How to Find Mistake Fares Like $85 First Class Between Europe and the US

Yesterday I wrote about one of the most amazing fares I’ve ever seen, under $100 roundtrip in business or first class between the UK and most anywhere in the world.

United isn’t honoring the tickets. But there have been many amazing deals that airlines and hotels have chosen to make good on in the past.

  • I traveled on those Alitalia $33+tax business class fare to Larnaca, Cyprus with Italy stopovers
  • I stayed in the $33 per night The Le Meridien Khao Lak Oceanfront Villa
  • And the $3 Hilton Tokyo (Executive Floor)
  • I booked the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort $120 Overwater Bungalow with Breakfast and Dinner, but wound up cancelling in favor of the 50 euro a night deal at the Prince de Galles Paris
  • …to name just a few

Naturally several readers wanted to know, but how do you find these?

Why It’s Hard to Find Mistake Fares

Two things to understand in your quest for fat finger discounts (leaving out digits on a fare or rate), currency conversion errors, and other special opportunities.

  1. There aren’t as many airline airfare mistakes as there used to be. Airlines have better tools, especially for international fares, to catch mistakes before they’re actually published. Those tools began rolling out in 2009, and now it’s mostly international airlines that haven’t really learned to use them that wind up publishing international mistakes. (This refers to price mistakes, but other kinds of mistakes like routing rules still persist.)

  2. People don’t share as openly as they used to. Over time I found most of the best deals on Flyertalk in the Mileage Run forum. Most of the best deals wound up posted by new members. Why? Because that’s who most of the members were. And deals were found by having large numbers of people searching for their own travels, and then posting when they came across something fishy. Now most of the discussions of these sorts of deals happen behind closed doors, amongst smaller groups of people, but that comes at the cost of having fewer people searching and participating and even potentially fewer deals found.

Much of the discussion of mistake deals, and mileage strategy, takes place outside of public view — in private forums (I can think of at least three that are active) and private email lists (I can think of at least two active ones).

Those private forums and lists, though, don’t have all of the deals because deals are found often by accident by large numbers of people. I’m fortunate to have tens of thousands of readers, many of whom email me, and their input doesn’t wind up in those private places generally. When they offer something useful, and don’t ask that the information not be shared, I’ll post it here. Sometimes posting a mistake deal will anger folks who might have known about it otherwise, and who want to keep it for themselves.

Should People Jump on These Deals?

Sometimes having lots of people in on a deal helps get it honored (because people are exchanging information, and the publicity costs for failing to do so are higher). And sometimes having lots of people in on a deal raises its costs and so it’s harder for a travel provider to honor.

And many people won’t partake at all, finding it unethical to book something at a price that a travel provider didn’t intend to offer it. Sometimes great deals are intentional and we may not even know (Independence Air once purposely loaded a mistake fare in the middle of the night, waited for a handful of people to book it, and then called the Washington Post to let them know, “you never know when you’ll find an amazing deal on our website!” was their refrain). But sometimes we do know.

Department of Transportation rules generally require ‘mistake’ airfares to be honored for travel that begins or ends in the US. There are clear rules against post-purchase price increases (which includes just cancelling tickets, which would mean consumers re-purchasing travel at a higher price if they wanted the trip). DOT hates that obvious, totally predictable, ‘unintended consequences’ of requiring mistake fares to be honored and is looking for ways to change their rules to make airlines honor prices only when they think airlines should.

My general take is that if a deal isn’t honored, and it isn’t honored promptly and transparently, I’m ok with that — any Department of Transportation rules on this notwithstanding, even. But if a travel provider is going to offer me once in a lifetime type deals, and hono them, I’d like to be one of the people who gets to go.

How to Be “In The Know”

With much of the talk of mistakes gone underground, my suggestions are as follows.

  • Follow blogs like mine. I do occasionally write about these opportunities when they arise.
  • Follow The Flight Deal, there’s no better source for short-term airfare deals.
  • Subscribe to the Premium Fare Deals forum on Flyertalk. Lots of the better deals do get posted there, but you have to wade through a lot of noise to notice them.
  • Meet people. I’m fortunate to have so many readers, but I find that the best deals do make it out fairly broadly at least via email — the people you know send them out to their friends and acquaintances by email (sometimes possibly just wanting to look ‘in the know’). Sometimes private forum deals leak out this way. So go to gatherings of frequent flyers, build your own networks, and people will start sharing these things.

See also:


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Gary, I appreciate you reminding us of some of the ways we can learn about fluke fares.

    It would be super helpful if you were to share with us how to discover the fares ourself. Do we set our computers up to run algorithms while we sleep? Do we sit on our laptops at night and play around with input/output, one eyes on the computer screen, another eye on our favorite TV show? What other tools can we utilize so that we may find these fares ourselves, and not be always leeching off others?

  2. Gary, do you think according to the DOT regulations should United have to honor this fare? Not ethically speaking, but by the letter of the law? I could see if the mistake was from a third party like Expedia or another travel site, but this “third party error” happened on UAL.com. I did not get in on this deal, but have found the debate fascinating. I think it’s kind of unfair an airline makes a mistake and poof, it’s wiped up with zero liability. If I need to make a change United charges me $200 + the fare difference.

