“Do Not Call” the Airline or Hotel During a Mistake Fare, and Is There Strength in Numbers or Best to Keep a Deal Quiet?

Right after I posted an explanation of why there are very few airfare mistakes these days, we get two in a row — first tons of premium cabin award space available on Singapore Airlines (which looks like it’s being honored without any difficulty) and second United MileagePlus awards that touch Hong Kong for 4 miles (it’s too early to say for sure what will happen, though apparently at least two people have already flown on the deal).

Both of these examples are consistent with my explanation — that ‘fat finger’ discounts where a zero or two are most commonly left off of a paid airfare are mostly a thing of the past. The system that airlines load their international fares into now contains a warning screen that flags fares that look too low. So it’s only airlines without good processes and training, whose employees don’t understand the tools they’re given, that generally load these types of fares anymore.

It’s mostly other types of glitches that happen — due to a currency conversion problem or routing rules, for instance.

Or in these cases, what looks like an inventory screwup during a reservations system cutover, and a technical problem at United.com calculating the number of miles for an award.

And these prove that even if the old sort of lucrative “$33 instead of $3300 business class fare” mistake doesn’t happen much anymore, at least not with North American or European airlines, mistakes are far from dead.

Which is why general principles remain important to understand in advance, so you’re ready when something comes along.

Get in on the deal right away. You really can’t wait, you don’t know whether deals will be gone in 5 hours or 5 minutes. Don’t wait until your spouse is out of a meeting, or try to get 5 family members all traveling together o the same flights. Don’t spend an hour discussing what you’d want to do while you’re in Singapore, or whether you really need to include an additional segment to Kuala Lumpur. You have to jump right away.

These things are usually refundable. Consider how much money is at stake, if it’s 4 United miles plus taxes then you may take the plunge even if you were going to be out the cash if you couldn’t use the award. Most of the time, though, even non-refundable airfares are cancellable for 24 hours. And most often airlines have been more than happy to refund non-refundable tickets rather than have to honor an expensive mistake. Get in right way, don’t try to arrange the perfect trip. That’s different from how we normally plan, but so are these opportunities.

Don’t book non-refundable travel plans around your ‘score’. After the British Airways India deal for fuel surcharges and taxes only, which wasn’t honored, the Department of Transportation said that for travel involving the US airlines were required to cover costs that passengers incur in reliance on an airfare being honored. So even if a mistake deal wasn’t honored, the airline would be on the hook to reimburse non-refundable costs. Still, I’ve always believed it’s best to take a wait and see attitude on these things rather than fight for reimbursement. Just give it a few days before doing any additional planning to see if the deal is going to happen or not.

Don’t call during the deal. This is the one thing that will most upset your fellow frequent travelers. Most of the time calling a customer service agent won’t actually make a different in getting a deal pulled early, but it might, and really there’s almost never an urgent need to contact a travel provider right away. You don’t actually need seat assignments now, before you even know if your tickets are going to be honored. Let the deal run its course. Don’t be responsible, even in the remotest chance, for alerting the powers that be about what’s going on.

Should you call once a deal is gone? Usually it’s best to wait and see what’s happening, since talking to a customer service agent isn’t going to do much good, the frontline agents probably won’t know what’s going on before you do. And having anyone touch your reservation could present problems, a rogue agent might cancel you and there’ll be little you can do to reconstruct the trip. So usually just take a deep breath. That said, it’s hard to imagine calling will do any damage for anyone (except, in the limit, yourself). Once in a great while contact can be helpful. After the November 2005 currency conversion error at Expedia where the Hilton Tokyo was being sold for $2 ($3 for the Executive Floor), folks that emailed in and got written confirmation that their bookings were in order had those bookings honored while many who had not written in had their bookings cancelled.

Don’t threaten to sue. The Department of Transportation has new rules that more or less require airlines to honor paid fares once ticketed at the price quoted. I actually do not like this rule as it applies to mistake fares (and there’s not really litigation on this point yet in any case.) Getting in on a deal like this is buying an almost free lottery ticket. If the travel provider honors, you’ve got an amazing once in a lifetime style opportunity. If they don’t you’re really no worse off. I generally don’t begrudge a travel provider if they cancel right away. Once several days or a week has gone by I start to rely on the booking and I expect it to be honored. But if cancelled with clear communication and in a timely manner, I don’t see much harm or foul. I get in because if someone is giving away free trips somewhere cool, I’d love to be a part of it. But I don’t get angry if I don’t get aamzing free stuff at someone else’s expense.

Should you share a deal? The more people that know about a deal, the higher volume it is, the quicker it’s going to be noticed and get pulled. Travel providers have people assigned to monitor Milepoint and Flyertalk, deals don’t stay secret. (Most of the time they get pulled anyway, but the broader a deal is shared the fast the process may get accelerated.) Personally I’ve always taken the approach that you should book what you want for yourself. Don’t be greedy, you aren’t entitled to the deal forever. And once you’ve gotten what you would potentially want, share it so others can (potentially) benefit as well.

But doesn’t letting more people in on a deal reduce the chance that it’ll be honored? Sometimes. In my experience, more often than not Marriott will push back against honoring a mistake rate. And the more expensive it is, the less likely they are to honor. On the other hand, there can also be strength in numbers, with the more people involved the more people potentially angry, complaining, raising a stink, so the greater downside to a travel provider in not honoring a deal. There’s really no way to know in advance how the situation will turn out. Sometimes a deal is small and flies under the radar, sometimes a small group is less likely to see the deal honored.

