“Mistake fares.” These two words make my heart beat quicker but also leave me with mixed feelings. I’ve been lucky enough to travel on several mistake fares, including Cathay Pacific’s New Year’s “special” in 2019. But, my husband and I have also spent significant time booking potential mistake fares on many occasions, only to have the airline cancel our booking days or weeks later.
That’s right: Mistake fares are a “win some, lose some” experience. You might be able to visit a new destination or experience a premium cabin for far less than normal. But since a U.S. Department of Transportation ruling from 2015 allows airlines under its jurisdiction to cancel mistake fares even after you’ve paid and received a confirmation, you could be left with nothing to show except lost time and frustration.
In this guide, I’ll discuss everything you should know about mistake fares, including what they are and your rights if the airline cancels your ticket.
What is a mistake fare?
Simply put, a mistake fare occurs when an itinerary is priced differently than intended. Mistake fares could occur for many types of travel, including buses, trains and flights. Mistake fares also include fares that are priced higher than intended. But the mistake fares that get the most attention — and that travelers are most interested in booking — usually involve airfare priced significantly lower than intended. These significantly mispriced flights are primarily what I refer to as “mistake fares” throughout this guide.
The airfare could be lower than intended for many reasons. Sometimes, a dynamic pricing algorithm drops a fare too low in an attempt to manage capacity. But in many cases, the low fare results from human error, such as someone leaving off one or more zeros when inputting a number, or entering an economy fare instead of a first-class fare.
Mistake fares aren’t labeled as such during booking, so you may assume you’ve merely booked a good deal until the airline cancels your ticket or makes an official statement about the fare. To give you an idea of what constitutes a compelling mistake fare, some previously honored fares include New York to Abu Dhabi from $187 round-trip in Etihad Airways economy class, Los Angeles or San Francisco to Asia from $561 round-trip in Hong Kong Airways business class and Da Nang, Vietnam, to New York from $678 round-trip in Cathay Pacific business class.
Of course, defining a “mistake” versus a “deal” isn’t always easy. For example, a one-way, business-class flight from the U.S. to Asia for $90 is almost certainly a mistake. But what if that fare is $900? That’s also inexpensive, but it’s not wildly low.
How to find a mistake fare
Finding a mistake fare is more art than science, as the most compelling ones are short-lived and often disappear extremely quickly. So once you learn about a potential mistake fare (and you’re comfortable with the risks of booking), you’ll want to investigate quickly.
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Even if you don’t search for flights frequently, here are three ways you might learn about a potential mistake fare.
Enroll in a service
The easiest way to learn about potential mistake fares is to enroll in one or more flight deal services. These services usually flag numerous deals, but most won’t be mistake fares.
My husband and I currently use Thrifty Traveler, Ashley Gets Around, Going and Straight To The Points. Other popular flight deal sites and services include The Flight Deal, Airfare Watchdog, Dollar Flight Club and Secret Flying.
Many of these sites and services are free, but you can upgrade to a paid version for more deals, earlier notice, customized deals and more. So you might consider signing up for the free version with a few of these and then determining if you think a paid upgrade with one or more is worthwhile. If you book just one great deal you wouldn’t have otherwise known about, the fee could be worth it.
Related: Key tools and tips to find the cheapest airfare
Set up price alerts
If you have some destinations you want to visit, consider setting up price alerts in Google Flights. Our guide to using Google Flights discusses exactly how to do so. But, at a high level, you’ll want to do a search in Google Flights and toggle the slider for “Track prices” next to either the specific dates you searched or “Any dates.” Then, you’ll get an email if prices drop for your tracked flights.
Setting up alerts in Google Flights could let you see a potential mistake fare or deal to get to a destination you’ve been waiting to visit.
Perhaps the best way to find under-the-radar potential mistake fares — which may be more likely to get honored, as the airline has less incentive to cancel if only a few people book the fare — is to make friends who will let you know when they discover an excellent fare.
Online groups, local meet-ups and conferences are a great way to meet like-minded travelers with whom you may become close enough to share deals and tips. Once you have a collection of travel-related group chats on your phone, the chances increase that you’ll hear about potential mistake fares before they reach the major flight deal websites and services.
Related: When is the best time to book flights for the cheapest airfare?
How common are mistake fares?
Mistake fares at exceptionally low rates are relatively uncommon, especially if you’re primarily interested in fares that start (or end) in the U.S. Within the last year, I looked into about a dozen potential mistake fares I heard about and found compelling enough to investigate. But look at Secret Flying’s error fare page to get an idea of what types of potential mistake fares have been available recently.
Related: How far in advance can you book a flight?
Will the airline honor the mistake fare?
When you book a great fare that could be a mistake, there’s no way to quickly determine whether the airline will honor the fare. You don’t want to contact the airline and draw attention to the fare, as this could cause the airline to cancel the fare as a mistake. So, the best way to determine if the airline will honor a potential mistake fare is to wait.
The Department of Transportation’s Enforcement Policy Regarding Mistaken Fares (PDF file) from May 2015 offers background on the department’s historical stance on mistake fares and lays out the following enforcement policy:
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 air line or seller of air transportation: (1) demonstrates that the fare was a mistaken 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.
As such, airlines can cancel any fare they demonstrate was mistaken. This is a low bar, so fewer airlines have honored mistake fares since this policy was introduced in 2015.
Of course, the above policy only applies to fares under the Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction. Other countries may have different policies that make a potential mistake fare more or less likely to be honored. Airlines may also opt to honor a potential mistake fare if the cost of doing so is less than the cost of not. This is why you’ll often see travelers hope the fare is discontinued shortly after they book, as a potential mistake fare has a higher likelihood of being honored if fewer travelers book it.
Related: What happens when an airline or hotel can’t provide a stay or flight you booked?
What happens if the airline cancels the mistake fare?
The first sign an airline is canceling a potential mistake fare is often when the reservation disappears from your online account. You may also get an email, phone call or both if the airline decides not to honor your reservation. Sometimes, the airline may offer you a discount for an upcoming trip or honor your booking in a lower class of service.
The airline may not proactively offer to reimburse “any reasonable, actual, and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses that were made in reliance upon the ticket purchase,” as required by the Department of Transportation for flights under its jurisdiction. As a result, for simplicity’s sake, I highly recommend waiting to book any nonrefundable plans until closer to your travel dates if you think the fare could be a mistake. But, if you made any nonrefundable bookings in reliance upon the ticket purchase, you’ll want to bring these up when the airline calls or emails to notify you it’s canceling your fare.
Airlines under the Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction must also refund the price you paid for the ticket if they decide to cancel the fare. Some airlines may attempt to provide a trip credit — sometimes for a higher amount than you’d paid as an incentive to take the credit — but you should be given the option for a full refund to your original payment method. As a last resort, you can dispute the credit card charge if the airline refuses to provide a refund after canceling your fare.
Finally, even in the age of dynamic award pricing, we’ve seen some award fares that airlines have decided were mistaken. A recent example was when Air France-KLM Flying Blue sold transatlantic one-way business-class flights for as little as 1,500 miles. Many travelers, including my husband and I, transferred rewards to Flying Blue to book this seemingly great deal. Flying Blue honored its mistake for its elite members who booked for 13,500 miles but canceled all other awards it had priced lower than intended.
This left travelers who’d transferred points to book flights during the mistake fare with miles stranded in their Flying Blue accounts. To their credit, senior leaders at Flying Blue say travelers whose bookings weren’t honored can reverse the transfer from their bank program. This is highly unusual and apparently a very manual process. So, I recommend carefully considering whether you want rewards stuck in a program before you transfer bank points to a program to book an award flight at an exceptionally low rate.
Related: Tips and tricks for finding a great travel deal
How to book mistake fares
I highly recommend booking potential mistake fares directly with the operating carrier whenever possible. By doing so, your fare will be honored as long as the operating carrier doesn’t cancel it. Plus, the operating carrier will usually be the easiest to deal with for refunds. Your second choice should be an alliance partner, such as an Oneworld airline if you are booking an American Airlines flight.
However, online travel agencies are sometimes the only way to book potential mistake fares. When you book through an OTA, you ask it to book travel on your behalf. But, if you experience issues with your ticket — including the airline choosing not to honor it — you’ll need to work with the travel agency instead of directly with the airline for refunds or rebooking. And frankly, this is usually a hassle. I may book through a reputable OTA or credit card travel portal if the fare is good enough, but I’ll avoid less-well-known OTAs and those with plenty of negative online reviews, as past experiences have shown that booking potential mistake fares through them is rarely fruitful.
Related: Reasons to avoid booking through an online travel agency
Potential mistake fares can provide excellent value if you book quickly and the airline honors your reservation. However, airlines often cancel these extremely low fares, leaving you with lost time and frustration, especially if the airline doesn’t automatically provide a refund to your original payment method.
If you book a fare that the airline could later classify as a mistake, wait at least a few weeks to plan other aspects of your trip, and try to avoid making nonrefundable purchases. Although the Department of Transportation requires airlines to reimburse “any reasonable, actual, and verifiable out-of-pocket expenses that were made in reliance upon the ticket purchase,” getting this reimbursement may not be straightforward, and not all airlines and flights you might book are covered by Department of Transportation regulations.