work. If you publish something and did not check your work, then you definitely can’t place blame on the people that are taking advantage of the deal that you published.

With that, if you bought 15 tickets to and from London for the next year using the United mistake on Wednesday, you should probably cool it a bit. I bought two tickets, a one way and a round trip, and I was content with that.

What I am getting at here, is this: If you make a mistake, own up to it and let it fly. If you don’t want to make a mistake in the future, double or triple check to see what you are posting. You can’t get mad at a bunch of people that buy a few tickets from your mistake (except for the D-Bag that buys 15, then goes all class action on you are stuff). It is the law, but that can only go so far. With that, for the United mistake this week (basically, United published a fare, which was the correct fare, but the conversion got all messed up while switching the Danish Krones. If you bought the ticket through the Danish United website, then it was about $100, instead of the 5k GBP (~$7500) they were supposed to charge. That is the short version.) I filed a DOT complaint, simply because it is the law. If I don’t get to go to Europe for spring break, i’ll figure something else out, and not take it any further. We do make mistakes, except when I made a mistake on my Diff Eq test this week, it lowered my grade. So, it should lower United’s revenue. No one is exempt in this world in my opinion, but people also don’t know how to just call it quits…you could be starving and have Polio instead of sitting in that Business class seat in a metal tube, just to put it in an “entitlement” perspective.

My biggest advice for a mistake fare is to not get too emotional. If it happens, cool. If it doesn’t cool. Emotions run high with copious amounts of adrenaline running through your veins, so reign them in and make educated, smart and efficient decisions. If it doesn’t happen, wait for the next one (they happen about every month or two, so just keep you eyes open).

Note: This post was only written because my friends asked me “what the fuck a mistake fare” was and this is the respond to them. Not to be a bandwagoneer in discussing all this stuff like pretty much every other blog on the interweb. If that is what you think, I am sorry. To calm your tensions, here is a photo of a some nice mountains from my last mistake fare:


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