  3. @kimmie

    Most of the finds are literally dumb luck. There was a joke about the OP on flyertalk of this one.. which most will attribute to being the “finder” of these UA F fares… “he most likely was looking for a trip from Newcastle to Newark, and he’s from Denmark. So he just happened to fall on this.”

    Gladwell says in Outliers about plane crashes that it takes a LOT of little things going wrong to add up to a crash.. same thing with mistake fares. Just so happened that the DKK-GBP Fx rate was off, when this guy was looking for the perfect fare.. and it popped. Can’t plan it.

  4. I suppose you can look for mistake fares all day…if the airlines do not honor them and the DOT does not force them to, it just becomes time wasted.

  5. > will anger folks who might have known about it otherwise, and who want to keep it for themselves.

    Ahh, the “more for me, none for you” crowd and their private clubs, who gets most of the deals from the outside anyway. I’ll bet these are the loudest whiners that screams lawsuit when a fair is not honored.

    People like that are why we can’t have good things and ruins a community.

  6. @travis, I thought that might be the case, as a few years ago I found one myself (I forced a 25 hour layover and it reduced the already super low fare by half!) but I couldn’t believe it would be so….simple.

  7. @Shaun
    United cancelled the tickets within a few hours, so even by your logic, United is fine because they allow customers to change/cancel free of charge within the first 24.

  8. Ultimately, the airline should be held responsible for what it presents to the consumer, regardless of the time-saving measures they employ. If they are willing to blindly accept whatever third-party data is poured into their system in order avoid the time-consuming process of verifying all data before presenting a contract to the consumer (that the consumer is, of course, always expected to abide by if they make a mistake in understanding), then they should accept the consequences.

  9. Gary-

    What’s your take on taking part in a deal which requires one to state they are in or have a billing address in a location they or it, in fact, are not located in?

    On a related note, what’s your take on outlining to people how to take part in deals like that stated above, when most of your readers are likely unqualified for the deal based on its requisites?

    Two issues here-first legal, second ethical. I know many will laugh at the mention of ethics, but as a financial officer with a significant entity, you must have to draw the line in your day job. I am interested in how you draw it here.

  10. @’Sam’ This ‘deal’ didn’t require living in a particular state or country. The fare was being offered when tickets were issued in that country. One limitation of the United.com website is that the site wants to revert to the country of residence for ticket issue. It’s a simple IT issue that required a workaround, not a deal ‘requirement’ that involved misrepresentation. (There were of course no published requirements for this deal!)

    Ethically I don’t have a problem booking this, and I don’t have a problem with an airline choosing not to honor. But if they’re going to let some people fly Denver – Paris for $28 roundtrip I’d like to be one of those people and I’m comfortable being one (much more so when United honored Denver – Paris for $28, before DOT had their thumb on the scales for that stuff).

  11. Thoughtful piece. I’ve found a couple of incredible deals just while searching for my own travels, and kept them to myself. First, I think they are more likely to be honored if only a few people are involved; second, I really don’t want an honest mistake to have potentially devastating consequences to a business; and third, I have no particular need to brag to the world about my brilliance in finding it by blind luck.

    I have no qualms about booking a mistake, and no regrets if it isn’t honored. It is those schemers who go through intricate gymnastics to falsify their information, then go like crybabies to DOT (I have a particular blogger in mind) when their “deal” isn’t honored who deserve no respect.

    I also think Sam has a good point. Frankly would you want to have a business relationship with people who lie, cheat and steal to get travel deals? Would you trust them to treat you fairly in a business deal or personal relationship, or would you expect them to swindle you any chance they get?

  12. Could you also provide information when stores make the mistake of leaving their back doors unlocked so we can sneak in and steal their merchandise, too? Thanks.

  13. If people do not file DOT complaints about these United cancellations, they might as well forget about looking for any mistake fares in the future. If United is not held accountable this incident will set a precedent where the DOT rules are viewed as meaningless. If that is what people want then sure, don’t file a DOT complaint. I for one believe consumers should stand up for their rights. Otherwise, why have any laws at all? Why not let the airlines do whatever they want? I understand some folks not wanting to file a class action against United but I also understand those who stand up for their rights and give it the good fight. Whenever these mistake fares occur on a large scale it results in the same debate. That’s okay. But those who file DOT complaints tend to come out ahead. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. You won’t win if you don’t try.

  14. @Andrew – You are mixing things and comparing this to theft. One thing is stealing from a store and another one is to try to buy an item for the price advertised by that store. Plenty of price mistakes happen on every industry and (for the most part) companies honor the deals. You can argue whether this is ethical or not but it has nothing to do with stealing. Just my DKK$0.02 🙂

  15. I agree that companies are more like to honor if only a few people are involved. However, with the social media and services like glytch.com, a lot of people will know about them in a matter of seconds..

  16. @Andrew – this is nothing like taking product from a store that leaves its door unlocked! These are the prices that the airline set.

    Say I went to the grocery store and picked up a nice steak that had a price tag of $25 and went to check out at the U-Scan. If it scanned at $2.50 I would talk to an employee. The price said one thing, it rang up another.

    But airline mistake fares aren’t even comparable to this. The mistake fare IS the price on the price tag. When you go to check out, it IS the price that rings up.

    I don’t see the issue here.

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