The ethics of mistake fares

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Late last week, quick acting United flyers could be forgiven for thinking they were in Las Vegas and had hit a major jackpot.  And they had: An error in United’s reservation system led to domestic fares pricing at $0, with the system charging only the taxes on tickets (between $5 and $10).

This happens more often than you might think.  Airfares and hotel rates are entered into reservation systems by human beings, and are subject to errors in data entry. And sometimes technology simply breaks down, as was the case with United’s $0 fares last week. Not all of these mistakes are discovered by travelers, and those that are usually get shut down within hours, as the news spreads on sites like FlyerTalk.

Mistake fares are all about timing; if you don’t act quickly, you’ll miss out.  United wouldn’t disclose how many tickets were booked at the $0 airfare last week, but it was likely in the thousands.  When a mistake fare is discovered and acted upon by travelers, the vendor has an important decision mistake: Should the mistake price be honored?


This can come down to a question of public relations.  What would be more expensive, honoring the mistakes or putting out a PR firestorm?  But beyond the PR cost, is there a reasonable expectation that an airfare would ever be $0?  A $100 fare could be a great sale, but is it reasonable to expect a company to honor a $0 price?

There’s also a legal aspect: Airline tickets are contracts, which bind both parties.  As you know, you have to pay many airlines $200 or more when you change a ticket. By that logic, should the airlines have to honor the contract or pay a cancellation charge to you for voiding it?

I personally benefited from a hotel rate mistake in 2005, where the Hilton hotels in Tokyo and Osaka were bookable for $3 night instead of $300.  These were prepaid rates through Expedia, which decided to honor them.  While I was grateful, I’m not sure this was a hotel rate anyone could reasonably expect was legitimate.

What do you think about mistake fares?  Did you snag a few almost free trips on United last week?  Do you think travel companies are under an obligation to honor these mistakes?

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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