Airline Mistake Fares — Are They Worth Booking Anymore?

Filed Under: Great Deals

I make a point of posting about discounted premium cabin tickets as much as possible. The truth is that airlines are pricing first & business class tickets more reasonably than in the past in an effort to actually sell them, and there are plenty of cases where “ordinary” people can get a lot of value by just outright paying for business class.

In addition to just “legitimately” good fares, there are also mistake fares once in a while. I like to share these whenever possible, because you never know when the airlines will and won’t honor these fares.

However, a few people have commented about how everyone’s time is being wasted when these fares are posted about since they’re “never” honored, and I wanted to address that in this post.

Sometimes it’s not clear whether a fare is a mistake or not

There are some cases where it’s “obvious” that something is a mistake fare. For example, when American had ~$450 business class tickets between Washington and Beijing a few years ago, and those were cheaper than economy tickets, it was pretty obvious.

However, we also see ~$1,100 roundtrip business class fares from Colombo to the US every so often. Yes, Sri Lanka is a cheap market out of which to book airfare, but presumably that’s nowhere near the breakeven cost of a seat, so why would airlines sell seats like that?

Or what about the ~$1,200 China Eastern business class fares available right now between the Philippines and the US? I actually think those aren’t mistake fares, though at the same time I can’t wrap my head around what airlines are thinking when publishing them.

Airlines used to have to honor mistake fares, but not anymore

Back in the day the US Department of Transportation was really strict in requiring airlines to honor mistake fares that touch US soil, though they changed their policy in 2015. This was part of a policy against post-purchase price increases. Originally the relevant part of the policy was as follows:

The Enforcement Office explained that if a consumer purchases a fare and receives confirmation of the purchase and the purchase appears on the consumer’s credit card statement and/or online account summary, then there has been a purchase whether or not it was a mistaken fare and the post purchase price prohibition in section 399.88 applies.

In 2015 that policy was updated as follows:

As a matter of prosecutorial discretion, the Enforcement Office will not enforce the requirement of section 399.88 with regard to mistaken fares occurring on or after the date of this notice so long as the airline or seller of air transportation: (1) demonstrates that the fare was a mistake fare; and (2) reimburses all consumers who purchased a mistaken fare ticket for any reasonable, actual, and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses that were made in reliance upon the ticket purchase, in addition to refunding the purchase price of the ticket. These expenses include, but are not limited to, non-refundable hotel reservations, destination tour packages or activities, cancellation fees for non-refundable connecting air travel and visa or other international travel fees. The airline may ask the consumer requesting out-of-pocket expenses to provide evidence (i.e. receipts or proof of cancellations) of actual costs incurred by the consumer. In essence, the airline or seller of air transportation is required to make the consumer “whole” by restoring the consumer to the position he or she was in prior to the purchase of the mistaken fare.

In other words, if you book a mistake fare and it touches US soil, the airline does have to reimburse you for any verifiable out of pocket expenses as a result of the fare. Now, while that’s what they’re supposed to do, they may not make it easy, and you may even have to take the airline to court… and that might not be worth it, especially when we’re just talking about non-refundable expenses.

Are mistake fares ever honored anymore?

To the people who say “don’t waste our time with these super cheap fares, they’re never honored,” I disagree. Let’s look at the last four major mistake fares I wrote about:

So in the past few months alone we’ve seen two huge, widely publicized premium cabin mistake fares honored. That’s pretty good, if you ask me.

My approach to these fares isn’t changing

I’ll keep writing about cheap premium cabin fares, and when I suspect they may be a mistake, I’ll always mention that I wouldn’t recommend making any non-refundable travel plans around those fares yet, just in case the airlines end up canceling them.

Frankly I’m surprised airlines are still honoring mistake fares as much as they do. If airlines don’t honor them, however, I think they need to do a better job of communicating with those who booked them. For example, in the same way that passengers have 24 hours to cancel a non-refundable ticket, I think airlines should also let people know within 24 hours if these fares won’t be honored. I think British Airways’ recent mistake fare where they notified people 60 hours later wasn’t a reasonable timeframe in which to communicate, especially as several people quoted British Airways representatives as saying these fares would be honored.

