I’ve never managed to book a mistake fare for myself but when I was reading a post this week on Point Me To The Plane about new software that will make it easier for airlines to eliminate mistake fares, my reaction was a reserved, “So what?”
Backing up a bit, a mistake fare is when, for one reason or another, an unbelievably low airfare shows up in the airline booking systems. These are most often a result of human error (typing errors, incorrect currency conversions, etc.) and can result in huge discounts on airfare, like paying $300 for a ticket instead of $3,000. Once discovered by the internet, the rock-bottom airfare is booked by bargain hunter travelers as fast as they can type because it’s only a matter of minutes to hours before the mistake is discovered and removed from the system. Some people even book multiple trips because either they aren’t sure of travel dates or because the miles flown count for acquiring status and these fares are a cheap way to become a top-level flyer.
Then everyone waits. Once the airline discovers the error, they have a decision to make. Do they honor the mistake fare and let everyone who booked the cheap rate fly on those tickets or do they cancel the tickets and incur the wrath of the blogosphere calling them cheats and liars? Now that the US Dept. of Transportation allows airlines to cancel tickets booked for a fare which is obviously a mistake, there’s no rule for which tickets will be honored or which ones will be canceled. Some airlines even try to walk down the middle and cancel the tickets while offering passengers a higher priced, yet still discounted ticket to the same location as the mistake fare.
What I was really thinking about when I heard the news was, if mistake fares went away and never came back, who would be hurt?
The mistake fare is the only kind of travel in the points and miles world that doesn’t take any effort. Sure, the people who hunt for these fares every day do plenty of work behind the scenes but getting an alert about a mistake airfare and booking it right away requires no planning. There were no hours spent finding ways to earn points in a program. No need to check for award space or figure out alternate routings for your trip based on availability. You just book a ticket and you’re done.
That must be what people find so exciting about mistake fares. It’s instant gratification fueled by adrenaline.
I mean if you really think about it, most people who book a mistake fare had no intention on going to the location of the trip until the moment they heard about the fare. Maybe it’s a place that they had some interest in or maybe not. The trip is about the mistake fare; the destination is the last thing on their mind. Oh, you’ll make a trip work. I’m a firm believer that there’s something to see no matter where you go, but I’m the type of person who wants to go to places I actually want to see.
I’m sure for the people booking these fares as mileage runs, it doesn’t matter where the plane goes. Once they get there, they’re going to hop back on a plane and fly home since it’s about gathering the miles and not the trip at all. They’d probably be just as happy if you’d let them stay on the plane the whole time.
I’m sure there are a few people each time one of these fares come out that actually wanted to fly on these flights. They have the most to gain because they have a chance to take a trip they were already planning and an ultra-low fare just falls into their lap. The problem is that they also get swept up into the frenzy following booking one of these fares. These are the people who get inconvenienced the most by all of the uncertainty when all they wanted to do was book a ticket on a plane.
So what would happen if mistake fares disappeared?
People who wanted to take these flights will find a way to do so anyway, either by paying for the flights or by using miles. If the fares went away, their travels wouldn’t change any, they’d just be a bit more expensive.
The people who book them for the excitement and low-cost travel would find other ways to travel for cheap. While mistake fares would be gone, flash-sales would still be around. And isn’t a flash sale just a mistake fare but on purpose?
For those who use the mistake fares for mileage runs, they’ll figure out some other way to get status or maybe they’ll figure out that status isn’t worth what it used to be with an airline and all that extra flying just isn’t worth it, but I doubt that will happen.
Maybe it’s not the low fare part that people will miss the most
Part of the fun of booking a mistake fare seems to be the process. There’s the rush of finding and booking a trip spontaneously. Then the anticipation waiting to see if the fare will be honored. Then either the thrill of victory if it is or the righteous indignation if the airline chooses not to honor the ticket. Actually going on the trip is an afterthought.
It’s also the limited time and limited scope that make these fares seem extra special. If you get in on a mistake fare, it’s akin to being a member of a secret club. You and all your new friends were quick enough to get in before the deal was shut down. You can share stories about booking the ticket with one another and no one else will understand the thrill except if they also experienced it.
Talk to someone who booked a mistake fare and you’ll quickly see what I mean.
For people who book mistake fares, it’s not just about getting a cheap price. It’s an experience that starts out with booking the fare and goes until the fare is canceled or they actually go on the trip. It’s said that part of the fun of traveling comes from the planning and not from the actual trip. With a mistake fare, all of that is compressed into a few minutes.
If mistake fares went away, low fares wouldn’t disappear. However, mistake fare junkies would no longer be able to get the rush of chasing the next bargain to whatever an airline that honors one of these fares is willing to take them.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary