How to Find and Book Mistake & Low Fares

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If you’re passionate about Big Travel with Small Money, you’ve learned how to use miles and points to travel for free (or really cheap).  But did you know sometimes the best deals for flights are paid tickets?

On occasion, airlines will mess up and publish low or mistake fares which are hundreds or even thousands of dollars below the normal cost of a ticket.  And sometimes, they’ll purposely release a small number of ultra-low fares as a promotion or to win new business.  This can often start a fare war between airlines as they try to match or beat the lowest fare on a certain route.

How To Find And Book Mistake & Low Fares

You Can Benefit From Mistake Fares, Ultra-Low Fares, and Fare Wars

The trick to getting these low fares is knowing where to look.  And because they don’t often last for very long (sometimes for a few hours!) you’ll need to book quickly before the fare disappears.

It’s much more common to find low fares or fare wars than mistake fares.  And you have to be flexible with your travel dates and destinations.  But I’ll show you how to find and book them!

How Do You Find Low Fares?

Link:   The Flight Deal

Link:   Airfarewatchdog

Link:   FareCompare

Link:   Flyertalk Mileage Run Forum

You’ll have to do some online research to find low fares.  Websites like The Flight Deal, Airfarewatchdog, and FareCompare publish deals daily.  If you don’t like having to check their websites periodically, subscribe to their emails and fare alerts to be notified of good deals.

How To Find And Book Mistake & Low Fares

Websites Like The Flight Deal Publish Dozens of Low Fares Every Day

Because many of these fares only last for a few hours, a better method is to follow these sites on social media.  You’ll have to “like” or follow them to get automatic updates in your Facebook or Twitter feed.

On Facebook:

On Twitter:

Another way to find low fares is to frequently search the Flyertalk Mileage Run forum.  Here you’ll have to do some digging, and sometimes the posts are geared towards folks who just book low fares to earn frequent flyer miles and elite status (mileage running).  But it’s a very good place to find mistake fares!

What Do You Do If You Find a Low Fare?

1.   Low or Mistake Fares

a)   How To Book

If you find a mistake fare, remember, the 1st rule of low-cost “Flight Club” is you do not call the airline telling them about low-cost “Flight Club.”  The 2nd rule of “Flight Club” is:  you DO NOT CALL THE AIRLINE about Flight Club!  😉

Really, don’t call the airline about low or mistake fares.

You don’t want to alert them to the error.  Low or mistake fares are often the result of data entry errors or miscalculations of fuel surcharges, discounts, or promotional fares.

The airline will eventually discover their mistake and correct the error.

Here’s a mistake fare I wrote about in April from Vancouver to Beijing.  And another for an error in pricing on Alitalia in 2012.

How To Find And Book Mistake & Low Fares

Mistake Fare Rule #1: DO NOT CALL THE AIRLINE!

Your best bet is to book your tickets immediately.

That can be difficult for folks who like to plan and organize everything before booking, but because these deals do NOT last long, if you wait you’ll likely lose the opportunity.  Mistake fares tend to only last hours.

Even if you’re not 100% sure you can travel, it’s usually best to book anyway.  Most (not all) major airlines allow you to cancel a ticket within 24 hours without penalty if you change your mind.  Here are the policies for some major US airlines:

Alaska AirlinesNo cancellation fee for changes at least 60 days prior to departure
American AirlinesCancel and get a full refund within 24 hours of booking as long as departure is more than 7 days away
DeltaCancel and get a full refund by midnight the day after you bought your ticket
SouthwestCancel and get a full refund within 24 hours of booking
United AirlinesFor tickets purchased through United.com or the United Customer Contact Center, cancel and get a full refund within 24 hours of booking
US AirwaysCancel and get a full refund within 24 hours of booking

Note:   Airline’s cancellation policies change often, so double-check before you book!  And other airlines’ policies may be different.

Some low or mistake fares can be booked directly on the airline’s website, while others require you to book through an online travel agency like Orbitz or Expedia.  Like some airlines, both Orbitz and Expedia offer a courtesy cancellation for a full refund within a short time span from the time you made your booking.