Lastly, I again want to reiterate that I think we’re at a point where it sometimes isn’t clear what’s a mistake fare and what isn’t. For example, I think it’s obvious the British Airways first class fare was a mistake (it would have been less obvious in business class). But what about the ~$1,200 China Eastern business class fares from the Philippines to the US? Or what about the ~$900 LATAM business class fare I booked from Mexico City to Easter Island? I suspect both of these are legitimate fares, though others might assume they’re a mistake.

Where do you stand on the “state” of mistake fares?

  1. Another example that Obama was more conservative than the orangutan supporters will credit him for.

  2. I had London – Amsterdam – Dallas – Honolulu – Dallas – London for £300 in January Economy BA/AA and it didnt get cancelled

  3. I recently booked the Air New Zealand mistake fare from SYD-LAX. As you know they cancelled the tickets 3 days later. They finally issued a refund last week. Looks like that airline makes lots of “mistakes”. They refunded me twice. Not sure what to do- inform them of their mistake? Ethical dilemma…

  4. Kathy,

    If you didn’t have an “ethical” issue buying a ticket knowing that the fare was a mistake, why would you have a problem when they made a mistake about the refund? You were planning on taking advantage of them from the start.

  5. I love the fact you post great deal premium cabin fares! We all know there’s a chance it may not be honored but when it is honored I’m so grateful your website exists. Keep up the amazing work!

  6. Any idea how hard it is to get the non-refundable expenses covered? Let’s say you book non refundable hotels, they cancel the fare, but you would still have your hotels reimbursed. Then you could buy a normally priced fligtht, but all of your hotels would be covered.

  7. It use to be only a few people actually got to pick up the fares in time so honoring them didn’t cost them that much. Now due to blogs and fare trackers they end up selling hundreds costing them a fortune. It’s no surprise in the increase of mistake fares not being honored.

  8. If I make a “mistake” booking, I have limited recourse. Why should the airlines be held to a different standard? They’re the ones making the mistake.

  9. If I book a transatlantic mistake fare for $5, then I have no problem with it being canceled. If a transatlantic mistake fare is $500, then it should be honored, because it’s approaching the point of being a promotional sale. Last month, I flew OSL-LIS-BOS on a $407 “mistake fare” that I really think was just a sale, because TAP left it up for a few days (was pleasantly surprised by TAP biz, by the way).

  10. I am not sure it was a mistake fare, but I still have ticketed the $935 biz class EWR to FRA on Air Canada from August. I read about it on here and went and snagged it. That’s three great fares I’ve gotten from this site. One was actually in the comments section. You won’t read me complaining about you publicizing mistake fares.

  11. @Lucky you left out the $900 Star Alliance Business Class mistake fare from Munich to SFO roundtrip, which I believe was honored (and was in my case)

  12. The post above is misleading in one respect: Passengers do not have a legal right to have their non-refundable expenses refunded if they book a mistake fare and then sue over it. The DOT guidance that lucky cites explains how DOT will exercise its enforcement discretion — not when *passengers* are entitled to sue airlines. When you book a mistake fare, and the airline does not honor it or pay your non-refundable expenses, your only remedy would be to ask the DOT to institute an enforcement action against the airline. You do not have a private right of action — meaning you can’t go into court and demand that the judge order the airline to refund your expenses. Only the DOT can bring such a claim.

    In practice, it seems the DOT is not forcing airlines to refund expenses incurred by travelers who book mistake fares, at least not when the mistake fare is posted on blogs like this one. The DOT assumes that most passengers who booked the mistake were acting in bad faith, booking the fare only after seeing an advisory for a mistake fare. DOT would have more sympathy for someone who just happened upon what seemed like a good (but not insane) deal and booked it sincerely believing the fare was intended. But DOT has indicated that they do not believe people who intentionally book a mistake fare are entitled to anything.

    If you do go to court, many airlines will agree to a small settlement, say, $1k or $2k, just to avoid the hassle of preparing papers to have your case dismissed. So you could get a small amount that way. But if you’ve filed lawsuits against the same airline previously, or if you’re seeking, say, $10k in hotel charges, they will fight it and you won’t get anything.

  13. @Andy, I read flyertalk and have the premium deals page bookmarked. I saw the Air Canada one on here first. Actually, I saw it on Ben’s tweet first, then went this page to get the info. Flyertalk didn’t tweet it out so I saw it here first. That fare only lived for a couple hours so I probwould have missed it on FT. It was on a Sunday AM. So, I still am glad that they are part of this blog.

