Of course we all love it when mistake fares happen and they’re honored and we get to travel the world at insanely cheap prices, especially in business or first class.
For some readers booking a $28 ticket to Paris presents a moral challenge: should you take advantage of something you know is a mistake? My own view is that I’m happy to book it, airlines will choose to honor it or they won’t, but if they’re going to fly people to Paris for $28 I’d like to be one of those people.
- Here are some of the all-time best airline and hotel mistake prices.
- Here’s how to find mistake fares
I’ve never been a fan of suing to try to enforce these fares. Nor have I been a fan of the Department of Transportation requiring that they’re honored. But I also think airlines and consumers should be treated the same — airlines shouldn’t be able to cancel mistakes on better terms than consumers (who are generally permitted under DOT rules to cancel for 24 hours after purchase if it’s more than a week out from travel).
Several years ago the Swiss first class fare originating in Myanmar was cancelled and the airline argued because it was discussed online as a mistake they shouldn’t have to honor. So many frequent flyers stopped calling great bargains ‘mistakes’.
Now that same issue returns. Via Wandering Aramean a German court ruled that a website distributing an ‘error fare’ on Lufthansa can be held liable in the future with both jail time and fines for publicizing mistakes that are called mistakes. At issue was “a business class return flight ticket to California for EUR 687 per person instead of the regular price from 3846.”
- Lufthansa suffers bad publicity when they don’t honor the deal
- They run up legal fees, both in Germany and abroad
- It takes time to cancel and resell the space, losing some opportunity to sell tickets at a higher price. (This seems speculative at best, since flights rarely sell out through mistake fares.)
- Publicizing an error fare increases the costs and consequences to the airline
In Germany apparently ‘truth’ is not a defense. Since the website publicizing the mistake is a “market leader in the area” they exacerbate the costs to the airline in a way no individual booking the tickets could and in doing so “acts unfairly.” If the website does it again they risk 6 months in jail and a 250,000 euro fine. Although it’s not clear that any consequences would follow if they simply highlighted spectacular deals versus mistakes.
In fact it’s often not clear whether a great deal is a mistake or not. When we started seeing $300 transatlantic fares two years ago I thought they were mistakes, same with $400 transpacific fares, but it turns out there have just been really great short-term (intentional) sales.
Some mistake fares are obvious to most consumers, but there have even been ‘obvious errors’ that were intentional marketing stunts. Drawing bright lines is hard.
Credit: Frank Unterspann via Wikimedia Commons
Back in 2005 Washington Dulles-based Independence Air loaded mistake fares intentionally into their system around midnight. They waited until a few tickets were purchased and then called the Washington Post in the morning, with the message that you never know what kind of great deals you might get at flyi.com! It was a guerrilla marketing campaign.