The best deals come from the least likely of sources. I got an email heads up from a reader about the United Hong Kong issue. Apparently a limited amount of information about intra-Asia bookings had previously been posted on Flyetalk, with no responses, and then the content was deleted by the person who posted it. So it didn’t get any traction there. That person had seen reference to the issue on the Chinese frequent flyer site Flyertea. Very few people would have seen it if the information hadn’t been posted here. I’ve found a few good ones in my time, such as a currency conversion error for flights departing Papeete. But for the most part the very best deals haven’t come from experienced users in small closed communities, they’ve come from large numbers of people searching for large amounts of travel. And the new members often find the best deals.

Way back mistake deals would be found by a few people, and that would be that. The internet changed the scale, because opportunities spread virally. Technology then allowed most airlines at least to limit the frequency of mistakes.

It’s a back and forth, but there are general principles. Stay alert. Stay plugged in. Grab your lottery ticket when you can. Wait on the sidelines to see what will happen. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t, but there will be more opportunities that come along in the future.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, Thanks for the heads-up yesterday. I fully agree with the above post. Please keep up the good, no, GREAT work!!!

  2. Gary – thanks for being you! Thanks for all you do for your readers, your fellow BA bloggers and everyone else. You are one of a kind! – René

  3. Thanks for the insight. I’m one of those that have enough miles and were deducted the full amount instead of 4 miles per ticket. I did save the receipt that said I should have been charged 4 miles. Should I still wait and see what happens? The trip is not until thanksgiving.

  4. Thanks for all the info. The recap in the last paragraph should specifically include the words, “Whatever you do, DO NOT call the agents over/about mistake fares’. 🙂
    Maybe I am being paranoid, but this little thing by newbies kills more deals than anything else.

  5. Hi Gary – I do love posts like these … spelling out the common sense and adding a few words of wisdom. Thank you for the great blog.

  6. Any words of wisdom if I find a $400 bottle of wine mismarked at 4 cents at my local supermarket? Should I use the self checkout lane?

  7. Gary,

    As for the “do not call” (during OR after the deal), I think the explanation you give for the later also applies to the former.

    If the fare is correctly loaded into the system, at best, all the CSR can do is confirm its valid. If they can book it, are they ever going to tell you its *not* valid? Then, as you say in your second bullet, presumably a rogue agent could make trouble for you. I think we all know at this point that even if the CSR confirms it for you, there’s nothing to stop management from changing their minds later.

    So, bottom line, there is never an upshot to calling, ever. I don’t think calling is really going to ruin it for the masses (I’ve never worked in a rez center, but have worked on the ramp. Given my experience as a low wage employee dealing with management, it’s really, really hard to get management’s attention.), but you run the risk of an agent taking it upon themselves to “protect the company” and cancel your reservation.

    BTW, I actually don’t care if people call — I’m not a hostile FT’er in that way — but just want to point out that if you rationally have nothing to gain, but something to lose, the expected value for many phone calls is that you will lose, and people *should* be taking that into consideration when they make their decision to pick up the phone.

  8. Hiker T,

    Buy a case and run!

    As long as it is a big corporation, do whatever you want so that you benefit!

  9. @HikerT – use the self checkout, pay four cents, then walk up to the store manager with the bottle and your receipt and ask how they are going to handle it 😛

  10. … and be sure to use a points card that pays 2x+ points at supermarkets as then you get it for even less than 4 cents all-in! 😉

    (I paid for the tax on my Hong Kong trip with my United Mileage Plus card so I could get my 8 points back and then some.)

  11. @Levi Fight – as I say, I do not feel travel providers must honor these, and I even say I don’t think the government should be required to. I would have a moral problem forcing the honoring of a mistake, I’m comfortable when things like this get cancelled as long as it’s done on reasonable grounds and reasonably timely.

    But if the travel provider is going to choose to honor them, I do want to be a part of that.

  12. @HikerT: In most jurisdictions an employee will have to ID you for purchasing a bottle of wine anyway, so using the self-checkout might not help much. 😉

  13. @HikerT go through self checkout pay the four cents, use your Chase Freedom with Checking bonus, and then make question management, isn’t it usually store policy to give the item for free if you find it mispriced?

  14. I’m curious — how do people learn about the deals? By the time I got an email from TPG (which I really appreciate) the deal was dead. Are there programs that people use to alert them of news like this? Or is it really right place right time?

  15. Thanks Gary, I appreciate that response. I will be curious to see how UA responds. If this happened once or twice then perhaps might honor but now the word is out (down side of blogging) I imagine they’ll not honor dozens.

  16. Gary
    I disagree with UA not honoring this offer once a ticket number has been issued.

  17. @Marco they haven’t cancelled ’em yet. And they’re working on the resolution. Looking more and more likely they will honor IN SOME FASHION. Certainly no changes permitted. If I were them I might say “tickets booked in saver award booking classes will be honored as-booked, flights in standard award classes on united will be accomodated in coach.” But who knows?

  18. So here I am with two tickets to HKG with ORD-PEK in United Global First and HKG-ICN-IAD in First on Air Asiana. I have an “MileagePlus eTicket Itinerary and Receipt for Confirmation” from United that clearly says “8 miles” and a few hours later, I was deducted 140,000 miles for Saver Award YF72. I’m sure this is a good deal at 140,000 miles (the itinerary if paid with cash would be $12,000), but that’s not what I “paid.”

    Where do we go from here?

  19. @Bruce we wait! United is working on what to do. Just hold tight. We probaby hear more tomorrow, Wednesday latest.

  20. Wow Thanks! This helps if/when I find a flight mistake. Interesting perspective on letting others in on the deal. Thanks so much

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