  14. @ Kathy — That must be the refund for my 4th ticket. They refunded 3 of 4. I will be disputing 4th with credit card rather than calling them again. Not impressed.

  15. @Brant

    As mentioned a couple of times in the post, sometimes it’s hard to know when it’s truly a mistake fare or just an unadvertised promotion for limited sale – QR does this on occasion – until the airline fully discloses the nature of the fare. So it’s fallacious and kind of a dick move to presume Kathy was trying to take advantage of the airline.

  16. If consumers have 24 hours to cancel a fare after booking, airlines should have the same restriction. Free cancellations by both parties for 24 hours after a fare is booked, after that it has to be honored.

  17. @AdamR

    Brant is talking more about her considering not informing the airline they duplicated her refund.

  18. I like the 24hr cancellation both ways, sounds only fair. And if they cancel they need to refund quickly. Damn Alitalia made me wait three months I think after their December $800 fly-pretty-much-anywhere mistake.

  19. I took advantage of the latest Star Alliance mistake fare. I booked NCE-SFO-NCE with Swiss and United for about $850 and it’s being honored. I’ll be taking that trip in February and late March.

    I actually saw a tweet from a different site of that deal before I saw it on this blog.

    Keep posting them.

  20. Ugh. As if the “widely publicized” part isn’t the main reasons they aren’t being honored. Great fares are one thing to publicize (e.g. QR global sales). But the major airlines now have people monitoring social media and blogs looking for mistake fares that they’ve missed internally. I get the mentality of wanting to help your own blog readers; it makes people want to subscribe, which earns bloggers money. But that’s not how their business works. The more publicized, the less they honor. We get it. But don’t insult your readers and try any act like it’s external circumstances that make it less worthwhile for people to book mistake fares.

  21. @ Brant

    I thought I scored a pretty spectacular deal with a round trip in business class for $1K! I was not informed it was a “mistake fare” until 3 days later when I received an email informing me of the “mistake”. I plan to wait unitl the close of my credit card statement to see if the duplicate credit stays. Then I plan to call Air New Zealand and inform them of their mistake. My travel aspirations do not include deception. I was just pointing out that this same airline is making multiple mistakes (this time in the my favor).

  22. The famous Sake Fare was/is being honoured too. I suspect QR had a couple of “Error” fares during sales and now everybody is desperately looking during the sales for the holy grail, though many probably end up booking anyway/something they didn’t initially plan

  23. booked CEB – LAX at AU$1534 ($US1200) on china eastern web site – heaps of dates, so i imagine its a real fare (however will be prepared to fly with the ridiculous chinese non service, passengers running into the front of the plane before docking and zero customer service/communication) so its get what you pay for cheap

  24. Seriously, people complain because you take the time and go to the trouble to give them a heads-up on a potentially great fare opportunity? Does no one have any sense of self-responsibility? If you don’t like or want it, then don’t try for it!
    Keep up the good work Lucky!

  25. Lucky please keep posting whatever fares you think are good deals. I personally appreciated greatly your tips and had been able to grab a few:-)

  26. I’ve called BA about LHR-GYE mistake first class ticket – BA agents told me that my ticket is good to go and even I mentioned about email from BA. They said it sounds like “spam”. I was like who should I believe?!? Guess I’ll wait and see what they will do with my ticket. Fingers crossed!

  27. This big corporate versus small fry. When a passenger mistakenly purchases a ticket can he get a refund just a easy ? Obviously a kowtow to the airlines at the expense of consumer in the name of economics.

    If passengers have to pay for their mistakes so do airlines. Don’t want passengers to make mistakes fine with me then airlines don’t make yourself else bite bullet and accept it

  28. I bought a Cebu Pacific ticket from Manila to Cebu for 50 Pesos ($1). That was a legit fare – so were the recent P1 (2 cents) promo fares. At this point in aorline pricing – ALL fares are legit untill otherwise proven.

  29. It’s pretty simple. Why so complicated as to what is “right” here? Just as we have, the airline should have 24 hours with which to correct and not honor these fares. After that they are subject to the same penalties and nonsense we are.

  30. Having benefited from a number of these in the past, including the Sake fare, my only concern when booking is the risk of not receiving a refund. An Alitalia error fare was a nightmare of calls and emails to refund and I’d avoid. Wouldn’t hesitate with BA, AA etc.

