What You Should Know About 'Mistake Fares'

Experts reveal if these types of tickets are a golden travel opportunity or just a waste of your time and money.
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As the summer travel season approaches, we’re once again reminded just how expensive taking a trip can be. Airline tickets continue to surge in cost, even outpacing inflation, so reaching the buzzy places where everyone somehow seems to be vacationing might not fit into even the most seasoned traveler’s budget.

But before you give up on your dreams of visiting the beautiful international destinations that inundate TikTok and Instagram on a daily basis, just know that a golden opportunity could arise in the form of mistake fares.

But what exactly are mistake fares and how do they work? Below, travel experts break down what you should know.

What are mistake fares?

“The term ‘mistake fare’ generally refers to an airline ticket price that is significantly different from historical norms and/or what an airline intended,” Nick Ewen, senior editorial director at The Points Guy, told HuffPost.

He pointed to a well-publicized mistake fare from Cathay Pacific in 2018 that allowed travelers to book round-trip tickets between Vietnam and the United States for less than $700 in business class and under $1,000 in first class.

“There’s not a definitive line between what makes for a ‘deal’ vs. a ‘mistake’ in this context, but usually a mistake fare is orders of magnitude lower than normal,” Ewen said. “For example, a $1,000 round-trip flight from the U.S. to Europe in business class could be a deal if it’s on a Tuesday in mid-January to Poland.”

If the flight is on a peak summer travel date between the U.S. and Rome, however, that’s more likely to be a mistake.

“Mistake fares happen when airlines incorrectly file the price of a given flight,” said Zach Griff, a senior reporter at The Points Guy. “One of the recent mistake fares I found was a $700 round-trip ticket in Air France first class from Algeria to New York. That ticket typically retails for over $10,000, so it’s pretty clear that something was wrong with how it was pricing. Just note that no airline website will market something as a mistake fare.”

Why do they happen?

“Mistake fares can happen for many reasons, but some of the common reasons are currency conversion errors with travel agencies that incorrectly convert the fare into the local currency or vice versa, as well as fat-finger errors from revenue management analysts who potentially miss a digit when inputting a fare or file a fare for business class at the price of economy,” Griff said.

Basically, an airline employee might accidentally leave off a zero or use the wrong fare code during the ticket pricing process, thus giving travelers the opportunity to snag business-class tickets for economy prices.

The reason could be related to an automated system as well.

“A pricing algorithm may be incorrectly calibrated to drop prices precipitously when demand drops,” Ewen said. “Or a currency conversion error may display the right number but in the wrong currency ― e.g., a flight that should be 5,000 U.S. dollars could show as 5,000 Hong Kong dollars, which is less than 650 U.S. dollars.”

Although these situations do occur, the odds that you will stumble upon one of these magically low fares are low.

“Mistake fares are like four-leaf clovers ― rare but not unheard of and very lucky,” said Katy Nastro, a spokesperson for the flight alert service Going. “They have become less common over the years due to better technology that rectifies the pricing before it becomes widely known.”

Mistake fares have become significantly less common in recent years, but they still happen.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images
Mistake fares have become significantly less common in recent years, but they still happen.

Are there downsides to mistake fares?

“The benefit of a mistake fare would be scoring a great deal on airfare, but the number of mistake fares that have been honored in recent years is getting smaller and smaller,” Griff said. “Most travelers would be better off just purchasing flights when they feel that they’ve found a good deal than spending time trying to find the cheapest fare out there.”

Also, just because you found a golden ticket doesn’t mean you get to use it.

“Airlines have no legal requirement to honor mistake fares, which can mean that your purchased ticket might not be worth a seat on that flight,” Nastro said. “Airlines have been known not to honor mistake fares in the past, and we estimate around 10% of mistake fares don’t get honored.”

This means there’s a risk that the airline might ultimately cancel your tickets before your trip.

“That decision process can take days or even weeks, depending on how many people booked it,” Ewen said. “This can leave you in limbo, not knowing if the trip is happening. That’s why it is so important to hold off as long as possible on making other nonrefundable travel arrangements until you get some clarity on whether the airline will honor the ticket you booked. This may come via email or a social media post ― though we have seen examples of itineraries simply disappearing from travelers’ online accounts and a refund posting to the credit card they used.”

Although the airline should theoretically reimburse you for your travel expenses, the process can be a headache, so it’s best to avoid committing to nonrefundable bookings like accommodations or tours when planning a trip with mistake fare tickets.

How can you make good use of mistake fares?

“Typically, a mistake fare is available for booking in a very short time frame — at most, 24 hours, but more realistically, a few hours,” Nastro said. “You need to act quickly when you see them because that price will not last. And, of course, there is no way of knowing when they will pop up. There is no formula for tracking them nor best practice to give yourself the highest likelihood of them appearing.”

You can keep up with mistake fares and short-lived deals by signing up for notifications from flight services like Thrifty Traveler, Secret Flying, Going, Jack’s Flight Club and The Flight Deal.

“Some examples of round-trip mistake fares we’ve found at Going in recent years are Los Angeles to London for $240, Seattle to Tokyo for $316, Miami to Copenhagen for $299 and Detroit to Iceland for $299,” Nastro said. “Going will manually validate the fare before sending it out and provide an estimated timeline of how long we anticipate it to last.”

There are also forums and online groups on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms where frequent flyers post their findings. The key to taking advantage of mistake fares and other deals is to book them immediately before they disappear.

“Any ticket you purchase directly from an airline at least seven days in advance that starts or ends in the U.S. is eligible for either a 24-hour free price hold or a 24-hour risk-free cancellation,” Ewen said. “In other words, you can book as soon as you see the deal ― even if other travel plans, PTO requests or your partner’s availability aren’t confirmed.”

If the airline decides to cancel your mistake fare booking, the company is obligated to refund your tickets and any nonrefundable expenses you made in conjunction with your plans (though, as previously noted, it often involves a lengthy process with customer service). Still, the upside of the opportunity can make the risks worth it.

“If you find a mistake fare, you can get an absolute steal on a flight to a destination you’ve always wanted to go to,” Nastro said. “Or just a killer deal to an unexpected place that ends up being a memorable trip made extra sweet by how much you saved on flights.”

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