The Airline Mistake That Could Save You Hundreds on a Flight
People liken it to finding a wad of cash in their pocket, or happening upon a winning lottery ticket. Scoring a “mistake fare” -- basically, a grossly underpriced airline ticket -- can get you onboard a business class flight from Boston to Cancun for $28 round-trip, or afford you an intercontinental trek from Canada to Australia at a 90% discount. In an era when zipping across the globe in a matter of hours has become easier than ever, capitalizing off an airline’s snafu has for many people become a white whale: almost impossible to find, but one hell of a rush when you land it.
Mistake fares strike without warning. They’re usually borne of a blunder -- a currency conversion error, something hinky in fuel prices, or a glitch as picayune as a misplaced decimal point. They cough up a laughably low price and almost always vanish within hours or minutes. The errors can be egregious, prompting breathless news coverage and a mass convergence on the dreamlike deals. But there’s a reason you’ve probably never had the courtesy of flying on one: among the 87,000 flights traversing the United States on a daily basis, mispriced flights constitute a handful, at best. Their rarity, and their ephemeral nature, only add to the euphoric rush of actually scoring one.
Which is to say, they aren’t impossible for the layman traveler to nab. You can very well find yourself charting an exotic course with minimal outlay. But it’ll more than likely be facilitated by someone who sees it first and alerts you to the rare find.
“It simply involves a lot of patience, a lot of time, and a lot of man hours,” to become proficient at finding mistake fares, says Tarik Allag. As the founder of SecretFlying.org, a resource that has earned a growing deal of clout, Allag is part of a well-documented cadre of cheap-travel gurus who circulate mistake fares when they hit the market. Signing up for Allag’s email alerts are an easy way to cut through the deluge of flights. Without experts like him doing the scut work, you’re in a haystack hunting needles.
'People were booking 10 flights each'
Hunting for the deals is truly an expert’s domain, but when they appear, they can draw a crowd. Allag recalls a 2015 United Airlines snafu in particular. A currency conversion error on a Danish booking website priced business Class seats on a London to New York route at $70. The blunder was widely publicized, and naturally people pounced en masse, reportedly purchasing “several thousand” tickets before the airline noticed. Allag says the fiasco “took so long to fix, people were booking 10 flights each all night.”
The resulting charade and media spectacle boded poorly for United -- largely because the airline decided not to honor the purchases. Unless they’re running a lucrative email list, there’s not a lot of incentive for mistake fare hunters to publicize their finds. Put it this way: If you ran an airline, would you be more likely to renege on a single $1,000 error sale? Or on a 1,000-person dogpile of $1,000 mistakes?
"I didn't have plans to go to Singapore until I saw that deal."
“There was a time when [mistake fares] would last a good 24 hours and people would be booking them throughout the day and throughout the night,” Allag says. These days, urgency is key. Now, he says, a bargain hunter may have just 45 minutes before carriers clamp down.
That tight window only fuels the thrill. Webly Bowles booked a $670 round-trip mistake fare to Japan with the help of another cheap flight resource, Scott’s Cheap Flights. Booking, she says, was “quite panic-inducing, because you never know how long they’re going to last.” Still, she says trying to beat the system on your own is much harder: “It’s a hell of a lot easier for someone to say ‘Hey, here’s a deal, you should take advantage of it.” Consider it a cue.
A hotel's mistake can be just as lucrative
Airline industry analyst Gary Leff thinks mistake fares were more common a decade ago. Before the well dried up in 2009, though, he enjoyed some luxuries that were downright stupid, at costs lower than an Uber ride to the airport. He fondly recalls a $33 round-trip business class ticket from Toronto to Cyprus that included stopovers in Italy. For that one, he flew Alitalia, which intended to price the flight at $3,300 round-trip plus tax. Instead, he says, they loaded it as $33 plus tax.
Leff, who scored his first mistake fare purchase in 2002 -- a mouthwatering $55 business class ticket to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico -- notes that airlines still post mistake fares, but you might be luckier if you’re searching for glitches in hotel prices. In 2009, when Hilton flubbed a currency conversion between French Congolese and French Pacific Francs, Leff scored a hotel deal in Bora Bora Nui that would make Richard Branson blush: “We got $1,000-a-night over-water villas including breakfast and dinner for about 100 bucks,” he says. Another time, Leff managed to stay at the Hilton in Tokyo/Osaka for $3. This was after Expedia neglected to add two zeroes to the price listed in yen. On his website, he writes: “$200 a night for a standard room and $300 a night for an executive room (complimentary breakfast, evening cocktails, internet) ... became $2 and $3 respectively.”