  31. @Joel

    I would disagree. Kathy booked a fare. Presumably she didn’t know it was a “mistake” fare UNTIL AFTER the airline claimed it as such. Brant is posturing that Kathy was a piece of shit for trying to “get one over” the airline originally with the yet-unknown mistake fare and THEN keep double the refund.

    Even if we completely ignore how one-sided FAA and other federal regulations are, Brant still looks like a cunt. Period. And let’s just call him out on that. Don’t mince words. He’s a dick.

    This a blog about how to fly premium cabins for less or in general. If you’re (royal you, not specifically you…unless you’re Brant) an airline apologist and don’t want to hear about potentially evening the playing field, then don’t come here. End of story. The deck is stacked against the consumer. Its very clear.

  32. I don’t ever book mistake fares. I have gotten some flash sales. I come across many more sales than I can cope with. I have a life. They are out there if you are patient. It isn’t worth it to collect miles for Europe to me. Cheap fares!

  33. @AdamR

    I see what you mean. I agree it is a dick move (world needs less of these, not more) to insinuate someone is unsavory for booking a “mistake fare” for obvious reasons. I mean there isn’t even a clear definition of what constitutes a mistake fare.

    I am the farthest thing from an airline apologist prude. I am not loaded and I respect though who earn status and fly well WITHOUT corporate expense accounts or family money. Flying business and being an elitist on your company’s dime takes no skill and is not a bad thing in itself, but gives no one any room to be a jerk.

    Brant is probably a douche IRL, but my point is for Kathy to say it’s an ethical dilemma regarding if she should not notify Air Zealand about the duplication is questionable at best. This is completely different than being on the side of the consumer and not being an airline apologist. 🙂

  34. @Mark F @Andy

    If you read the posts for each of the 4 fares listed in the example here and the one Mark F mentioned, OMAAT gives credit to finding each of them on FlyerTalk, with a link back to the post. Set up a IFTTT recipe for the forum and you can get the same info sent to you.

  35. @John what is the basis for your belief that one can’t sue an airline in court? None of the cases I’m familiar with have eliminate the right to sue in a state court if what’s at issue is a contract dispute.

    Please explain.

  36. “However, a few people have commented about how everyone’s time is being wasted when these fares are posted about since they’re “never” honored, and I wanted to address that in this post.”

    All the numerous “mistake” airfares I ever booked were honored. Last year I enjoyed three of the TPE-KIX-LAX-SJC r/t’s on JAL for $154 each. The miles from these full-fare Y tickets were nice too. And for about $20 additional the third ticket even got me to Key West before heading back to Japan.

  37. I’m on a trip right now on Malaga on a JFK-AGP Iberian fare that I found on Google Flights. Mistake fare? Who knows? But it was less than any other city in Spain. I snagged it and then posted it on FT.

  38. @Steve — A contract claim would have to be asserted under state law. But there is a federal law that preempts state laws that purport to regulate airline service. Even a generally applicable state law will be preempted insofar as it cannot be applied to airline service. Congress adopted this policy to prevent airlines — which necessarily operate all over the country — from being subject to a patchwork of state laws. Instead airlines are subject to federal regulation that is uniform across all 50 states.

    Incidentally, even if state contract law claims were *not* preempted, passengers who booked a mistake fare would not have a valid contract claim. There’s no meeting of the minds, so no valid contract. Most courts don’t have any sympathy for someone who was trying to take advantage of what they knew or should have known was a mistake.

    Lucky is suggesting that passengers can sue based on a Department of Transportation regulation, but only DOT can file actions to enforce such regulations. There is a whole doctrine, developed by the US Supreme Court over several decades, stating that courts cannot “imply” a private right of action just because there is a federal regulation. There must be an explicit federal statute that gives people injured by a purported violation of a federal regulation a right to sue. There is no such statute for DOT regulations, so only DOT can enforce its regulations. If an airline violates the regulation, the only remedy is to ask DOT to sue the airline. But DOT has not been doing that in these cases. DOT has made public statements criticizing passengers who book mistake fares, so DOT doesn’t seem to have much sympathy in these cases either.

    In practice, if someone goes to the trouble of suing an airline and the airlines thinks it’s at least a colorable grievance, they will agree to a small settlement to dispose of the matter cheaply. But you’re talking, at most, a few thousand. If they think the claim is abusive or cannot be settled for a few thousand, they will fight it and the plaintiff will get nothing.

