Taking Advantage of Mistake Fares: A Question of Ethics?

Christine Krzyszton was taken to task by a couple of readers who commented on her article pertaining to “mistake” airfares and tips on how to procure them posted at Frugal Travel Guy: “Great advice on how to take advantage of someone else’s mistakes. Now, let’s all not get upset when the airlines keep our funds when we need to rebook a ‘non-refundable’ ticket due to our ‘mistake’ in booking a date that needs changing…. I’m thinking about cake and eating it?” and “Ethics: give it a try some time, Christine.”

Meanwhile, someone who claimed to be an “insider” allegedly told Christopher Elliott almost two years ago about FlyerTalk members who took advantage of a low airfare in the business class cabin for flights originating in Yangon: “Instead of the space going to real executives who could create jobs, the space went to FlyerTalk idiots. That is beyond stealing for me” and that “booking a stopover in the United States to take advantage of American consumer-protection laws and handling the sale through Expedia’s German site, which for some reason displayed the mistake fare long after the U.S. sites had removed it.”

Are they being fair?

The Dilemma for “Bloggers”

Admittedly, much of what is written in an article whose title is Mistake Fares and Mileage Runs Are Real by Howie Rappaport — also of Frugal Travel Guy — is indeed true; but if you read the comments posted there, readers were asking two questions: how much did his exploits cost him; and why did he not share the “mistake fare” with others who may have wanted to take advantage of it?

You might notice that I did not rush to post an article blaring about a “Christmas gift” of sorts which was unexpectedly bestowed upon frequent fliers since very early this morning by travel agencies on the Internet — such as Orbitz, Vayama, Priceline and Expedia as some examples — about which I will get to in a moment.

Sharing a mistake fare is a difficult line for “bloggers” to straddle: should they keep what they know about mistake fares unpublished so as to preserve them for a longer period of time — or should they post them while they are still active so that as many people as possible could take advantage of them and potentially endanger the opportunity by having it shut down sooner as a result? Additionally, should the “blogger” sacrifice a secret in exchange for a significant increase in reader traffic — or should he or she preserve that secret for the sake of fellow frequent fliers to have a chance to secure that elusive mistake fare?

I discuss in greater detail more about the dilemma “bloggers” face pertaining to “mistake fares” here — to the point where they are being accused of ruining FlyerTalk — but I digress. My current policy — one to which I have generally adhered over the years — is that I choose not to report on mistake fares while they are still active. Am I wrong?

Are Mistake Fares Fantastic Deals?

Mistake fares are airfares which were erroneously published publicly before being pulled as quickly as possible. For at least ten hours today, people took advantage of mistake fares from the United States to points east and south — destinations such as Abu Dhabi, New Delhi, Johannesburg, Manila and Mumbai, which would normally cost at least a thousand dollars round-trip — by purchasing flights for as little as $178.00 via Etihad Airways and some of its code-share partner airlines…

…so did you miss out on a fantastic deal?

That depends on a number of factors: first and foremost is whether or not the airline will honor the mistake fares even though not honoring them would be a violation of the rules by the Department of Transportation of the United States because the flights originated there.

A mistake fare may not always be the bargain which you might think: there are impediments to taking advantage of a mistake fare — including but not limited to:

  • Booking flights to position yourself to the origination if you are located nowhere near it — for example, a $600.00 mistake fare in business class from Yangon might initially be a fantastic deal; but if the positioning flight costs $1,500.00 and it takes ten hours to get there, it is not so appealing after all
  • The cost of lodging and other expenses once you arrive at your destination — even if attempting a quick turnaround as part of a “mileage run
  • Ensuring that your schedule permits you to take immediate advantage of booking the mistake airfare before it is withdrawn — and if there is no time to do so, try to use a travel provider who will sell you a ticket with a grace period to cancel the flight at no charge and with no penalties
  • Being extremely flexible with your schedule — many people do not have that luxury
  • Whether or not frequent flier loyalty program miles can be earned on those mistake fares — and yes, there are FlyerTalk members who might forgo taking advantage of the mistake fare for this reason
  • The rare but possible dangers of taking advantage of a mistake fare — such as this airplane crash in Myanmar in which three people were killed exactly two years ago today


The cost, effort and time associated with some of the above potential impediments can hinder the desire to book a mistake fare. Positioning airfares or redemption of frequent flier loyalty program miles — to get you from where you are based to the starting point of the mistake fare — as well as the cost of lodging at the destination and at any points in between are only two of many costs to consider…

…and let us not forget the time and effort you need to expend to ensure that the mistake fare actually works in your favor — as well as the potential damage you might incur on a relationship with a significant other or loved one who simply does not understand.

Still, do not let me discourage you from attempting to secure a mistake fare when the rare opportunity arises. When a mistake fare is active, follow the credo of booking it as quickly as possible and figuring everything out later — especially whether or not taking advantage of a mistake fare is worth it to you. Although there was one mistake fare several years ago which was not obvious but good enough to book which I ultimately had to cancel — but not without a great amount of difficulty, as I almost thought I was going to be forced to travel on that mistake fare itinerary — usually airlines will refund what you spent on that mistake fare with no questions asked despite the fare rules if you are not offered a different deal.