Leff says that the halcyon days of airline mistake fares have largely subsided. “We see [mistake fares] coming up less often than they used to,” he says. “One simple reason for that is there are better tools that airlines have at their disposal.” The government, too, used to intervene when mistake fares were disputed by airlines. Then, in 2015, the US Department of Transportation ruled that airlines no longer have to honor mistake fares.
Even if you’re lucky enough to find that $38 jewel amid $1,000 tickets, there’s about a 30% chance the airline simply cancels the ticket, by Allag’s estimate. But for the people who chase ‘em, there’s still a thrill in the chase -- and in the payoff.
'I didn't have plans to go to Singapore until I saw that deal'
For every airline that has upgraded its software to zap mistake fares and curtail a financial hemorrhage, “plenty of airlines around the world just aren’t adept at using the tools at their disposal,” Leff says. To exploit this happy fact, a plethora of services cater to the cause. One is Scott’s Cheap Flights, led by Scott Keyes, who has a full-time staff dedicated to scouring the internet for flight deals both intentional and un-. Among the alerts he sends to his 400,000-plus email subscribers, you might get a mistake fare about once a week.
Since there’s no way of knowing when a mistake fare will arise and where it’ll fly, you need to be comfortable with spontaneity. Keyes casually lists an array of silly-cheap deals he and his team have sourced. “I and a number of folks on the team here have booked mistake fares -- $170 round-trip to Japan, $130 round-trip to Italy, $650 round-trip business class from Singapore to the US,” he writes in an email.
The flight should've been $3,300. Instead, the airline loaded it as $33 plus tax.
All the experts I spoke to concurred that most mistake fares occur outside of the US, meaning whatever unforeseen journey you embark on will likely take you overseas. That was the experience of J.M. Hirsch, who booked a $416 round-trip fare from Boston to Singapore via one of Keyes’ alerts. “Truthfully, I didn’t have plans to go to Singapore until I saw that deal,” he says. “But you can’t ignore something like that. That trip would easily cost $1,000 or more most of the time.” Hirsch says the pitiful odds of finding mistake fares by a manual search are dismal, and is fine delegating that scut work to the experts. “I just assume there’s some magic algorithm at work that is best left to the pros,” he says, adding that the best course of action for finding mistake fares is “to check my email. Seriously. The alert from Scott’s makes it effortless.”
Below the cottage industry of emailing out these deals, you can also find a subculture of flight shoppers who prefer to find mistakes and stay mum. “A lot of this just comes down to information sharing,” Leff says. While he isn’t keen to discuss the more secretive groups in detail, he notes that some hinge on “password-protected forums, or maybe email lists that you can just choose to join.” Somewhat cryptically, he adds, “the way you become a part of these is to know someone who’s already a part of them. To meet someone who’s already a part of them.”
Getting involved in one of these circles isn’t easy, as there are some that dole out access only through nominating processes. They aren’t interested in publicity, says Scott Keyes: “In their mind, all press is bad press for the hobby.”
But even if you’re not inclined to enter the fray and scrap with the pros, there are still clues for the casual set. Keyes says legacy carriers are usually the most likely perpetrators of mistake fares, because their tech systems are so outdated. “The older airlines (which tend to be bigger) generally have older IT systems for bookings,” he says. “In many cases these are a house of cards built on top of 1970s computer technology.”
For instance, both Hirsch and Bowles booked their mistake fares with Japan Airlines, founded in 1951, and Air Canada, founded in 1937. So if you do want to go fishing for mistakes, scan the industry’s older-guard carriers. Experts like Keyes and Allag are there always there to help, too, so when mistake fares fall out the sky, they have a higher likelihood of landing in your lap.
And if you do find some preposterously low fare on your own? Don’t refresh the browser page. Don’t call the airline and ask, “Can this be right?” Don’t sleep on the decision and come back to it the next day. Instead, book that sucker and step into the void. Airlines make mistakes all the time. You might as well come out on the right side of one, for a change.