    Disclaimer: For discussion purposes only, not legal advice.

  39. Anyone notice a thread here with dishonor mistake fares. The airlines outside US are based in common laws countries, the British legal system.. common law takes presendence over any bilateral air rights.. so see a mistake from common law countries then wasting your time.

  40. Full time airline review bloggers are getting too big for their britches in my opinion. I have complained across many blog comment columns for websites not to keep publicising a fare as an Error Fare, when website owners have no inside information what is and what is not a promotional fare. I was caught up in the Alitalia debacle some months back. Alitalia used the columns of inches of comments to use in the public relations argument not to honour. There is one particular website that has done more to harm the opportunity to benefit from a commercial ticket error than any other due to its highlighting ERROR fares. We all know which one that is. This kind of interference to build click value to their websites is in effect interfering with the consumer’s right to take advantage of rogue airfares. A mistake is a mistake even if offered on a public platform. The best example I know is in the EU. At the basic consumer level, in all jurisdictions if you go into a supermarket and buy a product off a shelf with error pricing on the same shelf location, the store MUST honour the sale or it is an offence. The same principle has to apply to airline tickets. No, we as consumers should not have to second guess what an airline management has decided is a published airfare. Online promotion is a public solicitation for business.

  41. This is not a legal advice website but people should be disabused of a basic misunderstanding. Whilst the EU is a good champion of consumer rights your supermarket example is wrong. Like any retail shop it involves an invitation to treat not an offer for sale. Therefore the supermarket is under no legal obligation to sell a mispriced item. Other consumer laws on misrepresentation may be breached but no beach of contract – because none exists.

  42. No breach of contract what are you talking about? When you purchase an airline ticket you’re entering into an airline contract with the airline that you give them the money and they take you to the destination.

    If the money has been debited then the services need to be rendered. Period.

  43. AaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAnd the batshit crazy moderator (where do they find these losers?) closed the thread all about this fare on flyertalk so we no longer can discuss it amongst ourselves.

    That’s flyertalk for ya…

  44. @Dave — There are several problems with your argument. First of all, the terms and condition on many airlines’ web sites state explicitly that they are not responsible for mistakes in pricing and that mistaken fares may not be honored at the airline’s discretion. Such terms are legally binding on users of the website, so the extent that a consumer subsequently purports to purchase a mistake fare, they are not legally entitled to the fare—not even as a matter of contract law—because the airline expressly reserved the right to cancel mistaken fares in its terms and conditions.

    More broadly, there is no legal rule that states that anytime money is debited — no matter whether the amount is correct or not — the service for which the money was debited must be provided. Legally, a contract is formed only when there is a meeting of the minds, i.e., an agreement as to the terms. Publishing prices on a website does not constitute such an agreement as a legal matter. Generally, the prices published on the website are considered an *initation* to consumers to make an *offer* to the airline at the stated price. If the airline rejects the “offer” and returns any consideration paid promptly after the offer is made, courts would conclude that the offer simply was not accepted — and no contract was formed. The precise moment when credit cards are processed is really of no moment. The key question is the airline’s intent, and if the airline never intended to agree to sell tickets at a given price (and cancelled any erroneous reservation promptly), the court will find that there is no contract.

    I don’t think most people would find this result particularly counterintuitive. If you go to a restaurant and due to a typo a glass of wine is listed on their menu as $.10 (ten cents) instead of $10. (ten dollars), I don’t think many people would expect that they could order the wine and require the restaurant to honor the lower price. In those circumstances, you would be expected to know that 10 cents is not a reasonable price for a glass of wine, so you can’t complain when they charge you the correct price. Similarly with airlines, I really don’t think many judges would be particularly sympathetic to people who intentionally try to take advantage of an innocent mistake by an airline by rushing to book dirt-cheap fares in premium cabins — knowing that the fare was probably a mistake.

    Disclaimer: for discussion purposes only, not legal advice.

  45. Now that the deadline surpassed the letter they sent out on the BA Ecuador fare came and gone, all my reservations are in order.

    I’m wondering if they were actually bluffing and hoping that all of us, or most of us, would call and change the ticket.

    Unfortunately FT is idiotic so none of us can talk about it in a forum.

  46. I just got a notice for my BA purchase a full 10 1/2 days after booking the first class flights. Come on airlines, if you’re going to correct the errors do it with some promptness.

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