Updated on January 31, 2016
Airline mistake fares. Essentially, these are [usually] extremely cheap fares that an airline posts for sale for one reason or the other, whether it is a conversion glitch, someone who fat-fingered the price while inputting it, or anything else.
Everyone has their own opinion on them. Some people believe it’s unethical to book fares you knew/know are a mistake. Others usually couldn’t care less and claim paying for a service at an advertised price, mistake or not, isn’t your problem.
I tend to side with the latter in most cases. I have no problem booking a mistake fare, however, I don’t book tickets in excess when I do (or I haven’t in the past). I’ll book tickets I need or want, but not a dozen of them just because I can.
There are a lot of sites/blogs that can help you be aware of these fares when they pop, as they’re usually only around for a short time. I’ve linked to it once before, but Million Mile Secrets’ article sums it up pretty well.
In the past 14 months or so I’ve booked three different mistake fares. Of those three, two of them have been honored by the airline – 2/3 ain’t bad! I’ll go over each of these and give you a little insight into it!
This fare included mostly economy and first class domestic flights. The mistake lasted a few hours on the morning after Christmas. I happened to be searching for flights to see Jaime in Pensacola before I left for deployment at the end of February and stumbled upon a glitch. I was searching ITA Matrix– as I always do – for my flights when I started seeing $52 roundtrip flights. Never having participated in a mistake fare before, I was perplexed and wanted to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. I searched different dates and cities, and they all more or less came up $26 or so each way.
Needless to say I was ecstatic. I ended up booking two roundtrip flights for back-to-back weekends to head down to Pensacola, and a one-way flight back from Mardi Gras (even though I ended up missing it because of deployment). Each roundtrip to Pensacola is ~$400 (it’s expensive flying from small airport to small airport), and being that it was Mardi Gras, that flight back from New Orleans was ~$300. Not bad!
Cost paid: ~$131
Actual Cost: ~$1,100
Almost exactly a year after the Delta mistake, Etihad Airways, one of the “Big 3” Middle Eastern airlines (along with Emirates and Qatar), put up a mistake fare advertising ROUNDTRIP flights from New York (JFK)-Abu Dhabi (AUH) for around $175. That price was absolutely insane. The best part – it worked for other city pairs as well!
I was first alerted to this fare waking up Christmas morning with a text from my buddy Pat. I thought it was a great deal, but with international trips in both March (Asia trip with Kev) and September/October (Honeymoon), I really had no idea what use it was to me. The other catch was that these prices weren’t available in the summer, when I probably would have used it, and only priced out to the end of November, 2015. Pat then had a great idea: let’s go to South Africa for his birthday. Pat shares his birthday with the Marine Corps (10 November) so we planned a week or so trip to Johannesburg in November. The flights ended up costing us ~$276 for roundtrip flights: JFK-AUH-JNB and back. Obviously a sweet trip report will also be in store for this one.
Total Cost I paid: ~$276
Actual Cost I should have paid: ~$1,000*
Keep in mind we could have got this price earlier in the fall and in the spring, where the “actual” cost would have been much much higher!
Since the first two of these mistake fares were honored, you can probably deduce what happened here: yep, not honored. This was by far the best “deal” of any of the mistake fares, as it resulted in United Airlines selling first class seats out of London for pennies on the dollar. You can read more about the mistake deal here.
Once again, I had the same thought process as the Etihad mistake fare; when on earth would I be able to use these flights? – I’ve got a busy year already! I then realized that if I could get first class seats roundtrip from London to Johannesburg, and then one-way from London to the US, I could use these uber cheap flights to replace with my Etihad flights with Pat! After all, those flights were cheap, so if I could replace them for only another $100-$200 or so and make it first class the whole way, I’d gladly eat the cost of the other flights we already had.
So I jumped on my phone – yes, I booked all of this from my phone – and booked the roundtrip and one-way home for both Pat and I. The routing looked like this:
LHR-FRA-JNB on Lufthansa (a United partner) for both of us
JNB-ZRH-LHR on Swiss Air (a United partner) for both of us
LHR-IAD-CLT-ILM for me on United (and US Air for the last flight which I thought was strange)
LHR-ORD-BWI for Pat all on United
Total Cost we paid for both of us: ~$400 (and we got some of the more expensive ones!)
Actual Cost I should have paid for both of us: Just shy of $40,000!!
Shortly after all these fares were booked and people started losing their minds, United came out and declared they would not be honoring the fares. I was disappointed, but absolutely not surprised, as I expected that they would not be.
As you can see, mistake fares can come up at random times. By the time you see them, they could be just minutes away from being pulled. To ensure you get them, just follow these three simple steps: