A “mistake fare” is when an airline or online travel agency (OTA) sells a ticket for significantly less than they intended.
For instance, I started Scott’s Cheap Flights after I discovered a mistake fare back in 2013: nonstop from New York City to Milan for just $130 roundtrip!
There are many factors that can cause a mistake fare.
Human error: The most common cause of airline mistake fares is human error. This is sometimes referred to as a fat-finger discount. For example, the $130 roundtrip flight that Scott bought from NYC to Milan was probably intended to sell for $1,300 but someone accidentally left off the last digit.
Technology issues: In modern day, airlines determine their airfare for most routes using complex algorithms. These algorithms let airlines instantly give you a price whether you’re flying a simple route like NYC to London or an incredibly complex one like Sioux Falls to Hyderabad. But airlines’ IT systems still largely reside on decades-old technology, so on occasion various factors in the algorithm will align to put out some mistake fares.
Communication problems: Sometimes an error in the communication between an online travel agent (OTA) and an airline can result in mistake fare tickets. For example, an airline may tell an online travel agency to use an incorrect percentage discount on flights for a certain route or fare class.
Foreign currencies: Another cause of mistake fares is large variations in foreign currencies. For instance, in 2012 there was a significant devaluation in Myanmar’s currency. As a result, tickets out of Yangon paid in Burmese Kyat became dirt cheap overnight, with first-class fares as low as $250 to the US or elsewhere.
Route-specific fees: The particular routing of an itinerary can cause certain fees like fuel surcharges to not be included in the total price when typically they would be. For some itineraries, these fees can account for the majority of the cost; without them, the total fare can drop low enough to be in mistake territory.
Here are some notable mistakes fares in the past few years:
Mistake fares aren’t rare, but they’re not super common either. In the early 2010s, mistake fares were popping up three or four times a month. From 2017 and beyond, mistake fares have been less frequent, popping up once every four to six weeks on average.
Because the savings on mistake fares can be so massive, they typically don’t last long when they do arise. Often times just a few hours at most, almost never a full 24 hours.
If you found a mistake fare that you want to book, the best practice is to book directly with the airline, for two reasons.
First, when you book through an online travel agency, they take your money and then put in a request for the ticket from the airline. This process can often take several hours if not longer, during which time the mistake fare disappears. If the mistake fare price is gone by the time the agency tries to book your ticket, you’ll likely be told the promised price is no longer available and a refund will be coming. Booking directly with an airline cuts out the middleman and drastically reduces the amount of time required to issue your ticket, making it more likely for the mistake fare price to be honored.
Second, when you book directly with the airline, US law requires the airlines to give you a 24-hour grace period afterward during which you can cancel your ticket without penalty. This can be quite useful if you’re not 100% sure you want this particular flight. If you were to wait to book until you were sure, it’s highly unlikely the mistake fare would still be around. Instead, with the guaranteed 24-hour cancellation period you can lock in the mistake fare price and then have a full day to decide whether you want that flight or not.
Some mistake fares are only available through an online travel agency rather than on the airline’s website. Though the odds of the mistake fare being honored are a bit lower, they’re still quite high.
Even if a mistake fare ends up getting cancelled, the money of course gets refunded (and often an extra travel credit is provided as a gesture of goodwill). So in Outcome A you get a flight at a mistake fare rate, and in Outcome B you get refunded and are no worse off than before. Heads I win, tails you lose.
We recommend waiting a week to two before making any non-refundable plans such as hotel accomodations or tours, just in the off chance the airline or online travel agency cancels your ticket. Best practice is that once you have an e-ticket number and/or the 6-digit PNR code for your reservation, and it’s been a week or two since booking with no cancellation, you can be confident.
On average, we estimate that around 10% of mistake fare purchases ultimately get cancelled.
In the instances that an airline or online travel agency decides not to honor the ticket purchase, you’re almost always notified within 72 hours (and typically sooner than that).
The more egregious the mistake, the higher the likelihood it won’t be honored. A $250 roundtrip economy flight from NYC to Paris is more likely to get honored than the same flight for $100 roundtrip in first class.
Until 2015, the United States Department of Transportation more-or-less required airlines to honor mistake fares that consumers bought directly from them. Though that requirement was done away with, airlines still know that cancelling people’s tickets generates horrible press, so they usually prefer to eat the losses from a mistake fare.
No. Airlines cannot turn around and charge you more than you authorized to pay without your authorization.
For example, if you purchased a mistake fare from New York to Paris for $250, the airline cannot charge you the normal ~$750 fare for the flight.
They can, of course, cancel your ticket and tell you the fare is $750 if you want to re-book, but for the reasons outlined above that is not terribly common.
If the mistake fare doesn’t get honored, you’ll often be given the option to purchase at the intended price, but you’re by no means obligated to. Worst case is that the purchase you made simply gets refunded and you’re no worse for the wear. It’s a letdown, of course, and we at Scott’s Cheap Flights have had a number of mistake fares cancelled over the years.
In general, there’s very little that can be done to force the airline to honor a mistake fare once they’ve decided to cancel it.
You can complain to the airline’s customer service desk, either in the hopes the ticket will be honored or you’ll be given another form of compensation for your troubles, say 10,000 frequent flyer miles or a $250 voucher.
You could always threaten to file a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation and/or the Better Business Bureau.
But once an airline or OTA has decided not to honor a purchase, the likelihood that you can convince them otherwise is exceedingly low. It sucks when it happens, but it’s an unavoidable part of hunting for cheap flights. Gotta move on and hope for better luck with the next one.
One small recourse for USA-based travelers is if you purchased directly from the airline and if you did happen to make any non-refundable plans, the Department of Transportation has declared that airlines are required to reimburse you for those expenses.