How To Find Mistake Fares And Fly For Cheap

There are many ways to get started in the miles and points game, as there are many ways to play.

These days the simplest and perhaps easiest way is to apply for one of the many credit cards offering insanely generous sign-up bonuses. Depending on the card, you can get enough miles for a free international trip as soon as you complete the minimum spend. It’s really crazy just how easy it is to earn lots and lots of miles in short order.

But it wasn’t always like this. And for much of the world — namely those outside the US where mega credit card bonuses are much less common — it still isn’t.

That’s why it’s worth talking about ways to fly for cheap, such as on mistake fares. These fares were once the primary entry for those getting into the miles and points game, and they still happen today. The allure is simple — you book a ticket, you fly on a plane, you earn some miles. Oh, and then you told your buddies about how you just flew to Fiji for $51. Or Iceland for $61. Or in my case, Madrid for $115.

Fat Fingers Sell Cheap Tickets

Each airline files hundreds of fares every single day into what is called global distribution systems (GDS). These systems are what enable you to buy airline tickets from a variety of outlets rather than just from the airline themselves. That’s about all I know about GDS’s, and probably all you need to know as well.

Although you would think that the act of filing fares would be automated, and to some extent it probably is, mistakes do happen on rare occasions. The most common mistake seems to be the “fat finger” where somebody intends to push one key, but actually hits another. Or none at all. It’s kind of like typing on your smartphone without auto-correct…

United Business Class To New Zealand For $1,500

Back in 2007, United sold tickets from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand in business class for $1,500. Apparently somebody forgot a digit when they filed the fare, meaning it was supposed to be closer to $15,000. Oops.  My family spent the holidays down under that year and had a blast. We also had a FlyerTalk party on the upper deck of a 747.

Who didn't love being cradled in the old United baralounger?

Who didn’t love being cradled in the old United barcalounger?

American Business Class To China For $450

This past spring American suffered their own fat-finger error when they inadvertently sold business class tickets from Washington, DC to China for $450. Our very own Ben actually booked three sets of these tickets, flying back-to-back-to-back trips to China, mostly for the miles and the status.

Great-Wall-02
This is a great view even without the screaming deal on the flights

I recently concluded that mileage running is more or less dead. But here we see that mileage running is possible, at least for those who can jump on a mistake fare and credit it to a frequent flyer program that still awards miles based on the distance flown, rather than the money spent. Mistake fares can also make for great status runs too.

Math Is Hard

Currency conversion issues are another cause of errors. Since tickets are sold all over the world, they have to be translated from one currency to another, and well, nobody likes doing math.

Myanmar To The US For About $300 On Various Airlines

Perhaps the best example of a currency error was in 2012 multiple airlines inadvertently sold first class tickets from Myanmar, to the US for a mere few hundred dollars.

Apparently Myanmar decided to float their currency, and the reservation systems had trouble converting Burmese Kyat to US dollars.

Not only that, but there were actually three separate and unique versions of this mistake that occurred over the course of several months. So if you missed the first one, or the second, well let’s just say that you had a lot of chances to jump on this deal.

Our kids were 21-months old and 7-months old at the time we did this trip — apparently not that many families visit Burma yet as the Yangon airport staff weren’t quite sure how to handle our stroller. We also got quite a reaction at Shwedagon Pagoda, to the point that a mob followed us around the complex.

A few hundred dollars could have gotten you a flight back from Burma

A few hundred dollars could have gotten you a flight back from Burma

United First From London To The US For $100

A more recent example of this type of mistake was earlier this year when United sold first class tickets from London to the US for about $100.

United ultimately did not honor these tickets, claiming that it required customers to manipulate their website to price the fares in Danish Kroner. The Department of Transportation, which theoretically has some authority in these matters, basically agreed with the decision.

Nobody got to fly in this seat for $100

Nobody got to fly in this seat for $100

How Do I Find Mistake Fares?

At this point, you’re probably thinking, wow, that sounds great but how do I take advantage of this?

There are literally thousands and thousands of fares between various cities all over the world so searching for a pricing anomaly is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Therefore most mistake fares are found randomly by people who are booking ordinary tickets.

The point is that you don’t really go looking for mistake fares — instead you just sit back and wait for one to happen. The trick is to make sure you are socially connected such that when one does happen, you’ll be among the first to know about it.

One very good source of this information is The Flight Deal. They don’t discover every mistake themselves, but they do seem to have someone awake at the wheel at all times such that they are always among the first to sound the alarm. In the interest of being timely, however, they simply provide the basics like the price, cities, and dates — just what you need to book the deal, and nothing more. (The FlyerTalk Mileage Run forum was the original place to find these deals, but these days I find that it’s easier to have information pushed to me rather than checking a website.)

After that, it’s best to check back at One Mile at a Time because if it’s a screaming deal, you can bet we’ll be talking about it.

