“Mistake fares” are when you see insanely crazy fares on full service airlines. They are usually too good to be true. For example, Auckland, New Zealand to Oakland, California in business class return with Delta Airlines for a mere US$900. Or from Florence, Italy to Victoria, Seychelles, and returning from Seychelles to Dusseldorf, Germany, all for €596 in business class, operated by a combination of Air Seychelles and Etihad Airways (ticketed on Alitalia papers). Or a US$174 economy round trip fare from Dallas, Texas to Melbourne, Australia on Virgin Australia.
All these three examples were real and took place at various times in 2017. So, yes, they do exist. However, the outcome, whether you will fly or not, varies considerably.
Commonly, mistake fares are due to human error such as someone entering the digits wrongly, or the airline messes up complex routing rules, or it could simply be an IT glitch.
Airlines do not have to honour these mistake fares, and they can cancel your ticket or downgrade you anytime, right up to departure time. Until recently, the US Department of Transport (DoT) was in support of the customers for mistake fares, but not anymore. Now DoT only requires the airline to reimburse the customers for non-cancellable and verifiable expense items arising from the mistake.
If you find a mistake fare, please do not make onward arrangements such as connecting flights and booking hotel nights until you are very sure that the airline is honouring the fare.
The etiquette when finding and using a mistake fare is to lie low for a few days. Do not call the airline to alert them. When the dust settles, evaluate the situation again and take it from there. Invariably, which path the airline chooses, will depend on how much it values its reputation against the economic consequences. If you put the values in a chart, you will find that these two factors are almost inversely proportional to each other. But not always.
Spoiler alert. Of the three examples above, only one was honoured by the airlines. Delta Airlines cancelled all the bookings for Auckland-Oakland-Auckland after nine days, but reinstated them after public complaints; Alitalia cancelled all the bookings for the Florence-Seychelles-Dusseldorf after a week; and Virgin Australia pleaded ‘human error’ and cancelled all the tickets for the Dallas-Melbourne-Dallas after nine days.
Our position with mistake fares: if they fit our travel plans, we will not hesitate to go for them. We will certainly wait and see if the airline honours the ticket. If they do, then only we make our onward travel arrangements. If they do not, we see it as another booking that did not materialise, and just move on. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
Is it worth it? See our next installment in this series.