Mistake fares may be real — but they may cost you more than you might think and may not be the bargain for which they are known…

…so only you can answer the question as to whether or not you missed out on a great deal if you were unable to take advantage of the latest mistake fares — this time by Etihad Airways.

Are Purchasing Mistake Fares Unethical?

As for the ethics of taking advantage of a mistake airfare, there has been for years what could be perceived as an ethical dilemma  — or simply an incredible bargain. You might argue that a round-trip flight between New York and Abu Dhabi is obviously a mistake at $178.00 — but is a round-trip flight between New York and the Seychelles at $600.00 considered an error? After all, it was part of the same Etihad Airways “mistake.” Is it really that obvious? What if the currency exchange rate had something to do with the airfare? What if the airfare was purposely published to entice people to visit and help boost a sagging local economy? What about so-called “flash” sales where airfares can be considered unbelievably low?!?

Airfares between New York and Oslo have been as low as $500.00 round-trip — but that is no mistake. You can procure airfares in that range on Norwegian Air Shuttle — which members of the Air Line Pilots Association, International consider to be a threat to commercial aviation in the United States, as it is a low-cost carrier.

Perhaps you might know the difference between a mistake fare and a — shall we say — “legitimate” airfare; but how many people are as knowledgeable?

If I attempt to purchase an item at Publix — a supermarket chain based in Florida with stores located in five states in the southeastern United States — where the product is scanned incorrectly at the checkout register, Publix promises and guarantees that if during checkout, the scanned price of an item exceeds the shelf price or advertised price, Publix will give me one of that item free. The remaining items will be charged at the lower price. This policy excludes alcohol and tobacco products.

Of course, that is a policy Publix publicly posts pertaining to potentially perceivable perfunctory product pricing procedures, perhaps — but what if you saw a fresh filet mignon normally priced at $20.00 marked at $5.00? Would you purchase it, report what could be a pricing error, or ignore it? If you purchased it, are you “stealing” it? Is there any difference if the price was $10.00, or even $15.00 instead of $20.00? Would you tell your friends to take advantage of this deal? How do we know that the filet mignon was not purposely priced to sell more quickly because it is older than the other meats being sold — aside from looking at the date, of course?

What about the case of Danny Sawyer, who reportedly purchased a new Chevrolet Traverse vehicle from a car dealership in Virginia for $5,000.00 less than the manufacturer’s retail price of approximately $39,000.00? When staff at the car dealership supposedly attempted to convince Sawyer to sign a new contract closer to the intended sale price of the vehicle and Sawyer refused, the employees reportedly called the police and arrested Sawyer.

Did Sawyer steal the vehicle, as the employees of the car dealership allegedly accused him of doing? After all, Sawyer supposedly did not engage in purposely attempting to defraud the car dealership — they prepared the contract, not Sawyer. Sawyer signed the original contract. Is it his fault that the contract was probably not prepared properly with due diligence by employees of the car dealership? What did Sawyer originally think when he saw the lower price on the contract — if he saw the lower price before signing the contract, that is?

Am I missing something here, perhaps?

Many mistake fare “deals” have often been honored by airlines and Internet travel agencies — such as the following examples which are now considered legendary:


…but there are those people who did not take advantage of the $51.00 airfare to Fiji solely because many hotel room rates were greater than $300.00 per night — and then there are the costs of transportation from the airport, meals, taxes, fees and other incidentals which suddenly rendered the $51.00 airfare not such a bargain anymore.

There have indeed been cases in the past where airlines have not honored mistake fares; but if an airline does honor it — and there are those who have honored mistake fares even though they are not obligated or required by law to do so — is it considered unethical on the part of the customer? Is it considered “stealing”? Is that not a contract, which is basically a voluntary agreement between two or more parties, consisting of an offer and acceptance with mutual consideration?

When was the last time you witnessed someone who found a great deal and said something similar to the following thought? “You know what? That price seems to be too low. I do not want to take advantage of the merchant or the company. I think I will pass on this because I am an ethical person.”

Some Thoughts to Consider

If the customer purposely used nefarious means to procure an airfare, then it is clearly unethical and probably can be considered stealing; but if the customer can simply book an airfare at a typical Internet travel agency — as that person normally would — and get an unusually low airfare, I would argue that ethics are not part of the equation. Rather, the customer is most likely simply seeking a great deal — as many of us attempt to do; and most likely on a daily basis as consumers…

…and what is wrong with that — especially if the provider of the product or service agrees to honor the transaction?

Perhaps airlines should be more prudent in ensuring that the airfares are correct before they are published — just as other businesses are required to do the same, as with the filet mignon in the supermarket and the vehicle at the car dealership. There are laws in countries where businesses must honor the price offered for a reason — to protect the consumer from “bait and switch” advertising and other potentially deceptive practices. The consumer should not have to be burdened with a moral dilemma over the ethics of taking advantage of a low price; nor should he or she perform research to investigate the origin of a low price every time one is available — airfares or otherwise.

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