How to find & book mistake fares

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If you’re passionate about affordable travel, 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.

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 we’ll show you how to find and book them.

You can get an incredible deal with a mistake fare. MMS editor Meghan once scored round-trip lie-flat business class tickets to Thailand for under $500! (Photo by SOUTHERNTraveler/Shutterstock)

What is a mistake fare?

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. Which is why they usually don’t last long. And it’s also why you don’t want to alert the airline about the mistake fare.

Your best bet is to book your tickets immediately. And, of course, tell your friends and family about it. The more the merrier!

That can be difficult for those 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 — sometimes even less than that.

Even if you’re not 100% sure you can travel, it’s usually best to book anyway. Most major airlines allow you to cancel a ticket within 24 hours without penalty if you change your mind. Take a look at our guide to cancellation policies for major U.S. airlines.

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.

How to find mistake fares

The trick to finding low fares is knowing where to look and always being on the lookout. You’ll have to do some online research to find low fares. Websites like The Flight Deal, Airfarewatchdog, Scott’s Cheap Flights and Secret Flying 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.

Follow sites on social media and sign up for alerts

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.

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!

Drawbacks and things to look out for with mistake fares

The main drawback of booking a mistake fare is that the airline may or may not honor your ticket. If you’ve booked your ticket with an overseas airline, you’re not protected by U.S. 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 this reason, if you book a low or mistake fare, don’t 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, we’d suggest waiting a while after that just to be sure the airline doesn’t change their mind.

Alternatives to mistake fares 

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 recently had a seat sale with deeply-discounted fares from Chicago to various U.S. cities. You could fly from Chicago to Cleveland or Pittsburgh for as low as $49 one-way.

Discount airlines, like Spirit and Frontier, are well-known for their ultra-low fare 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!

Fare wars

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

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

Bottom line

You can get incredible deals 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. Just remember: Don’t call the airline! 

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

Even if you can’t score a mistake fare, you can always use the miles and points earned from the top travel rewards cards to help offset the cost of your vacation.

Deborah Atchison is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, she covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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