Mistake Fares, A Scary Precedent & My Disappointment With Recent Events

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mistake fares editorial

Mistake Fares & How We Screwed Up

The first major mistake fare I had the pleasure of “scoring” was back in 2009 when my family and I each flew roundtrip from LAS-MAD on Delta for $209 roundtrip. During that trip we were voluntarily bumped in Atlanta and were given $1,800 in vouchers. Wow, what a deal!

That mistake stemmed from Delta filing their fares without fuel surcharges. While I kept checking my reservation for weeks, it eventually became apparent that they weren’t going to cancel it. We had a fantastic two weeks in Europe.

I have been the beneficiary of a number of mistake fares since then. Just this past November I flew from New York to Hong Kong with a one week stop in Europe for about $150.  Good for me. The airlines filed incorrect fares or made other mistakes and I was quick enough to take advantage of them.

I Tried To Move to Denmark Temporarily

Now imagine my excitement a couple of weeks ago when I read that United was mistakenly pricing tickets in first class. I didn’t even think twice when I learned that it required changing my country to Denmark. Pretty quickly I was able to price out a first class ticket for around $120 that included a stop in Frankfurt. Lufthansa First Class Terminal baby!

Just as I was trying to pay, the website began giving error messages and then eventually my itinerary repriced in U.S. dollars. Talk about sticker shock! Unfortunately I had been just a couple of minutes too late. I had missed out on this one.

It Was A Manipulation

Of course I followed the story as United stated they would not honor the fares. When that happened I began to think about the manipulation of the system. How it required changing the location to Denmark and leaving Denmark as the billing country on the website. It was clear to me that United was right in not honoring the fares.

Then I was shocked as people began to defend their position. Citing the DOT rules that they thought would force United to honor the fares. Except the DOT rules clearly carve out an exception for deceptive practices. In my opinion changing your country is deceptive.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not being judgmental. Remember I was very willing to buy the tickets as well. While my purchase didn’t go through, if it had, I can promise you I would not have filed a complaint. In this mistake fare game I am far ahead and I understand the concept of cutting my losses.

mistake fares editorial

A Terrible Precedent

You see this situation set a bad precedent. The DOT ruled against the public and condemned the manipulation. They also said, “This evidence of bad faith by the large majority of purchasers contributed to the Enforcement Office’s decision.”

What does this mean? Lets take my Delta flight to Spain for example. I knew it didn’t have the fuel surcharges and I read about it on Slickdeals. Since I knew that it was a mistake, was I acting in “bad faith”? I could certainly make that argument.

Unfortunately the sheer number of complaints and the clear manipulation of the system forced the DOT into this position. Now they will use this precedence to rule on future mistake fares. This decision will embolden other airlines to fight against mistake fares as well. This is very bad for us.


In the end, I am just as guilty as most of trying to book deals and mistake fares when they come available. This is the first time I was willing to lie to get a mistake fare though. Looking back that crossed a line, but I was so caught up in the mania of getting a cheap ticket that I didn’t think about it.

I sincerely hope that this situation didn’t hurt consumer rights when it comes to mistake fares, but I fear that it has. I really think the days of airlines having to honor mistake fares is over. Sure a blatant misfiling of fares may have to be honored, but any time websites and forums get involved and people book mistake fares knowing that they aren’t correct, they are probably acting in “bad faith” as described by the DOT.

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  1. “In my opinion changing your country is deceptive.” — You sir, are being far too kind. It is not your opinion. People who changed their country are engaging in deception. That is a fact.

    As I said over on flyertalk days ago: If you are an American, and you told UA that you are not an American in order to buy these tickets, then United’s gotcha.

    All the complainers ought to be thanking UA for deciding so promptly. It would have been worse if UA had had played the bureaucratic slowdown, and not cancelled the tix until after the flyers had already paid for expensive european vacations. Then they would not have plane tickets to get there.

  2. Fully agree with you.
    This was my first mistake fare and I had scored a 1st class with Lufthansa and of course I was disappointed at first, but later realized I was wrong and UA was in it’s rights to cancel the bookings.
    The major issue in this case is other travel blogs urging people to file complaints with the DOT. This is going to be the major factor resulting in the downfall for future opportunities.

  3. Don’t worry so much, DOT had already solicit comments on what to do with mistake fares, since it was making to FT and other. In essence nothing new.

  4. Nice, honest assessment.

    So, the real money question – would you do it again? As you said, mistake fares are one thing, but lying to take advantage of one is different.


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