Book Now, Ask Questions Later

In the world of social media, word travels fast. That’s both good and bad, of course. The upside is that we can all find out about these deals much easier than in the past. The downside, of course, is that the mass distribution means that the airlines find out about these mistakes quickly too. And they have gotten pretty good at shutting the barn door before the all cows get out.

So you need to book these fares quickly because they can literally disappear at any moment, possibly even while you have it on your screen.

My best advice is to take advantage of most airlines’ 24-hour courtesy cancellation policy — that way you can make speculative bookings knowing that if your spouse comes home and reminds you that she promised her parents that you’d both come visit that weekend, you can still cancel and get a refund. (American does not have this policy, so do give it little thought as to whether you really want to fly to China three times in two weeks.)

Finally the most important rule is DO NOT CALL THE AIRLINE while the deal is alive — bring your questions to OMAAT, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

Like Buying A Lottery Ticket

There’s no way to know if mistake fares will be honored by the airline. Historically, many of them have been, but some have not. The DOT recently signaled that they may soften the rules which would allow airlines to weasel out of their commitments, which may affect this going forward. (My personal belief is that many of them will continue to be honored — a lot were honored before the DOT had any jurisdiction, so we’re really just returning to that era.)

The best advice is to treat a mistake fare as a lottery ticket that you got for free. If it pays off, you fly to some random place that you’ve had your heart set on visiting since…. yesterday. If it’s not honored, you throw your ticket away, pout for a few minutes — at least that’s what I do — and then move on. There will always be another.

Just don’t make any non-refundable hotel reservations or other commitments until the dust settles.

Positioning Flights Can Be A Pain

It’s very rare for the same mistake fares to be available from multiple cities. In the case of American’s business class mistake to China, it was only valid for those departing from Washington, DC. That’s great for those that live in the District, not so great for the rest of us.

It’s therefore important to factor positioning — those flights you need to book to get from wherever you are to the origination of the mistake fare — into the total cost.

For those on the west coast, the cost of flying to Washington DC could have almost doubled the total trip cost. For especially good deals like the $450 business class to China, it can be worth it, though many times it may not.

Conclusion

It’s been said that the Kentucky Derby is the most thrilling two minutes in all of sports. A similar argument can be made for booking mistake fares.

Personally, I love the experience of frantically looking at our calendars, selecting dates that we think we can travel, and then trying to type our names and birth dates into the booking engine as fast as we can before the fare is pulled. Then we sit there with bated breath, anxiously waiting for a confirming screen or email, only calming down when the e-ticket numbers finally arrive.

And at that point, we try to figure out where it is that we just booked tickets to…

Did anyone else fly these fares? Any other deals you remember fondly?

About Travis

Travis has been playing in the world of miles and points for over a decade. At one time or another he has held status on just about every major domestic airline and hotel program. He has visited all 50 US states and over 50 countries. Nowadays he travels almost exclusively with his wife and three young children.

More articles by Travis »

Comments

  1. Thursday before Memorial Day weekend 2014, Priceline had JFK-MXP, PRG-NRT for $168. We booked quickly and enjoyed an amazing trip.

  2. Didn’t earn any miles…but Virgin Australia’s $104 Business Class round trip LAX-MEL was incredible. To date the only mistake date I’ve been able to get in on.

  3. Hasn’t American adjusted the rules to say that may not give mileage credit for mistake fares so that in the future those trips would not be worth it for status runs?

    I don’t know if there have been any mistake fares since the China one to test the new rules though.

  4. “Then we sit there with baited breadth”

    That would be bated breath. Unless you’re in the company of fat fish. 😉

  5. Travis: Can you clarify your comment about American not giving the 24 hr cancellation policy? I fly American infrequently, but I was not aware of this. Please elaborate. Thnx.

  6. Last one was about 15 years ago – when I was single. Sorry honey, but getting married definitely definitely cramped the ability get up and go at the drop of a hat.

    On another point. Something that Travis failed to mention is that flying on mistake fares may no longer earn you miles or status credit in the future. American has changed it’s AAdvantage rules to exclude mistake fares from earning mileage and/or status credit. Other programs – even those that are revenue based – will likely follow American’s changes. So, if that happens a mistake fare will only be a bargain IF YOU REALLY WANT TO MAKE THE TRIP. Unless you have a real desire to see Bismark in January, flying there/then at any price – even at $19 – is infinitely expensive if you’re not going to earn miles or status credit. Keep that in mind.

  7. You forgot to mention a very important rule: NEVER CALL THE AIRLINE. Do not call the airline and say “I want to jump on this mistake fare and am having trouble doing it.” Go online and ask others for help. DO NOT CALL THE AIRLINE

  8. @KahunnaTravel actuactually I doubt any of the airlines that have transitioned to revenue based systems will bother changing their policies on mileage earning. When you fly a cheap fare you earn basically nothing so why worry about it. Your point about booking it only if you really want to take the trip still stands though and they may play with status .

