Guide To Airline Mistake Fares: What Are They?

Guide To Airline Mistake Fares: What Are They?

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Over the years we’ve seen a countless number of airline mistake fares. From $450 roundtrip American Airlines business class tickets from the United States to Beijing, to $750 roundtrip Qatar Airways business class tickets from Vietnam to the United States, to $1,000 roundtrip Cathay Pacific first class tickets from Vietnam to the United States, we’ve seen some incredible deals.

While we haven’t seen too many good mistake fares lately (at least not ones I’ve been aware of), I wanted to provide a consolidated look at everything you need to know about airline mistake fares, so you’re ready when the next amazing deal pops up.

What are airline mistake fares?

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and that includes people working at airlines. Once in a while we’ll see airlines publish fares that they don’t intend to publish. This can happen for everything from first class to economy, and when these deals arise, they potentially represent some amazing opportunities for consumers.

Now, mistake fares aren’t always honored, so it’s important to view these kinds of bookings as a gamble of sorts. At worst, taking part in a mistake fare will be an adventure. At best, it’ll be the deal of a lifetime.

I’ve flown a mistake fare on Qatar Airways

What causes airline mistake fares?

How do airline mistake fares happen? Airline pricing is incredibly complex (by design), so it’s not surprising that fares aren’t always exactly what was intended. Airline mistake fares can happen for a variety of reasons. In no particular order:

  • It could be a “fat finger mistake,” where someone leaves off one or two zeroes
  • It could be that a fare was accidentally filed in the wrong fare bucket somehow; for example, instead of being for economy, a fare is instead filed for first class
  • It could be that the fare is filed in the wrong currency
  • It could be that a fuel surcharge is accidentally left off, and in many cases that makes up a majority of the fare

There are some other potential causes of mistake fares, but I’d say those are the most common.

I will say that sometimes there’s a bit of a grey area, where you don’t know if something is just a really good fare sale, or a mistake fare. That’s especially true when you consider how variable airfare can be. Even under normal circumstances, a person may have paid 10x as much for a ticket as their seatmate.

How often are there are airline mistake fares?

Going back a decade, I feel like we saw airline mistake fares all the time. I’d say that in general they’ve become less common in recent years:

  • Airlines have largely implemented systems that prevent many of these from seeing the light of day
  • With the miles & points space having become so popular, I’m sure many mistake fares are filed nowadays without them ever going viral, so I’m sure many of us aren’t even aware of them

Nowadays I’d say first & business class mistake fares that get widely booked are rather rare. Maybe we see one at most every several months, and that’s probably on the high side. Meanwhile we see very cheap economy fares a lot more often, though at times one has to wonder if they’re even a mistake, or intentional.

Premium mistake fares are pretty rare nowadays

How do you find airline mistake fares?

Realistically speaking, most of us aren’t going to dedicate our lives to searching airfare all day and/or creating scripts that somehow find these. With that in mind, how do you go about even finding airline mistake fares?

I think equally important as finding these deals is being ready to book with a moment’s notice:

  • If you see an amazing deal, don’t delay, but rather book right away, because it’s unlikely to last; if you’re traveling from the US and booking at least seven days in advance, you can always cancel within 24 hours
  • I always recommend keeping your calendar as updated as possible, so that you’re not trying to figure out your schedule once you see a mistake fare
  • Don’t spend too much time trying to perfect or tweak things, but rather book something that you consider to be good enough

Do airlines have to honor mistake fares?

Do airlines have to honor mistake fares, once people ticket them? Here in the United States, the answer was yes until 2015. At that point the Department of Transportation (DOT) updated its rules around mistake fares. The DOT no longer requires airlines to honor mistake fares as long as they:

  • Demonstrate that the fare was a mistake fare
  • Reimburse all consumers who purchased a mistake fare for any reasonable, actual, verifiable out-of-pocket expenses that were made in reliance upon the ticket purchase, in addition to refunding the purchase price of the ticket

Here’s how those necessary expenses are described:

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.

