How to get in on the next $50 flights from Europe: Mistake Fares Explained

What is this I was hearing about $50 business class tickets from London?

On February 11, if you went to the United Airlines website and set your country to Denmark, then almost any business class seat from a European city showed up for $50 if you booked in Danish Kroner. Bedlam ensued.

What’s a mistake fare?

A mistake fare occurs when an airline or third-party seller (think Expedia or Priceline in the U.S.) incorrectly inputs the cost of the airfare or another similar error occurs that causes the price of a flight to be inordinately low.

Changing to Denmark and booking in Danish Kro…how in the world do people figure these things out??

Most of the time people don’t; most mistake fares are corrected before anyone even notices. But every once in a while, someone who’s actually from Denmark will be booking a business class flight from Europe in Danish Kroner, will tell someone else, and that someone else will tell many, many people.

Do airlines have to honor mistake fares?

Unclear. Mistake fares are not always honored, but no one has gotten a good answer on whether or not it’s illegal to not honor the purchase. If the mistake fare is posted by a U.S. company, the Department of Transportation has rules against changing the the price of a ticket after purchase:

“It is an unfair and deceptive practice within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. 41712 for any seller of scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, or of a tour (i.e., a combination of air transportation and ground or cruise accommodations), or tour component (e.g., a hotel stay) that includes scheduled air transportation within, to or from the United States, to increase the price of that air transportation, tour or tour component to a consumer, including but not limited to an increase in the price of the seat, an increase in the price for the carriage of passenger baggage, or an increase in an applicable fuel surcharge, after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of an increase in a government-imposed tax or fee. A purchase is deemed to have occurred when the full amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer.”

(via The Points Guy)

United decided not to honor the $50 busines class tickets citing a “third party currency conversion error”, so no one who actually booked the most recent mistake fares are actually getting to fly on them. How they’re planning on getting around the DoT rules is still a mystery.

Have you ever gotten in on a mistake fare?

Sore subject. Yes, I purchased the ticket, but no, I never flew on it.

In late 2013, the Norwegian site Wideroe (a third party booking site) mistakenly posted fares from Newark to Milan for $124 roundtrip. I quickly bought tickets for Julie, Mike, and another friend, and was all set to go.

Until my credit card decided to reject the charges at 3am and I missed the fare because the ticket was cancelled before I could clear the fraud alert.

Hmmmm….this all sounds a bit sketchy, is it safe?

Yes, it’s safe. Once you purchase a ticket, mistake fares are treated no differently than full-priced fares. You’ll receive the same service on the same flights, no matter the cost of the ticket.

OK, but is it ethical?

The ethics of it are a different question. You’re purchasing something for considerably below it’s worth, at a price that was never meant to be offered. At the same time, it’s not your responsibility to price these flights and if you’re interested in traveling on a budget, this is a good opportunity to do so.

Here’s how I go about it: if I can reasonably use the flights, I’ll book them. For example: I’ve got several trips to Europe already booked, so I decided to sit out on the most recent United mistake fare even though I caught it in enough time.

How do I go about partaking in one of these mistake fares?

First and foremost: be flexible. Mistake fares will almost assuredly not be for when and where you want to go. If you’re looking to book them, be willing to travel to almost anywhere at almost anytime.

For knowing when a mistake fare occurs, follow Leap Forward Travel on Twitter or on Facebook. We’ll post something the second we hear about these flights.

Another good resource is following Airfare Watchdog or The Flight Deal on Twitter. Their jobs are to monitor airfare deals (not just mistake fares), so even if you don’t get in on a mistake fare, you may find a good price for a flight somewhere else.

Finally, the Mileage Run Deals Flyertalk forum almost always have them before anyone else. As long as you’re willing to wade through a lot of noise, you can be one of the first to book the elusive mistake fare.

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