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How To Find Airline Mistake Fares and Save $100s

  • avatar
    Jonathan Chum

Travelers loves when a great travel deal comes along. It gives them bragging rights on just how little they paid for a flight.

Mistake fares saves a wanderluster hundreds of dollars when found.

What Is A Mistake Fare?

A mistake fare is sometimes assumed when an airline or online travel agency (OTA) sells a ticket for much less than the intended price.

When I was young and started traveling, I took advantage of a mistake fare to fly from San Francisco to New York to Bangkok back in 2009 for just $300 in first class.

What would otherwise cost me over 8500, this example took travel hacking to the extreme by coupling stop overs into my itinerary, I made out like a bandit with 2 trips (New York and Bangkok) for the price of 1 ticket.

Our definition of a mistake fare is very strict. That is, the price of the fare is factored into the approximate time in the air, comfort, and miles traveled.

No one wants to travel 40 hours to get from point A to point B that normally would take 15 hours just to save few hundred bucks.

And no wants to fly a domestic route without a carryon unless it's a weekend get away.

What Causes a Mistake Fare

There are several factors that can cause a mistake fare.

There are sorts of reasons why mistake fares occur that it's impossible to know the exact cause. Airlines tend to be tight lipped around pricing foobar.

Missing Surcharges and Fees

Ever looked and wondered why a fare you found goes up so much at the time of checkout? The base fare the airline ticket many times are accompanied with airport fees, taxes, security, fuel surcharges, and more. Sometimes, these fees which are normally passed on to the consumer, they are left out by mistake.

Currency Conversion Errors

Airlines operate globally and target different consumers in different parts of the world. Converting fares into the local currency in real-time and between each leg could result in a fare to save $50 or even hundreds.

Human Error and Computer Glitches

This is the most common cause of mistake fares, human error. You'd think a computer could catch these errors. But pricing is more complex for a human to figure out what is the price someone would pay for between point A and point B.

These factors includes time of day of the departure, day of the week, the seasonality of the route based on month, legs between the destination, partner airlines connecting through, which cities/countries the fare is routed through, is there a major event like a festival or holiday, availability, demand, cabin and many more.

All of these are factors that goes into pricing a fare that a human can make mistake and no algorithm can catching a mistake fare until its too late.

Feeds and Systems

A fare is published through a global distribution system (GDS) and that task is done by the Airline Tariff Publishing Company (ATPCO).

These systems are not real-time and work through jobs or queues to process fares and availability.

International fares are updated 4 times a day where as domestic are updated 6 times a day. So when a mistake fare is published, it will be a few hours before the airline is able to rescind that mistake fare.

You may have an hour to grab the mistake fare because other traveler may scoop up the mistake fare before the cabin is full.

How Common Are Mistake Fares?

Mistake fares aren't rare nor are they common. Many mistake fares are discovered by humans by accident and then shared through word of mouth. And the fare finder has to know quickly if the fare is truly a mistake before its sold out.

In our case, we've automated the process of finding mistake fares by scouring over 120,000 domestic routes per week.

So we discover mistake fares about 15 or so every week.

How Long Do Mistake Fares Last?

Depending on the popularity of the route and which sites discover it, these fares are often time don't last more than few hours and almost never more than 24 hours.

How Can I Find Mistake Fares?

Mistake fares are not hard to find if you know what you are looking for. First is to identify the origin/destination, miles or kilometers between the two routes, a percentage of time additional  to account for any layovers you are willing, the cabin of the fare, and then determine if the fare's total cost is under 3 cents to a mile before stack ranked against other criteria.

That is a lot of work!

That's why many sites are not able to find mistake fares as easily and no one wants to spend time looking for a killer mistake fare to save a few hundred dollars and waste hours every day fare hunting for these mistake fares.

What Should I Do If I Find A Mistake Fare?

When you find a mistake fare, book with the airline.

When you book through an online travel agency such as Kayak or Orbitz, they tack on additional service feeds or may have stale data. Even if the fare is up-to-date on the OTA's website, the agency will take your money and tries to book the ticket on your behalf through an automated queue system.

Keyword here, "queue". Because they manage so many bookings at scale, there are many single points of failure that the OTA will attempt to book the ticket for the price you paid for. Sometimes, they'll eat the cost should the price change before they can book it and remain profitable on the transaction.

If they cannot book after processing multiple times, they will issue a refund.

Additionally, if you are booking with a US based airline, US law requires airlines to give you a 24 hour remorse period in which you may cancel the ticket without penalty. This strategy is great if you are not sure if you want this flight and need to lock in the pricing mistake before it is gone.

If you found a mistake fare on an OTA website, the chances of having that fare honored are going to be lower because they are a middle man.

At the time when they execute the lock in rate of the fare, the price may have gone up and you'll end up getting a refund.

Drawbacks of the Mistake Fare

Some airlines may out right not honor the mistake fare or cancel the flight.

Therefore, we recommend that you wait a few weeks before making any non-refundable plans such as hotel accommodations or car rentals.

Once e ticket or 6 digit PNR code has been issued and it's been a few weeks, the mistake fare is generally honored.

How Often Do Mistake Fares Get Cancelled?

Generally we see that mistake fares are cancelled within 72 hours and usually before a reservation number is confirmed.

Many airlines will first process your payment first and then an hour later, you may receive your booking code.

On average, we see that around 10-15% of mistake fares are cancelled, mostly by OTA websites than if you book directly with the airline.

Do Airlines Have To Honor Mistake Fares?

The United States Department of Transportation does not enforce airlines to honor mistake fares when consumers purchase directly from them.

Because around 10% are cancelled and you get a full refund, you cannot lose.

The other 90% of honored mistake fares, airlines will eat the cost of the mistake fare because of the bad press otherwise garnered.

Can Airlines Retroactively Charge Me the Full Ticket Amount?

This has never occurred nor is legal where the airline charges more than you authorized payment for.

They can have the authority to cancel the flight and ask you to rebook at the high fare price of the ticket.

What Happens If My Mistake Fare Doesn't Get Honored?

For those unlucky to not get a mistake fare honored, you can choose to purchase at the regular price. This an option, not a requirement. Ultimately you should ask for a refund because the regular price won't sell out quickly.

My Mistake Fare Was Cancelled. What Should I Do?

If a mistake fare was cancelled, you have very little chance to convince them otherwise.

Remember, they are selling the ticket at a loss and while you may believe the customer is always right, the airline also has the right to refuse the sale.

You can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) or Better Business Bureau (BBB) for tracking purposes incase the airline purposely are doing a bait and switch.

In the end, it's all a game of luck and timing.