Here’s the Secret to Booking Mistake Fares and Fuel Dumps

Reader Joel asked,

Hi, Gary. Other than reading the wiki and almost the entire [FlyerTalk] thread, could you help summarize, or simplify, the [fuel dump] tips and tricks? I think someone could monetize on creating an online course about this subject. Do any exist? There are mistake fares probably every day but only a small percentage know about them, as they are kept privy within inner circles. I would like to better understand how to find them, while keeping it to myself, as well.

There’s really two different questions here,

  1. Mistake fares — the super cheap often “fat finger” (leaving off a number or hitting the wrong button) deals that aren’t always honored, but can provide top notch travel at 90% or even 99% off when they are.
  2. Fuel dumps — how to ‘trick’ an airfare pricing engine into leaving out the fuel surcharges on a ticket, which can often save hundreds of dollars on that ticket

In this post I will explain them both.

Here’s Why It’s Hard to Find Mistake Fares

Two things to understand in your quest for fat finger discounts, 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.

Where You Can Learn About These Mistake Deals

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.

Why People Don’t Talk Publicly and Openly About “Fuel Dumps”

Discussions about these techniques often take place “in code” which are fairly impenetrable to the layman. Although a little bit of time spent on the code and you realize they aren’t all that sophisticated.

Ongoing discussions of these techniques take place in the “Trick It” threads on both Milepoint and Flyertalk, and they take place “in code” because of a fear that open discussion of the particulars will result in the various techniques being shut down.

Back in March, 2010 Airfare Watchdog ran a post on forcing airfare pricing to drop fuel surcharges, often saving hundreds of dollars on an international ticket. This was a popular trick discussed in online forums, but the broader world’s attention was caught by the Airfare Watchdog post. The simple trick that had worked so well for a couple of years was shut down in a matter of hours. (That website has since pulled the piece, as though it almost never existed. Matthew from Live and Let’s Fly quoted much of it in a contemporaneous post-mortem.)

How Fuel Dumps Work

In simplest form, folks would book a segment from the US to Canada at the end of an international itinerary. That would cause fuel surcharges to drop out of the price of the itinerary. And most folks wouldn’t fly that final segment, just tossing it.

Airlines know about ‘fuel dumps’ and for the most part they are obscure enough and low volume enough that they aren’t a priority to deal with. Discussing the existence of fuel dumps won’t make them go away.

But when there’s discussion of specific city pairs those become more widely used and tend to get picked off one by one by the airlines, like with the Airfare Watchdog post.

The gist of how it works is this:

  • Airlines that don’t have interline fuel surcharge agreements split revenue on the basis of IATA’s BSP settlement tables.
  • Those tables are country-specific. Some routes, on some airlines, aren’t fully updated correctly in some country BSP tables.
  • So combining two different airlines that don’t have those interline agreements, ticketed correctly, can cause pricing engines not to include fuel surcharges in the price of the ticket.

This is fairly complicated, and not for the novice. The website you use to book the ticket matters because (1) different online travel agencies might book the same itinerary that combines two airlines as tickets on one versus the other carrier’s ticket stock, and that can affect whether or not fuel surcharges price, and (2) the country that the ticket is issued in matters as well. (Expedia’s various country-specific websites are useful to be able to specify your country of ticketing.)

How to Use This Technique Yourself

It’s important that if you use any of these techniques that you don’t draw additional attention to yourself (and in many cases, that means not even trying to upgrade the tickets). An airline can refuse to let you board until you pay the applicable fuel surcharge (or even close your frequent flyer account). There are occasional anecdotes of such things happening, although they’re rare.

I would say that interested novices should:

  • Read the threads on the frequent flyer forums, at least as a pass-through, to familiarize themselves with the concept.
  • Be award of the risks.
  • Then ask questions, not about specific city pairs but possibly pose a question about a specific itinerary they’re working with, and hopefully a kind reader of the thread will reach out with a suggestion.

In other words, the best technique is to learn the language a little bit and then ask for specific, concrete help in the forums with request for feedback via private message.

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. Can you also teach us how to get some merchandise out of a store when security isn’t watching? Thanks.

  2. Andrew, get off your high horse. The two aren’t even close to being equal. If the airlines truly cared, they would simply get rid off fuel surcharges and the “trick” would disappear along with it.

    Does your local retailer charge you and extra “cotton surcharge” when you purchase a shirt? That’s exactly what the airlines are doing!

  3. Not sure if it’s worth it yet or not, but I signed up for a free month trial at dealray.com. I don’t have the time to sift through FT forums and cryptic messages to find mistake fares. They text me when a mistake fare pops up, so I’m interested to see how it works. If anyone wants to try it, kindly use my code and I’ll get another free month – http://dlry.me/1B4NrDq

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