“Mistakes Fares” are airlines tickets at an extremely low price that is likely the result of a mistake in pricing by the airline or travel agency. We will usually email out about 10-12 mistake fares per year, but you must book immediately. The airline will attempt to shut down the deal as soon as possible. I also highly recommend that you book directly with the airline instead of third-party travel website (Priceline, Momondo, etc.) if the price is within $50. If the airline is forced to honor the mistake fare, it is much easier to reinstate the booking if it is directly with the airline.
The downside to mistake fares is that airlines will attempt to cancel them. I would estimate that airlines will cancel about 50% of mistake fares, but if your flight is canceled, you can file a DOT compliant and try to make the airline honor the fare. DOT protections for mistake fares have been reduced over the past few years, but I was able to successfully win a case in 2017 against Emirates for a $101 one-way ticket from the Maldives to New York City.
DOT policy requires that airlines “reimburse all consumers who purchased a mistake 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.” This means any non-refundable purchase such as a hotel or tour that you may have reserved between the booking and cancellation.
We generally advise people to not make any non-refundable purchases for at least a week after a mistake fare, but you could technically get a free hotel or tour by booking a non-refundable reservation during this time period. I would only do that if you were 100% guaranteed to go to that country during those dates even if you had to book a different and more expensive flight. Additionally, if the non-refundable expenses cost more than the difference in airfare, the airline may decide to honor the fare. That could have been the reason why Emirates decided to honor the $101 fare since many of the Maldives resorts require non-refundable reservations and those hotels can easily be $300+ per night.
Some airlines gladly honor mistake fares like Hong Kong Airlines and Cathay Pacific below, who both honored $600 roundtrip business class tickets to Asia. Whereas, some airlines such as Lufthansa, would try to throw us in jail for publishing a mistake fare.
What Causes Mistake Fares
There are many different reasons why a mistake fare might occur:
An Airline Forgetting the Fuel Surcharge
An airline or online travel agency may forget to include the fuel surcharge. An airline ticket is composed of the fare + fuel surcharge + taxes. For some airlines, the breakdown may be $100 fare + $500 fuel surcharge + $50 in taxes. When an airline forgets the fuel surcharge, they price the flight at $150 in that example.
Airlines have code-sharing agreements which allow one airline to sell another airlines’ flights or to combine airlines on the same ticket. In rare occasions, this can cause the ticket to be mispriced either because a flight segment’s price is not taken into account, a fuel surcharge is left off, or a partner sells the ticket at the wrong price.
Human error may cause the ticket to be mispriced. A person may forget a zero at the end of the price. I booked Air France first class for $1,500, when the correct price was $15,000. (Air France ended up canceling my ticket)
Online Travel Agency Error
An online travel agency may misprice the ticket. There are hundreds of travel agencies, so one or two are bound to make a mistake a few times per year. But the chance that a small travel agency will honor the ticket you bought is very small compared to if an airline makes that same mistake.
Currency Conversion Error
There may be a currency conversion error. There was a famous mistake fare where a country devalued their currency overnight and people could book business class flights to Asia for about $200 when booking with that countries currency since airlines take a 7-day average currency price to price their flights. There was another mistake fare where a $4,000 United airlines ticket was listed for only $79 due to a mistake when converting from Danish Kroner to British Pound.