Rules will of course be different in various countries, though looking at this from a US-centric perspective:

  • While the DOT won’t force an airline to honor a mistake fare, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a case in small claims court, if that’s the route you’re willing to go
  • The concept of airlines having to reimburse consumers for any expenses incurred as a result of relying on a fare is also tricky; I’m not suggesting anyone should do this, but if you book a very expensive safari based on relying on a fare, at least on paper it seems that should be covered
Airlines generally don’t have to honor mistake fares

Why would airlines honor mistake fares?

As I explained above, in many situations airlines don’t have to honor mistake fares. However, in many situations they still choose to do so. Why would airlines honor mistake fares if they don’t have to?

  • It can be good publicity — we’ve seen endless national news stories about mistake fares being honored over the years, and it’s good press for the airline involved
  • In many cases, mistake fares might not cause the airlines to lose any money — airline pricing is incredibly complex, and in many situations those on mistake fares might not even be displacing paying customers, so the cost of honoring it may be minimal, if anything at all
  • Often honoring a mistake fare is less of a pain than going back & forth with each person who tries to challenge the mistake fare not being honored; that’s especially true with the DOT’s rules about airlines needing to reimburse passengers for expenses resulting from fares being canceled

Are airline mistake fares even worth booking?

People typically take one of three approaches when it comes to mistake fares:

  • Some people book them, expect they’ll be honored, and then get into a long back & forth with the airline when they’re not honored
  • Some people book mistake fares for the entertainment value, hope the fare will be honored, but don’t get angry if it’s not honored
  • Others don’t book mistake fares, as they don’t find it to be worth the hassle and/or find it to be unethical

Personally I fall in the second camp. I enjoy booking airline mistake fares when they arise. I think of it similar to buying a lottery ticket — I hope for the best, but I try not to get too sad if the fare isn’t honored.

If I do book a mistake fare, I’ll wait several days before making any further travel plans based on it, so that the airline has time to cancel its mistake, if it so chooses. This strategy has served me pretty well over the years. I’ve taken a countless number of amazing international first & business class trips on mistake fares.

Personally even when the fares aren’t honored, I still get a thrill out of the whole experience. It’s the same reason I enjoy gambling (sometimes, in moderation) at tables with low limits — it’s fun entertainment that won’t cost me a fortune.

Mistake fares can be fun even if they’re not honored

Bottom line

Once in a while airlines will publish mistake fares, which offer some amazing deals to consumers. These are especially exciting in first and business class, where the savings are the biggest. While airlines don’t always honor these fares, there’s a thrill to trying to take advantage of them. Just make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into, and have reasonable expectations.

Hopefully the above is a decent rundown of all the basics you need to know with these kinds of tickets.

What’s your take on airline mistake fares? Have you ever booked one (or would you)?

Conversations (17)
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  1. Ann Guest

    There have been plenty of mistake fares lately (hello JL F for $50 in tax) but noone is stupid enough to post them out in public anymore.

    1. Matt Guest

      Which route were you able to book?

      Another that comes to mind is the 200$ EY J fare a few weeks back

  2. Simon Guest

    Possible mistake fare I had in July was $1050 booked with Swiss

    CGK- SIN-FRA~JFK—ZRH-BKk-CGk all booked in business mixture of Singapore, Lufthansa, Swiss and Thai.

  3. KevinS Guest

    Booked award ticket RT to New Zealand next month for 60K miles each way (economy was 100K), which I am sure was a mistake.

  4. DenB Diamond

    Please turn the "Report" function back on. Homophobes suck

  5. Santos Guest

    Booked the CX Vietnam mistake fare in F and traveled in fall of 2019. Crazy routing for positioning via Japan (NH F) and London (BA F). One of the best adventures of my life. Had no idea that was the last international travel I’d be doing for quite some time!

