When Airfare Is So Cheap It’s a Steal – Literally

Sometimes, flights are so cheap that they're obviously not just terrific sale prices, but mistakes. While everybody loves a deal, is booking a secret, mispriced fare tantamount to stealing?

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Sometimes, flights are so cheap that they’re obviously not just terrific sale prices, but mistakes. While everybody loves a deal, is booking a secret, mispriced fare tantamount to stealing?

Experienced travelers love to swap insider tips—the location of a secret dinner club in Paris, thoughts on up-and-coming “next Prague” destinations, and, yes, the best deals on airfare all over the world. What happens, though, when an airline’s reservation system makes a mistake, and a flight halfway around the world that should cost, say, $1,800 is suddenly available to book online for just $20?

Well, what sometimes happens is that word spreads quickly about these fares at popular forums like FlyerTalk, and many travelers try to snag the flights at rock-bottom prices before the airline catches the mistake. Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, who has made a name for himself by helping people to avoid getting ripped off by airlines, hotels, and other travel companies, says that travelers who behave this way aren’t merely unethical, they’re thieves. In a recent post on his blog, Elliott wrote:

Pointing out a fare error online and urging people to book one is like saying someone’s house isn’t locked and urging everyone to steal from it.

The presence of these opportunists gives all of these sites a bad name, and in my opinion, they should be quickly expelled from the group.

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Not all travelers agree. Some say Elliott is dead wrong, in fact. In the post, Elliott asked readers to answer the blunt question “Is it ever acceptable to steal from an airline?” Nearly 4 in 10 answered “yes.” Dozens of commenters essentially said that airlines should be forced to honor all flights sold, regardless if a mistake occurred, and regardless of whether travelers booking the flights knew a mistake occurred. One commenter gave this justification:

If a fare can be voided for being an “incorrect price” there’s nothing to prevent an airline from overbooking with higher last minute fares, then claiming it was an “erroneous price” once the passenger gets to the gate to free the seat. As it stands now, the airline is on the hook to get the passenger from one place to another.

In fact, what has happened—and what brought these ultra-cheap mistake fares to light in the first place—is that airlines have canceled such erroneously priced tickets. They’ve typically offered to give customers a full refund, reimburse them for any other nonrefundable travel expenses, and hand over a voucher worth maybe a couple hundred dollars for the traveler’s trouble. For some travelers, the gesture isn’t enough.

In a follow-up post at LinkedIn, Elliott noted that the hatred many passengers feel for the airlines makes it easier for them to try to get one over on the carriers, regardless of whether it’s fair or ethical:

I know the anger many readers feel against airlines. The aviation industry created a sophisticated pricing scheme designed to squeeze the most money out of each passenger, and when it loses control of the system, we shouldn’t let it off the hook, they insist.

In fact, given the horrible things airlines have done in the name of turning a profit, shouldn’t it be our obligation as informed consumers to take advantage of every mistake an airline makes?

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Elliott obviously doesn’t think this is the answer. Some of the commenters, however, feel like travelers should take advantage of the airlines in every way possible, to balance things out:

For the other 99.99% of the flying public, those who regularly get taken advantage of by high airfares, rude employees and $9 sandwiches passed off as in-flight meals, who will gladly charge you and I wildly different prices for adjacent seats, they’ve established an adversarial relationship with their customers and are now reaping the benefit of charging for almost everything but the recycled air we breathe on a flight.

Others basically give a “tough noogies” response to the idea that airlines have screwed up and therefore won’t honor the mispriced tickets:

The onus is on the businesses to not make that mistake. Maybe this will serve as a lesson to businesses.


So let me get this straight. These airlines penalize customers who change their mind about departure dates but seem to be literally getting off scot free???? Something is very wrong with this system


I agree.  What is the difference between "mistake" and "bait and switch"?  Surely, when all the people suddenly book the "mistake" the reservations system has a means to flag it and shut it down.  When traders on a Wall Street trading floor make such a "mistake" in the bid and offer for a stock, they have to eat it.  Why are airlines above that?

If they can find it and notify the customer within a few hours of the mistake fine.  If someone is at the airport, they fly.


2things. An act does not become theft just because a guy decides to call it do. Look to your survey, as you have guaranteed confusing results. Also, $100,000 cars are never sold for 10,000-- online airfares are less trustworthy than price quotes from a dealership.


If you want to be told deliberate, self-serving lies, call an airline.


The problem is where to draw the line. If an airline can choose, after the sale, when the fare was underpriced, what stops the airline from saying that ANY cheap fare is underpriced when they find out that they could have sold it for more? 

In other words, what's the difference from a trip that sold for $20 when it should have been $2,000 or a trip that sold for $800 when the airline finds out they "made a mistake in pricing" and they could have sold that same seat for $2,000?   

How do I know that the $20 fare is really a mistake and not simply a way for the airline to fill up seats for some sort of promotion? Am I supposed to contact the airline whenever I find a cheap fare and ask them if I'm paying enough? 

If an airline posts a cheap fare, then they should honor it and live with the consequences, just like when I buy a ticket and learn of a cheaper fair elsewhere. I've often sat next to passengers who paid less than I and I shrug it off the mistake and move on. Airlines should follow that philosophy, too.  The buyer/seller contract goes both ways. 


Fly for 70% LESS, internationally in business and first class?  TRY ME ? Ha

Quotes in USD worldwide. Most good respected airlines. Overnight quotes.


International Ventures


Look...there is a huge difference between an obvious mistake and a small error...if Ferrari puts an ad in the paper and advertises a price of $100 instead of $100,000 then clearly nobody in their right mind would expect Ferrari to sell cars for $100. It's the same with the airlines, if I book a flight that I know normally costs $1000 and I get it for $10, then to expect the airline to honor the ticket is just naive and silly.