Mistake Fares FAQ
“Mistake fares” occur when an airline or online travel agency (OTA) sells a ticket for significantly less than they intended.
Here’s some recent examples that have been sent to the list:
- Miami to the Brazilian Amazon for $306 roundtrip
- New York City/Washington DC/Miami to Uruguay for ~$300 roundtrip
- Chicago to Australia for $489 roundtrip
- Toronto to London for $252 roundtrip
Mistake fares can occur for a number of different reasons. Sometimes the airlines meant to set a price at $1,489 and accidentally set it at $489. Sometimes variations in foreign currencies let you book a flight for 90% cheaper in Danish krone, for instance, than American dollars. Sometimes the particular routing of the flight caused certain fees like fuel surcharges to not be included in the total price when typically they would be. Sometimes an error in the communication between an OTA and an airline can result in mistake fare tickets.
Mistake fares aren’t rare, but they’re not super common either. In a given month, I would typically expect 5 to 10 true mistake fares to pop up. Because the consumer 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 day.)
When I send a mistake fare out to the list, I typically include a notice to wait a week or so before making any non-refundable plans because there’s always a slight chance the ticket won’t get honored.
How often do mistake fares get cancelled?
On average, I would estimate that 5-10% of mistake fare purchases ultimately get cancelled.
In the instances that an airline or OTA decides not to honor the ticket purchase, you’re almost always notified within 72 hours (and typically sooner than that.) When I pull the trigger on a mistake fare, once I’ve got an e-ticket number with the airline and it’s been at least a week, I’m comfortable that everything is good to go and begin making non-refundable plans.
The more egregious the mistake, the higher the likelihood it won’t be honored. That is, 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.
What can I do to maximize my chances of having a mistake fare honored?
When buying a flight, you have two general choices: you can buy directly from an airline (usually more expensive) or you can buy from an OTA (usually cheaper).
For non-mistake fares, I typically prefer to buy from an OTA because the ticket is ultimately the same, so why not pocket the extra $40 (or whatever the savings were)?
However, as I discussed in this explanation on OTAs, tickets purchased from airlines are issued more or less immediately, while tickets purchased from OTAs often take a few hours to process. For cheap flights that aren’t mistake fares, this isn’t an issue since the odds that fare will disappear within those few hours is quite low. But for mistake fares, which can disappear at any minute, I figure it’s better to buy directly from the airline since the chances of it being issued and honored are much higher. I don’t like paying more than I have to, but I’m willing to forgo an additional $40 in savings if it increases my chances of getting a $250 flight to Paris.
Until recently, the Department of Transportation more-or-less required airlines to honor mistake fares that consumers bought directly from them. Though that requirement has been loosened a bit, airlines still know that cancelling people’s tickets is horrible publicity, so they would almost always prefer to eat the losses from a mistake fare.
Of course, some mistake fares are only available on OTAs and cannot be purchased directly from the airline. In those instances, there’s not much more you can do but book the flight and cross your fingers that you don’t hear any bad news in the next few days.
One thing that will not happen is for you to buy a mistake fare for $250, only to have the airline or OTA turn around and charge you the full $750 fare for the flight. 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.
If my ticket gets cancelled, is there anything I can do?
Unfortunately, not really.
You can always 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 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, and I’ve had mistake fare purchases that I got my hopes up for ultimately get cancelled, but that’s an unavoidable part of hunting for cheap flights.
One small recourse is if you purchased directly from the airline and if you did happen to make any non-refundable plans, the Department of Transportation requires the airline to reimburse you for those expenses.