Everything you need to know about mistake fares

Jul 26, 2020

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If you’re quick and flexible enough, you can occasionally score an unbelievable flight deal – known as a mistake or error fare – for the price of an iPad.

In recent years, we’ve seen mistake fares like Etihad Airways first class for $900, Cathay Pacific’s incredible round-trip business and first-class tickets starting at $700 and Hong Kong Airlines’ cheap business-class tickets to Asia.

Since 2015, mistake fares have changed quite a bit. The airline is more likely to cancel an error fare than honor it – and they have the law behind them.

But it is possible to snag and keep an error fare, depending on the carrier. Here’s everything you need to know about mistake fares.

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What is a mistake fare?

Generally, mistake fares happen when airlines misprice the cost of a ticket. The “error” is then picked up by platforms like Google Flights and Online Travel Agencies (OTA) like Expedia. Etihad told Forbes that the 2014 mistake fare to Abu Dhabi, South Africa, Asia and more was the result of a “system filing issue.”

How to find mistake fares

The key to successfully booking a mistake fare is to be flexible with your dates and departure and arrival airports. Don’t let the mistake fare’s departure or arrival discourage you from booking your dream trip.

A few years back, I found a fantastic error fare from New York (JFK) to Ho Chi Minh (SGN) on American and Japan Airlines. The only problem? I was based in Washington.

That didn’t deter me from booking, though. My friends and I booked a cheap Megabus ticket from D.C. to New York the morning before the flight and chilled out in the airport until our flight time. We didn’t stay in Vietnam, either. We used that flight to position ourselves to get to Kuala Lumpur (KUL) and still paid less than the cash ticket to Malaysia would have been.

There are several channels devoted to spotting mistake fares, but one of the easiest ways to find them is through Google Flights or Skyscanner. You can’t book flights through the platform, so you’ll have to search for the cheap fares and then go to an OTA like Orbitz or Priceline to book the tickets.

Booking through an OTA might get you a cheaper fare, but that comes with a few complications, especially during the pandemic. Any changes, cancellations or refunds must be handled with the carrier directly. The OTAs follow the policies of their partners, which means that any credit, refund or change will be at the discretion of the airline.

Should I make plans immediately?

The general understanding of mistake fares is that you should hold off on making immediate plans, such as booking hotels or rental cars, until your flight has been ticketed. We suggest avoiding non-refundable reservations until you’ve shored up your plans, and you know the airline intends to honour the ticket.

You can cancel a mistake fare ticket up to 24 hours after booking without penalty if you’re unsure about the dates or routes booked. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see that price again, so think carefully before cancelling outright.

Will the airline honour the fare?

Before you book a mistake fare, know this: airlines do not have to honour so-called mistake fares, per a 2015 Department of Transportation ruling. Specifically, the policy excuses airlines from honouring them if they can prove the tickets are indeed mistakes.

While cancelled tickets often result in bad PR, many airlines are willing to risk unhappy passengers over potentially losing out on millions of dollars. In recent years, Lufthansa, Air France, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia have all cancelled mistake fares.

While several airlines chose not to honour mistake fares, other airlines did and scored great publicity for doing so.

My introduction to the world of mistake fares happened on Christmas 2014. Etihad dropped the most unbelievable mistake fare between the U.S. and Abu Dhabi, starting as low as $187 round-trip. Even more incredible: Etihad honoured the ticket.

I booked three tickets for myself and two friends before Etihad finally patched the error. At the time, I was a newbie traveller, with a brand new passport and a few countries down. I was still in university, didn’t have much money and booked the ticket on a debit card because my U.S. student credit card had a $500 limit. It was my first introduction to error fares – and the first time I’d heard of The Points Guy.

Use your Capital One miles to book a flight on Etihad. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)
Use your Capital One miles to book a flight on Etihad. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

What happens if the airline cancels my ticket?

Of the dozen or so mistake fares I’ve booked in the last five years, roughly half were cancelled. For some mistake fares, getting my money back was as simple as calling the airline or waiting for an automatic statement credit.

For others, like the Ethiopian Airlines mistake fare to Dar es Salaam in 2017, getting my money back required filing a dispute with my credit card. More recently, Air France chose not to honour an unreal ~$500 mistake fare on La Premiere between Paris (CDG) and New York (JFK). The airline did offer a downgrade to business class on that leg, but it was too much of a hassle since the trip started in Algiers. So I decided to cancel.

Delta assured me that I’d be refunded in two weeks, but it’s been three months. After numerous calls and tweets, I finally disputed the charge with my credit card company. That’s the downside to booking any ticket – but especially a mistake fare – during the pandemic.

Even if you book a mistake fare, you are entitled to a full refund if your flight is cancelled — no matter the reason. Airlines may offer you a credit to use at a later date, or miles for future travel, but you are entitled to a refund.

Bottom line

Scoring a mistake fare can feel like hitting the lottery. In many ways, it is like hitting the lottery, especially if the airline chooses to honour the ticket. But there are a lot of murky aspects, like booking through (sometimes) shady OTAs and refund hold-ups if the trip is cancelled.

Booking a mistake fare is certainly a risk you’ll have to assess for yourself if the trip makes sense. But if the ticket is honoured, it can save you thousands of dollars — and potentially land you in some of the best premium cabins in the sky.

Featured photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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