Cheap flights: What are ‘mistake fares’ and how can you bag crazy discounts?

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When does paying $300 feel like getting something for free? The answer is when it’s the price of a round-trip ticket from the United States to Auckland on Air New Zealand, a flight which normally costs at least $800 per person for the long flight across the Pacific Ocean. The deal was extremely limited and only available for a few hours last week, but that didn’t stop travellers from booking enough tickets to cause Air New Zealand alarm. The $300 airfare wasn’t a sanctioned sale; it was an anomaly known to bargain hunters and the frequent flyer community as a “mistake fare.”

Although Air New Zealand ended up cancelling and refunding the tickets, mistake fares over the last few years, from $225 round-trips to New Zealand to $66 one-ways from the Maldives, have frequently been honoured by airlines. The lucky flyers who enjoyed unbelievably affordable travel didn’t deploy any shifty tricks to get them, either. Knowing a few basics is all it takes to improve your chances of becoming one of the lucky ones next time.

What is a mistake fare?

As Matthew Ma, co-founder of airfare deal website The Flight Deal explains on his site, “A mistake fare is essentially a pricing mistake – a low fare accidentally entered into booking systems due to a computer problem or human error.”

Another term for a mistake fare is a “fat finger fare,” as occasionally they literally come about because someone at an airline or travel website tapped the wrong button or keyboard key. Ma continues: “In some cases, the airline left too many zeros off the dollar price ($500 instead of $5,000); in other cases, there is a currency conversion mistake.”

There’s no exact science to figuring out whether or not an airline will honour a mistake fare. The decision is up to the individual airline, and typically revolves around how generous they’re feeling or how much value they believe honouring the fare will generate for them, in either good press or destination exposure and tourist spend.

In the event of a mistake fare, the best-case scenario is that the airline honours the impossibly low ticket price and the lucky travellers have a nice trip. The worst-case scenario, which played out last week with Air New Zealand’s round-trip flights from the United States to Auckland for between $300 and $600 (when the same flights typically start from $800 per person), is that the airline simply cancels and refunds all tickets. No cheap trip for you!

How to get a mistake fare

Bookmarking a few strategic websites and following the social media accounts of said sites will increase your chances of seeing the mistake fare alerts in time to act.

SecretFlying (secretflying.com) and Travel Pirates (travelpirates.com), the latter with multiple language websites geared towards Europe-based travellers, churn out budget airfare deals all day, every day.

Jack’s Flight Club (jacksflightclub.co.uk) is also a great tool for grabbing bargains – sign up to the alerts to be at the front of the queue for flight deals.

United States-based flyers have the additional excellent resource of The Flight Deal (theflightdeal.com) and Fare Deal Alert (faredealalert.com), websites that utilise an algorithm to uncover more than just mistake fares, but unbelievably low-priced airline tickets all around, with the caveat that the travel originates from a US airport.

Just as quickly as a mistake fare pops up, it can be discovered and corrected by the airline. Speed is your friend, and the general advice given on airfare deals websites is to “book first, plan later.”

Booking tips

Be flexible

Flexibility is requirement number one for successfully booking and flying a mistake fare. It’s not uncommon for a mistake fare to involve a one-way flight beginning in Vietnam, or require payment in a foreign currency, or include uncomfortably lengthy layovers in airports very far from both home and your destination. Mistake fares can be downright weird, and what you save in money you may make up for with stress.

Read the blogs

For some mistake fares, the recommendation is to book directly with the airline’s website. For others, it may be better to book with an online travel agency like Expedia or Travelocity. Do a Google search for the latest blog posts, and sift Twitter for the latest tweets on the topic of the individual mistake fare in which you’re interested, to see what those who’ve successfully booked are saying.

Consider a stopover

See if the airline allows free stopovers at their hub, and use this perk to create a two-for-one itinerary. For example, Emirates’ policy of allowing free multi-day stopovers in Dubai between international flights is something Toronto-based frequent flyer Melissa Kaita recalled when she grabbed a one-way flight with the airline from the Maldives to the United States for the mistake fare of $66 per person.

“I doubt I would have gone to Dubai without the mistake fare,” Kaita tells The Independent. “I turned the layover into a week in Dubai with my husband, and loved it.” 

Be mindful of your credit card

There is no predicting a mistake fare, and that goes as much for details like currency for payment as much as for departure and destination cities. Some fares may only be available if you pay in Norwegian Krone, or Indonesian Rupiah. For this reason, use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, or plan on adding at least 4 per cent to your payment.

What to do next

Wait. It may be a challenge to sit on your hands and not make additional travel arrangements, like booking hotels and activities, but a mistake fare is a gamble. The airline may cancel it right away, or it may take a week. Be patient.

What may happen

Airline cancels it and refunds the fare, as in the Air New Zealand case.

Airline cancels it but offers conciliatory a deal, such as a reduced price round-trip.

Airline cancels it, then changes its mind and honours the deal: the recent Emirates mistake, which Melissa Kaita travelled on, one-way from the Maldives to the United States for $66, was originally cancelled. The airline then changed its mind, and offered to reinstate the tickets.

Airline honours it.