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HomePoints and MilesHow to Find Airline Mistake Fares: A Comprehensive Guide

How to Find Airline Mistake Fares: A Comprehensive Guide

Mistake fares may not be super common, but they are more accessible than ever.

Advertiser Disclosure: Most products in our articles are from partners who may provide us with compensation. However, opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain.

Mistake fares are arguably the best deal you’ll find in travel. You can sometimes save upwards of 90% over regular airfare – and even score first-class seats for cheap – without having to do much more than check a few websites regularly.

With airline loyalty programs devaluing miles and tacking hefty fuel surcharges onto award tickets, mistake fares remain a viable avenue toward affordable travel. But there are some downsides to be aware of.

For starters, airlines can cancel mistake fare bookings at their discretion. This can throw a wrench in any carefully-made travel plans you’ve made and crush your spirit. These fares are always available for a brief time, so booking decisions have to be made quickly and there’s no guarantee they’ll be honored. 

While there are some negative aspects to booking mistake fares, they’re often too good to pass up. If you’re able to secure a mistake fare and make it work with your schedule, you’re in for an incredible journey. While you can’t plan a trip around these fares in advance, you can prepare to strike when one becomes available.

Here is everything you need to know about mistake fares and how to take advantage of them.

airplane in the sky
Unsplash

What is a Mistake Fare?

A mistake fare is an airline ticket significantly discounted due to a pricing error. Mistake fares aren’t publicized by airlines. Instead, they’re often discovered by savvy travel hackers and shared on social media. Mistake fares aren’t protected by Department of Transportation (DOT) rules, but airlines often still honor them. 

You can get incredible deals with mistake fares, ranging from cheap domestic flights to incredible discounts on international itineraries. Notable mistake fares over the last decade include $400 round-trip business class tickets to Asia, $150 economy class tickets to Europe and $900 first-class seats to the Middle East. 

Sometimes, just the taxes and fees are calculated, generating abnormally low fares. Other times, currency conversion errors explain the discrepancy.

How Do Mistake Fares Happen?

Mistake fares typically happen due to IT glitches. An airline website or online travel agency (OTA) mistakenly prices out flights (and sometimes even hotels) substantially less than usual. Sometimes mistake fares pop up on weekends, when the IT department is out or understaffed.

How Common are Mistake Fares?

It’s difficult to say whether mistake fares are common since only a small percentage might get noticed. However, there are travel sites built exclusively for the purpose of finding and sharing mistake fares. Some of these sites operate on a subscription model, generating revenue from presumably satisfied customers. So while it’s difficult to pinpoint how common mistake fares are, they’re common enough to keep these businesses afloat. 

flight search online
iStock

How to Find Mistake Fares

The best way to find mistake fares is by following sites that specialize in them. Mistake fares often make the rounds on social media, as well as in the Slickdeals forums. Sites like Airfarewatchdog, The Flight Deal and Scott’s Cheap Flights also do an excellent job scouring the web for mistake fares and sharing them with their readers. On average, they report several mistake fares and flight deals every month.

Some of these sites offer premium subscription services that alert you of mistake fares ahead of others. Following these services on Twitter is another great way to find mistake fares. 

Before these services became commonplace, most travel hackers used FlyerTalk to find mistake fares. The trending page is a good starting point since mistake fare posts can quickly gain traction and end up on that page. 

At the time of this article’s publication, one top trending deal is for a $1464 Singapore Airlines business class ticket between Jakarta Airport (CGK) and New York (JFK). Granted, this isn’t the cheapest fare you’d expect from an “error,” but it’s a more realistic example than you’ll come across more often than $400 business class fares to Asia. 

For a DIY approach, you can conduct your own mistake fare search on Google Flights. Simply enter your departure airport, leave the destination blank and enter any travel date. On the search result page, select “All” under calendar > flexible dates and check off the duration of your trip (weekend, one week or two weeks). 

From there, you can use the map tool to find the lowest fares worldwide within the next six months. You might find a mistake fare or an excellent airfare deal this way. 

rows of airplane seats
Unsplash

Tips for Booking Mistake Fares

When you find one, booking a mistake fare might seem like a no-brainer, but a lot more goes into planning a trip than just scoring a cheap ticket. There are scheduling considerations and logistics to think about.

Once you secure one of these fares, it’s important to be aware of the risks. It’s really up to the airline to decide whether or not to honor these fares. If you end up booking hotels and your ticket is canceled, you might be on the hook for thousands of dollars in non-refundable bookings. Similarly, you might have difficulty securing a Visa due to ever-changing entry requirements resulting from the ongoing pandemic. 

Luckily, you can take a few simple steps to mitigate these risks altogether. Here are some steps you should take before and after booking a mistake fare:

Book Now, Plan Later

Most people spend a great deal of time planning their vacations and ensuring every aspect is well thought out. However, when it comes to mistake fares, your mantra should be “book first, plan later.” These fares can disappear at any moment, so you’ll want to book quickly. 

You’ll need to be flexible with your travel dates, departure cities and destinations. If you’re unsure about your travel dates, it might make sense to book several tickets on different dates and then cancel any that don’t work with your schedule. 

You do have 24 hours from the time of booking to cancel your flight without penalty. This rule applies to mistake fares as well as regular flight bookings. 

Wait Until Your Ticket is Issued Before Booking Hotels

Just because your ticket is booked doesn’t mean the airline can’t cancel it. That’s why you’ll want to hold off on making any non-refundable hotel reservations until your ticket is issued. This usually happens within 24 hours of booking. Once you’ve received a ticket number, it’s reasonably safe to proceed with booking the rest of your trip. Though to be extra sure, you might want to wait up to three days before making further travel reservations.

Pay With a Credit Card That Offers Trip Cancellation Insurance

When it comes to mistake fares, there are no guarantees. While you should be out of the woods once your ticket is issued, that’s no guarantee that the airline won’t cancel or something else might come up that will get in the way of your travel plans. This is why it’s so important to book both your flight and hotel with a credit card that offers trip cancellation coverage. 

Suppose your mistake fare is canceled or you can’t travel for a reason outside your control. In that case, your credit card’s trip cancellation policy might cover non-refundable travel expenses like hotel bookings. This is a step you should be following when booking any airfare, but especially in a highly volatile situation involving mistake fares.

If you’re interested in applying for a credit card that offers trip cancellation insurance, check out our list of the best travel cards. Many of our top picks include this feature as an added benefit.

Do Airlines Have to Honor Mistake Fares?

The DOT issued a rule in 2011 prohibiting airlines from increasing airfare post-purchase. However, in April 2015, DOT clarified that this rule did not apply to mistake fares. While airlines are no longer bound to honor mistake fares, many still do. There are no guarantees and it will depend on the type of fare and cabin class, but airlines might let you keep your mistake fare booking.  

If you book a mistake fare, you’ll want to wait until your ticket is actually issued before making any further travel plans. Usually, this takes place within 24 hours of booking. If the airline or OTA decides to cancel your mistake fare, you’ll usually get notified within that period, though it could take longer.

While we work hard on our research, we do not always provide a complete listing of all available offers from credit-card companies and banks. And because offers can change, we cannot guarantee that our information will always be up to date, so we encourage you to verify all the terms and conditions of any financial product before you apply.

Ariana Arghandewal
Ariana Arghandewalhttps://www.pointchaser.com/
Ariana Arghandewal is a rewards travel expert and founder of Pointchaser. She has covered all things points, miles and credit cards for over a decade and served as an editor at The Points Guy, NerdWallet, and FlyerTalk. Her work has also appeared in Forbes, Fodor's Travel, and U.S. News Weekly.

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