Vanessa Chiasson is a wimpy traveller with a weak stomach but that hasn't stopped her from sailing to the Aran Islands, running a marathon in Paris, and working on Malawian fish farms. She blogs about affordable travel and culinary adventures at TurnipseedTravel.com and her freelance work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, USA Today, FlightNetwork.com, Plum Deluxe, and The Establishment. Follow her on Twitter @Turnipseeds.
Did you ever hear about the time your co-worker's cousin's best friend's neighbour got a $30 flight from Toronto to Houston? Or when your husband's uncle's college roommate flew first class to Paris for just $120? You can stew with resentment that these people -- so entirely unworthy of travel deals! -- managed to snag an outrageous bargain. Or you can learn exactly how they did it. It's time to delve into the world of error fares.
Error Fares: Where Do They Come From?
An error fare is just that: it's an airline fare that has been posted at an incorrect price and is now available for members of the public to purchase. While they aren't terribly common (after all, it's in the airlines' best interests to have high standards of quality control when it comes to pricing), they show up more often than you may think.
So how exactly does a trip from New York to Sydney get advertised for a paltry $197? In many cases, it's all down to human error. Maybe a tired clerk inverted two of the numbers and that flight should have been $917. Maybe they left off a zero at the end. Possibly they put the business class price in the economy box and made the business class fare that of economy class.
Another possible explanation is that it's a problem with currency conversions. Or it could potentially be a computer glitch, maybe one that listed the price without all the respective taxes, fees, and surcharges that ought to be included in the base price. Somewhere, somehow, something went wrong with a piece of code or a software program and you're now looking at a $13 fare from Burlington to Miami.
Or -- most likely of all -- the travel gods are smiling down on you, giving you a sign that this is your moment!
Whatever You Do: Don't Hesitate
There's only one thing to do when confronted with an irresistible error fare: Book it! Book it now! Don't wait to check your vacation schedule. Don't pause for your mother to weigh in. Error fares can disappear in less than an hour (although some do stay up for days). As soon as the airline realizes its mistake, that price will be corrected.
If you're so unlucky to discover after the fact that your error fare flight conflicts with Aunt Mildred's birthday party or that all accommodations at your intended destination are cataclysmically overpriced thanks to a large convention in town, take heart. Most airlines offer a 24 hour no penalty period to cancel flight purchases. If you realize that you absolutely can't be on that $219 flight to Tokyo, you can likely get most of your money back, provided you take action within one day.
Think Ahead Before Booking Hotels
But while you should book your flight without hesitation, show some sensible restraint when it comes to car rentals and hotel rooms. While it rarely happens, airlines CAN, in theory, cancel error fares and refund passengers their money. And you have little recourse if they do. So by all means, begin researching room options right away. But before making further bookings, wait until your flight confirmation email arrives (not just your credit card payment receipt), and choose travel partners that have generous cancellation policies. And if you're feeling especially anxious about this, head to a popular travel forum like Flyertalk. If there's an error fare worth knowing about, they'll have the scoop. You'll soon hear whether or not everyone else is receiving their flight confirmations.
Finding Error Fares (And Making Them Come To You)
So where exactly does one find these spectacular fares? Never fear -- with a little planning, they'll find you!
Secret Flying is a Facebook page and website that does a fantastic job of listing all the error fares it can find, along with generally great deals such as heavily discounted red-eye flights. Occasionally, they'll even post error fares for luxury hotel properties as well. On Facebook, "like" and "follow" their page, then click on the "following" button to opt into seeing their posts at the top of your page feed every time you log on. That way, you'll never miss a deal.
Another excellent resource is Airfare Watchdog. Their website has a great feature that summarizes the top 50 best fares of the day (including error fares and general great deals). You can also search by the departure city of your choice or -- best of all -- sign up for their newsletter and deal alert system. It will automatically send you emails if you're searching for great fares from, say, Ottawa to Maui.
And, as previously mentioned, FlyerTalk is a wonderful community where like-minded travel and bargain fans come together to share information. Just hanging out with them online is a fun experience and you'll pick up a great assortment of savvy travel tips from the other members. And if there's an error fare worth knowing about, you'll hear the buzz about it here first.
If you prefer to be more proactive in your search, or if you're just feeling a bit desperate to get away at all costs, Skyscanner is a great resource. You can choose an entire month as your departure date and quickly scan it to see which day has the cheapest fares. Abnormally low error fares will leap off the page, but it's also a great tool if you have a flexible travel schedule and just want to see if any one particular departure date will save you $50 or $100 dollars.
The most amazing thing about error fares is that they open up your travel world in ways you never imagined. Destinations you've only ever dreamed about are suddenly yours for a fraction of their usual price, and cities you've never considered are suddenly on the cusp of being your new favourite. Enjoy the ride!