  6. Joanne Guest

    I booked an Albuquerque to Pisa RT for $400 on United in 2017. An hour after I booked, the same flights were $1400. I called two friends who immediately booked as well. United honored the fare without question and we each got a spontaneous trip to Italy.

    1. Dill Doe Guest

      $73- Delta 1st BOS-HNL and BOS-ANC 2014
      $5- All United domestic flights 2011

      Many more up until about 2018 when airlines implement an AI system to sniff out mistakes immediately

  7. NYCAlex Guest

    I was lucky to be part of the AA Beijing fare (2x trips too) and the CX first for $650 fare - which I managed to move my return to a year later even! However, my all time favorite never went viral. I booked 10 people (all family) round trip PHL-NBO in delta suites/af/klm biz for $950 each. It was open for a while, too.

  8. LEo Diamond

    Remember, airlines might cancel the tick and comp with miles for those who booked, like Delta with the KE F tickets recently.

  9. Zach Guest

    Years ago, there is a thread on flyertalk called “the Pledge.”

    Those who took the pledge swore never to tell the airline about the mistake. It all sounded so juvenile to me when this was going on.

    People had an attitude of “the airlines screw us, so we should screw them.”

    Nice way to live in society, right?

    And then there were those who would pretend that the mistake fare was actually...

    Years ago, there is a thread on flyertalk called “the Pledge.”

    Those who took the pledge swore never to tell the airline about the mistake. It all sounded so juvenile to me when this was going on.

    People had an attitude of “the airlines screw us, so we should screw them.”

    Nice way to live in society, right?

    And then there were those who would pretend that the mistake fare was actually a legit fare. But those same people wouldn’t dare call the airline (as they knew the truth).

  10. Willem Guest

    Ah... you missed the ~$300 Madrid to Santiago "mistake fare" last June on Iberia/LATAM, which caused a bunch of drama when some people successfully lawyered-up to reinstate their tickets, causing Iberia to cancel a bunch of others that they issued at a higher price... I still have to get my refund from Iberia itself for downgrading my ticket...

  11. ECR12 Guest

    I got on the Swiss First Class Award mistake with Aeroplan a few years back. Officially they didnt honor the booking, but when I was downgraded to business they (perhaps mistakenly?) reimbursed me 100% of the miles (rather than the difference between First & Business) so thats as close to a homerun as you'll get.

  12. peterfox Guest

    I jumped on the CX First Class fare from Vietnam to JFK. However being after midnight on New Years Eve, I ended up traveling hand baggage only, as I had one night in SGN, one day in CX First Class lounges in HKG, and only 3 hours in JFK as I missed on the date-line issue when booking. Then another day in HKG, transferring to DOH ending up in Oslo.

  13. Hudute Member

    That CX DAD-JFK first class deal got even cheaper! I got it for about 600€. It was great entertainment for weeks, I got OW Sapphire (with connecting flights to/from Europe) out of it which is still alive thanks to pandemic extensions and got to go one my first and second RTW trips ever in style.
    Also: Its better than a lottery because you get your entry fee back if you loose!

  14. DaninMCI Guest

    There is no such thing as "mistake fares" only really good sale fares.

  15. Jon Guest

    $46 round trip all in Calgary to Spain on Air Canada in 2009!

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

DaninMCI Guest

There is no such thing as "mistake fares" only really good sale fares.

2
Willem Guest

Ah... you missed the ~$300 Madrid to Santiago "mistake fare" last June on Iberia/LATAM, which caused a bunch of drama when some people successfully lawyered-up to reinstate their tickets, causing Iberia to cancel a bunch of others that they issued at a higher price... I still have to get my refund from Iberia itself for downgrading my ticket...

1
Hudute Member

That CX DAD-JFK first class deal got even cheaper! I got it for about 600€. It was great entertainment for weeks, I got OW Sapphire (with connecting flights to/from Europe) out of it which is still alive thanks to pandemic extensions and got to go one my first and second RTW trips ever in style. Also: Its better than a lottery because you get your entry fee back if you loose!

1
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