  9. Roundtrip to BOS>Milan for $179 was a good one. And we took advantage of the one laptoptravel mentioned above.

  10. I wish that I will come across a mistake fare one day! And that I will be able to book it! But between finding it in time, arranging time off from work for me and my girlfriend, and sorting everything out, 24h before having to decide if I go through and if I cancel is not a lot to make it happen!

    It’s easier when you have the freedom with your time like Ben have!

  11. It’s worth noting that while all airlines are required to offer some sort of 24-hour hold or cancel for flights departing the US, there is no such requirement for flights departing from other countries, so the United ex-LHR deals, for example, would not have been subject to such a requirement and you could have been stuck paying for them. Maybe not a huge deal on a $100 ticket, but had something like the $1500 NZ tickets been from a non-US origin point, it is probably worth taking a minute to think whether you actually want them, even if there’s a risk they disappear from underneath you.

  12. The JFK>MXP PRG>NRT deal was pretty great. Took my mom to Thanksgiving dinner at Joel Robuchon instead of cooking a turkey. 🙂

  13. I’m surprised you didn’t put a link to FlyerTalk on their section on mistake fares or premium fare deals. I think a lot of mistake fares are first posted there before it becomes viral via flightdeal and the blogs.

  14. Bgriff — Actually, the United policy is that you get 24 hours to cancel regardless of where the ticket originates.

    As for the United business class tickets to New Zealand — those were refundable anyway!

    I agree though that you should definitely be aware of these policies when making speculative bookings.

  15. KahunnaTravel:

    It’s true that AA did change their T&C after the China fare. But it hasn’t been put to the test yet.

    My personal view is that it’s a lot of bluster. It’s one thing to say something, it’s another to actually put it into action. We shall see I guess.

  16. “American does not have this [24-hour courtesy cancellation] policy..” Huh? Doesn’t USDOT require all airlines to offer no-fee cancellations within the first 24 hours for ex-US tickets?

  17. American allows you to put a ticket (and its fare) on “hold” for 24 hours. As I understand it, the requirement is that the airline either has to let you cancel within 24 hours, or hold the reservation for 24 hours.

    As far as mistake fares go, of course American will likely discover its mistake within 24 hours and it would probably just cancel any mistake fare tickets that are on hold.

  18. Waking up Christmas morning and booking ORD-AUH for $220 was beautiful. Only regret dident book the Manila or Mumbai flights. Etihad was awesome and if ya get a chance to go to the UAE for cheap get on it…

  19. I got during the night POA-BSB-MIA on Delta’s website for $199 roundtrip. Summer vacation for my family!

  20. Das wunderkind —

    We booked my in-laws for ORD-AUH on that fare for this coming October.

    Tried to convince my wife that we should join them, but I guess she thought that giving birth to our third child one month prior would be too much…. 🙂

  21. It might just had been a Eco class error fare, but the Alitalia voucher mistake in 2013 for a 40 € flight from Swiss to NYC and back to venice was well spend money..and a still fab exchange rate for us in the eurozone

  22. Hey Travis, I was wondering if there’s any way to protect tickets from having the airline cancel them. To put it in perspective, I bought miles from Smiles (Gol) really really cheap, kind of a mistake fare from them. I purchased tickets on Qatar Airways using those miles, and now almost a month after I bought them, I’m hearing from a lot of people who got their tickets cancelled (people who bought the same mistake fares I did). I was wondering if there’s anything I can do to stop Smiles form cancelling the tickets. After all, its their fault and mistake.. If it helps at all, the tickets have electronic ticket number already.
    Thanks for your time!

  23. Santiago —

    That’s an interesting story, one I’m not familiar with. Not sure I’m going to have advice, but would be interested in making sure I understand it. This is what I think you said.

    1. You bought miles from GOL which were really cheap, maybe a mistake.
    2. You later used those miles to book Qatar award tickets. E-tickets issued.
    3. Sometime later GOL clawed back the miles, cancelling the Qatar award.

    Is that right?

    Then what happened? Did they refund the purchase price of the miles?

    Does your Qatar ticket originate in the US?

    Just want to see if I understand the situation. Thanks.

  24. Best one I found was an absolute goldmine when Virgin Australia changed their booking system. $0 plus a small amount of points to cover taxes from my home city to BALI in BUSINESS CLASS. We went three times. Took my parents. A big group of our friends went. Fabulous.

  25. Oh and an awesome thing about that was that 2 of the 3 trips were during a period when VA was running a promotion where you got Status credits on reward fares. So I got full business class status credits for two international trips. Took me from Gold to Plat very easily. VA also allows Family Pooling so I got all of their status credits too!

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