Mistake Fares Have Inherent Risk

I’m standing on my little soapbox today, so stop reading if you have issues reading an opinion piece.

There have been lots of mistake fares lately. Open season on premium cabin award space from Singapore Airlines. Four-mile fares on United Airlines to China. $200 off coupons for packages from Travelocity. Sub-$500 fares to Tel Aviv from El Al. There are all kinds of deals to be had if you move in quickly before they get shut down.

And they will get shut down. Eventually. The real question is what happens after that. Will the mistake be honored? Will I be penalized for taking advantage of it? Will I just get everything refunded and in the same position as before? And just how many lawsuits or complaints with the Department of Transportation will be filed?

Every now and then I get an email from an upset reader who doesn’t like something I’ve said or shared. I have learned to deal with it. As much as I would like to be loved and admired by everyone, that just ain’t gonna happen. Yesterday, two people compared me to Larry David. It’s a fair comparison. I think most episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm end with him pissing off everyone because he calls it like he sees it.

I don’t need to go into the details of this reader’s comments, but the essence was that I have been abusing my authority as a blogger because I sided with United and Travelocity after their recent mistakes. Apparently any mistake a company makes must be honored because of some law or contract or terms and conditions. Meh. That’s not how I view these situations. Regardless of whatever the law might say, I still think both companies handled their mistakes very fairly. Keep in mind this is just an opinion. I’m not a lawyer and can’t predict how any legal complaints will be settled. But I also don’t have any power to influence those claims. I’m just one guy who thinks things turned out okay.

With respect to the recent Travelocity promo, on Monday morning I received this email:

image of letter from Travelocity

Well, duh, I’m not blind, so a promotion code for the National Federation of the Blind wasn’t necessarily intended for me. I still went ahead and tried to use it because of the absence of explicit language in the offer (as I received it) forbidding me from using the code. But if they decide to enforce their intentions and cancel the reservations at no cost to me, then that seems to be the best resolution possible for both sides. (Travelocity could have just retroactively charged the extra $200.)

Yes, there was too much delay in getting this response, and Travelocity was issuing mixed statements in the meantime, sending out emails announcing the cancellation which indicated they would issue absolutely no refund. This was corrected in a statement on Twitter, but that’s hardly sufficient. An email correction took several more days.

The end result was we had our fun for a day before the adults figured out what happened and cleaned it up. Mistakes happen. They can’t all be prevented, and when you’re dealing with a global customer base and bloggers like me who might share these mistakes widely, a small error can quickly become a nasty financial issue. People may try to lodge complaints with the Department of Transportation, though I don’t believe the regulations on mistake fares were intended to be used in this way. Applying them to a situation where there is no real need for consumer protection is a good way to weaken the legitimacy of those regulations.

The few people suffering from canceled reservations are those who tried to use them for close-in travel, such as a mandatory business flight the following week. Yeah, it would have been great to save $200 on that, but if you really need to take that flight it might be wise not to gamble on the fate of a mistake fare. All mistake fares involve risk. You don’t know when it will be spotted or how it will be resolved. I happen to think Travelocity did a good enough job, but even if you disagree with me, maybe the federal regulators won’t. You don’t know. And if in the end Travelocity is required to honor these reservations or provide restitution, it will be too late for your last-minute travel.

So please, the next time you book a mistake fare, all I’m asking is that you consider the possibility you could be in for a rude surprise. I had two $600 tickets booked with Travelocity’s promo, which meant I originally stood to lose $1,200 before it announced the full value would be refunded. Even assuming a successful dispute with my credit card issuer, that possible loss created some discomfort. I walked away unscathed, but if you had essential travel booked with this mistake, you are probably much more upset. Is that anger justified?

I think I’ve kept my comments on these issues relatively tactful and supported with some reasoning, on my blog and elsewhere. If others have been offended by those comments, as one person apparently was, I apologize for that. It has never been my intent to be malicious, and I’ve tried not to turn this into an ethics lesson. That’s a different question entirely. My point is, assuming a mistake exists and that you take advantage of it, you should be careful what kind of travel you use it for. There will be more mistakes in the future. Some will work and some won’t. If you hope to reap the benefits of a mistake, you must also be willing to accept their risks.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • MilesAbound

    You are completely and utterly entitled to your opinion, and to share it here as you see fit. Anyone who gets upset about that needs to really get a life. Personally I wholeheartedly disagree and am pursuing DOT and Travelocity via the appropriate channels. That is also my perogative, and if it upsets and of you – then you need to move on too. We all have our own moral codes and compasses and I am comfortable with mine.

    • Scottrick

      It doesn’t upset me at all. I’m just not going to wish you success ;)

  • http://www.batteredluggage.com/ W Brian Duncan (aka IPBrian)

    I appreciate your candor…I think we perhaps disagree a bit on these mistake fares, but that’s whats great about opinions…everyone is entitled to their own. 

  • Cory

    I had never actually heard of this deal and might have jumped in on it if I had something specific in mind.  Though, if I knew the promo code was targeted to the National Federation of the Blind I might have passed on this one to avoid being thought a horrible human being. 

    I agree with what you say about mistake fares being risky propositions.  The United 4-mile mistake was interesting for the people who took their flights before the rest were canceled and could have been in line to be stranded in Hong Kong.  Much like gambling, if you don’t put any chips down you won’t get any back.  But you can’t cry and whine and go to the authorities when you lose the hand and the house takes your money. 

  • Benny

    Some people will get worked up over any thing. Big or small. 

    I know it’s risky but it’s fun to at least try!

  • Pkerr

    What I’ve never understood is why people feel that if a company makes a mistake they have to honor it but if we make a mistake (over pay, buy the wrong product) we assume we can get it fixed.  It should work both ways.

  • http://twitter.com/TheDealMommy The Deal Mommy

    I totally agree!  As much as we game the system, we can’t complain when the system occasionally games us.  Well said.

  • Davidnyc

    Speaking as a lawyer, I don’t think any suits or complaints against DOT and Travelocity will get anywhere.  This isn’t the type of “mistake fare” the regulations are trying to prevent.  While the term about posting it on the internet wasn’t explicitly directly at the recipient on the internet, it’s vague enough, when combined with the pretty obvious intent of the code, that anyone getting it off of the internet was on notice.  

  • http://www.heelsfirsttravel.com/ Jeanne

    Part of the problem with the Travelocity promo code was it got passed around as a promo code and nothing more.  So many people used it as a promo code, not knowing it was a “mistake fare” aka not intended for them.

  • Dad

    I think there are laws around the banking industry about “unjust enrichment”. If the bank puts six extra zeros on my deposit, I don’t get to keep the ‘money’. The rules about posting shelf prices and scanning at checkout also have exceptions for clear mistakes. You know I view “a deal is a deal”, but the law doesn’t back me up when it’s a mistake.

    • Scottrick

      The Department of Transportation appears to feel differently. Whether they apply the regulation to all mistakes is a different question. See regulation 14 CFR 399.88. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2012-title14-vol4/xml/CFR-2012-title14-vol4-sec399-88.xml