I make a point of posting about discounted premium cabin tickets as much as possible. The truth is that airlines are pricing first & business class tickets more reasonably than in the past in an effort to actually sell them, and there are plenty of cases where “ordinary” people can get a lot of value by just outright paying for business class.
In addition to just “legitimately” good fares, there are also mistake fares once in a while. I like to share these whenever possible, because you never know when the airlines will and won’t honor these fares.
However, a few people have commented about how everyone’s time is being wasted when these fares are posted about since they’re “never” honored, and I wanted to address that in this post.
Sometimes it’s not clear whether a fare is a mistake or not
There are some cases where it’s “obvious” that something is a mistake fare. For example, when American had ~$450 business class tickets between Washington and Beijing a few years ago, and those were cheaper than economy tickets, it was pretty obvious.
However, we also see ~$1,100 roundtrip business class fares from Colombo to the US every so often. Yes, Sri Lanka is a cheap market out of which to book airfare, but presumably that’s nowhere near the breakeven cost of a seat, so why would airlines sell seats like that?
Or what about the ~$1,200 China Eastern business class fares available right now between the Philippines and the US? I actually think those aren’t mistake fares, though at the same time I can’t wrap my head around what airlines are thinking when publishing them.
Airlines used to have to honor mistake fares, but not anymore
Back in the day the US Department of Transportation was really strict in requiring airlines to honor mistake fares that touch US soil, though they changed their policy in 2015. This was part of a policy against post-purchase price increases. Originally the relevant part of the policy was as follows:
The Enforcement Office explained that if a consumer purchases a fare and receives confirmation of the purchase and the purchase appears on the consumer’s credit card statement and/or online account summary, then there has been a purchase whether or not it was a mistaken fare and the post purchase price prohibition in section 399.88 applies.
In 2015 that policy was updated as follows:
As a matter of prosecutorial discretion, the Enforcement Office will not enforce the requirement of section 399.88 with regard to mistaken fares occurring on or after the date of this notice so long as the airline or seller of air transportation: (1) demonstrates that the fare was a mistake fare; and (2) reimburses all consumers who purchased a mistaken fare ticket for any reasonable, actual, and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses that were made in reliance upon the ticket purchase, in addition to refunding the purchase price of the ticket. These expenses include, but are not limited to, non-refundable hotel reservations, destination tour packages or activities, cancellation fees for non-refundable connecting air travel and visa or other international travel fees. The airline may ask the consumer requesting out-of-pocket expenses to provide evidence (i.e. receipts or proof of cancellations) of actual costs incurred by the consumer. In essence, the airline or seller of air transportation is required to make the consumer “whole” by restoring the consumer to the position he or she was in prior to the purchase of the mistaken fare.
In other words, if you book a mistake fare and it touches US soil, the airline does have to reimburse you for any verifiable out of pocket expenses as a result of the fare. Now, while that’s what they’re supposed to do, they may not make it easy, and you may even have to take the airline to court… and that might not be worth it, especially when we’re just talking about non-refundable expenses.
Are mistake fares ever honored anymore?
To the people who say “don’t waste our time with these super cheap fares, they’re never honored,” I disagree. Let’s look at the last four major mistake fares I wrote about:
- British Airways had ~$1,050 roundtrip first class fares from the UK to Ecuador; they didn’t honor this deal
- Air New Zealand had ~$1,100 roundtrip business class fares from Australia to the US; they didn’t honor this deal
- ANA had ~$700 roundtrip business class fares from Vancouver to Sydney; they did honor this deal
- Qatar Airways had insanely cheap roundtrip business class tickets from Vietnam to just about everywhere; they did honor this deal
So in the past few months alone we’ve seen two huge, widely publicized premium cabin mistake fares honored. That’s pretty good, if you ask me.
My approach to these fares isn’t changing
I’ll keep writing about cheap premium cabin fares, and when I suspect they may be a mistake, I’ll always mention that I wouldn’t recommend making any non-refundable travel plans around those fares yet, just in case the airlines end up canceling them.
Frankly I’m surprised airlines are still honoring mistake fares as much as they do. If airlines don’t honor them, however, I think they need to do a better job of communicating with those who booked them. For example, in the same way that passengers have 24 hours to cancel a non-refundable ticket, I think airlines should also let people know within 24 hours if these fares won’t be honored. I think British Airways’ recent mistake fare where they notified people 60 hours later wasn’t a reasonable timeframe in which to communicate, especially as several people quoted British Airways representatives as saying these fares would be honored.
Lastly, I again want to reiterate that I think we’re at a point where it sometimes isn’t clear what’s a mistake fare and what isn’t. For example, I think it’s obvious the British Airways first class fare was a mistake (it would have been less obvious in business class). But what about the ~$1,200 China Eastern business class fares from the Philippines to the US? Or what about the ~$900 LATAM business class fare I booked from Mexico City to Easter Island? I suspect both of these are legitimate fares, though others might assume they’re a mistake.
Where do you stand on the “state” of mistake fares?