Orbitz’s policy is that you’ll get a full refund if you cancel by 10:00 pm CST the day after you booked, with the exception of the following airlines:

  • AirTran
  • Virgin America
  • Spirit Airlines
  • JetBlue

Expedia’s policy isn’t as clearly spelled out, but it sounds like there are exceptions to their rules, too.

Note that while Expedia says they won’t charge you a change or cancel fee, the airline still might!

b)   Will the Fare Be Honored?

Maybe.

If you’ve booked a ticket with a US airline, the fare will very likely be honored.  Since 2012, the US Department of Transportation has required US airlines to honor mistake fares.

If a consumer purchases a fare and that consumer receives confirmation (such as confirmation email and / or the purchase appears on their credit card statement or online account summary) of their purchase, then the seller of air transportation cannot increase the price of that air transportation to that consumer, even when the fare is a “mistake.”

That said, there may be some changes coming to this policy.  The Department of Transportation recently published a document which says:

The Enforcement Office has become concerned that increasingly mistaken fares are getting posted on frequent-flyer community blogs and travel-deal sites, and individuals are purchasing these tickets in bad faith and not on the mistaken belief that a good deal is now available.  We solicit comment on how best to address the problem of individual bad actors while still ensuring that airlines and other sellers of air transportation are required to honor mistaken fares that were reasonably relied upon by consumers.

How To Find And Book Mistake & Low Fares

I’ve Been Called Lots of Things, but Never a Bad Actor!

If you’ve booked your ticket with an overseas airline, you’re not protected by US Department of Transportation rules.  So it’s hit and miss as to whether the fare will be honored (depending on the rules for each country).  For example, Alitalia did NOT honor the mistake fare I wrote about.

c)   Don’t Book Non-Refundable Hotels and Activities Yet!

For this reason, if you book a low or mistake fare, do NOT book any other non-refundable plans, like hotel rooms, cars, or activities.  You should wait until you have a confirmed e-ticket, and even then, I’d wait a while after that just to be sure the airline doesn’t change their mind.

Again, the basic rules of low or mistake fares are:

  • Do NOT call the airline!
  • Book quickly as these deals don’t last
  • Do NOT make any non-refundable bookings for hotels, activities, etc. until you’ve gotten a confirmed e-ticket

2.   Ultra-Low Fares

Airlines will sometimes run promotions or seat sales with ultra-low fares between certain cities.  Sometimes it’s because they’re promoting a new route or trying to win business away from another airline.

For example, United Airlines currently has a seat sale with deeply-discounted fares from Chicago to various US cities.  You can fly from Chicago to Cleveland or Pittsburgh for as low as $49 1-way.

How To Find And Book Mistake & Low Fares

United Airlines Is Selling Deep Discount Fares From Chicago

And discount airlines, like Spirit, are well-known for their ultra-low fare promotions.

How To Find And Book Mistake & Low Fares

You Can Get Cheap Tickets When Discount Airlines Like Spirit Run Promotions

These aren’t mistake fares, so they WILL be honored.  And it’s okay to call the airline if you need to.  You can book these fares directly on the airline’s website.  But often these fares are limited, so again you might need to book quickly before the fare disappears!

3.   Fare Wars

Sometimes 2 airlines serving the same airport will engage in a “fare war,” where each basically tries to out-do the other in offering the lowest fare on a certain route.

Perhaps 1 airline is expanding into another airline’s hub and wants to promote their new services.  Or occasionally, there’s just some ill will between 2 airlines and they battle for the lowest fare.

Either way, folks benefit from fare wars because sometimes tickets can get really cheap!

A good example of this is the battle between Delta and Alaska Airlines in Seattle right now.  Seattle is Alaska Airlines’ hub, but Delta has been expanding its flights there significantly.  The 2 airlines are competing with promotions, bonus frequent flyer miles, and easier ways to get elite status.

