Have you ever heard a friend tell you that he bought a plane ticket to New York and paid a ridiculous price? He probably got lucky and ran into a mistake fare.
What are mistake fares and how do I find them?
If you are wondering what a mistake fare is, I can tell you that it is simply a price entry error and occurs when an airline sells an airline ticket at a much lower price than usual.
As there is no real definition of a mistake fare, it is legitimate to consider a fare to be a mistake when it is 30% to 40% lower than the fare generally charged on the same route.
How rare they are and how long they last
Although still present, mistake fares are much less frequent than in the recent past. Whereas only 10 years ago there was one price error per week, today the frequency is closer to one error per month. Airlines and OTAs constantly monitor their offers, which is why price errors have a very short residual life, usually only a few hours, more rarely a day.
What are the causes of mistake fares?
We live in a world dominated by computers and technology and yet every now and then we still come across a faulty fare. How is this possible?
There are many factors that cause mistake fares, but the most common cause is still human error. All data, before being processed, is entered into the computer system by people and an oversight, a spelling mistake or a comma in the wrong place can happen. Usually these errors are known as fat-finger errors.
Technological problems, communication problems and the use of foreign currencies are other fairly common causes.
The price of an airline ticket is determined by complex algorithms. The computer systems of airlines, although monitored by specialized personnel, are not immune to bugs and some inconvenience can always happen, as in 2014 when US Airways offered a round trip ticket for the route Milan New York at 173 euros. The cheapest price appeared only if the search indicated the airports of Milan Malpensa and New York JFK. By contrast, a generic search for a flight between Milan and New Yorkshowed the correct ticket price, which was significantly higher.
Even communication between airlines and OTAs, online travel agencies, can lead to error. For example, an airline may communicate a price discount that is then mistakenly entered as a percentage discount.
Booking systems that provide for payments in the currencies of different countries can cause a mistake fare: in this case it is not a genuine error, but a failure to promptly adjust the proposed price in one of the currencies with which the purchase is permitted. It can happen in case of currency tensions and strong devaluations.
What to do when you find the wrong rate
When you are lucky enough to find the wrong fare for your dream destination, the first thing to do is obviously not to waste time and buy your ticket right away.
If you are searching through a metasearch engine, select the airlineweb site and complete the purchase here. The booking via OTA is not immediate but some time may pass between the payment and the request for issuing the ticket by the online agency, with the risk that in the meantime the wrong rate may no longer be available. In this case, direct booking reduces the time, by increasing the chance of making a purchase at a very affordable price.
Can airlines cancel a ticket?
A ticket sold with the wrong fare can be cancelled by the airline, which will then refund the full amount paid. Statistically, it is quite rare for a ticket sold with a wrong fare to be cancelled, typically only 10% of tickets are cancelled, because although mistake fares are a financial loss, dissatisfied customers complaining through social media are negative publicity that airlines prefer to avoid. In order to assess whether our ticket can be cancelled, one can follow this general rule: the more obvious the mistake (a first class round trip flight to Sydney for €1,000 instead of €10,000), the greater the likelihood that the sale will be deemed invalid.
In the event of ticket cancellation, you will be contacted by the airline or travel agency via email.
Can they charge me the correct amount?
The answer to this question is very simple: airlines cannot charge the difference between the correct amount and the wrong fare. However, they can decide to cancel the ticket. In this case, we can choose whether to buy the ticket again, paying the correct price, or to request a refund of the amount paid.
It may also happen that the airline decides to cancel the ticket but then offers the traveller to fly in a lower class, changing from first class to business class in the event that they decide not to request a refund of the ticket, as Air France did on the Paris-New York connection that was mistakenly sold at $500.
What can I do if my ticket is cancelled?
If an airline decides to cancel your ticket, there is little you can do to force them to change their mind. In any case, the first thing to do is to make a complaint to the airline’s customer service department asking that the ticket you purchased be kept valid.
In this case, the airline may offer you not only a refund but also a credit to be used for a future booking or miles to be accumulated with Frequent Flyer plans.
Precautions to follow
When you are lucky enough to come across a wrong airfare, it is a good idea to wait a couple of weeks before planning the rest of your trip, postponing the booking of any non-refundable expenses, whether hotel, rental car or visit to a local attraction, until your flight ticket is issued or you receive your booking confirmation code. From this moment on, you are assured that your ticket will not be cancelled.
Finding the wrong fare is always a fluke. It can be a risk, because the airline might cancel the ticket, but if the airline decides to honour the sale, you can be sure that you have indeed saved hundreds of euros!