How To Find And Book Mistake & Low Fares

The Battle for Seattle: Alaska Airlines vs. Delta

I checked Airfarewatchdog and found that Alaska Airlines and Delta were matching each others’ fares on many routes.  For example, you can fly round-trip from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska on either airline for only $244.

How To Find And Book Mistake & Low Fares

Alaska Airlines and Delta Are Matching Each Other’s Low Fares on Many Routes

These fares can be booked directly through the airlines and because they’re legitimate sale fares, they’ll be honored.  Though they may be in limited supply, so you should book sooner than later.  And yes, you can call the airline!

Bottom Line

You can get Big Travel with Small Money by booking mistake fares (which are uncommon) and ultra-low fares, or by taking advantage of fare wars between airlines.

To learn about these fares, consider signing-up for alerts from various airfare deal websites, or following these sites on social media.

Mistake fares don’t last long and, if they’re with an overseas airline, might not be honored.  But it’s worth booking quickly anyway because in many cases you can get a refund if you cancel within a short time frame.  Remember:  DO NOT CALL THE AIRLINE!

Ultra-low fares and fare wars are legitimate fares, but also may not last long depending on the demand for seats.

I still prefer using miles and points for award tickets, but if you find a really low fare it could be worth buying a ticket!  That’s because you’ll get frequent flyer miles and you can save your miles and points for more expensive tickets.

If you find a good deal or a low or mistake fare, please let me know!

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7 responses to “How to Find and Book Mistake & Low Fares

  1. Bravo — thanks for this post Daraius. No doubt you’ll get lots of the sneering “insider-crowd,” the ft folks, also calling you a “bad actor,” for daring to share some tools for finding these “mistake fares.” Nothing irritates me more than going to other sites only to be knowingly told that “insider rules of the club” prohibit us from sharing the good news, er, not publicly. (because to share such news will get you “banned” from the inside secrets, etc, etc., cuz it might ruin the deals, yada, yada, yada)

    btw, about that “bad actor” business, 🙂 how exactly would the government (read bureaucrat wanting to get a job as an airline exec) determine how “individuals are purchasing these tickets in bad faith.” What does THAT mean? So what would “good faith” be, by contrast?

  2. I literally busted out laughing when I saw the picture of Daraius sitting there with the dog, looking SO glum, as an illustration of mistake fares not being honored. The humor alone made the article worth reading! But the information is also greatly appreciated, of course. I knew about (and Twitter-follow) AirfareWatchdog, but some of the other sites were new to me. The more sources of intel, the better in my book.

  3. In March of this year, my husband and I flew New York to Milan for $179.88 round trip per person courtesy of a tip on Flightdeal. In November, we are flying half way around the world for $150 per person…leaving NY, 7 nights in Prague, 1 night in Amsterdam and then on to Tokyo (we getting home with AA miles) from a tip that Mighty Travels emailed me. Once I receive a tip, then I go to FT where everyone is talking ’bout it.

  4. Excellent article Daraius! Would you consider a write up on strategic bumping for the flexible traveler?

  5. @Will, no question DOT is super naive. It has suddenly occurred to them that maybe some people book a mistake fare not because they actually think the airline really meant to offer them a fabulous deal, but knowing full well it was an error, which probably applies to around 100% of those who read about it on Flyer Talk. What DOT really wants to protect the public against is an airline raising fares retroactively, which is a proper concern. The fact that their current rules actually “protect” FT obsessives and can create substantial harm to airlines is one more example of unintended consequences of well meaning but poorly thought out regulation.
    I would imagine there will be a change to establish a definition of a “mistake fare” category of fare which airlines could withdraw promptly, perhaps with some compensation or fine.

    On some international routes, there are indeed regular promotions that would seem to be mistake fares, on LCC’s in particular. I flew from Madrid to Bucharest for $0.00 plus taxes once.
    There were certainly ancillary fee opportunities available, but I didn’t use them, so had a practically free flight.

  6. Pingback: Mistake-Fares: What they are and my personal experience |