Rule No. 1: DO NOT CALL THE AIRLINE!
Rule No. 2: NEVER CALL THE AIRLINE!
Rule No. 3: NEVER EVER CALL THE AIRLINE!
Many of the deals we post here are error fares – that is, fares published by an airline or an OTA (such as Orbitz, Expedia, lastminute and the like) as a result of a human mistake. Either the operator fails/forgets to add a digit to the fare price, inserts the price of another fare class or does another similar error, the result is a much lower price than one could normally find on that specific route.
Another category of deals are the so-called fuel dumps. The tremendous complexity of air fare rules, price structure and interline agreements leads, in some cases, to algorithm failures resulting in fuel surcharge, airport taxes or other fees not being added to the final bill. Since the fuel surcharge could sometimes amount to 90% of the total price, the price drop is consequently significant. Without going into much details as they are way too complicated and require months of study and exercise, this result is usually achieved by adding another [cheap] flight at the end, at the beginning or in-between the main flights.
It is self-evident that in both cases, your gain is their loss (where “they” means the airline and/or the OTA). Calling them, for any reason, will draw unwanted attention to the ticket and your trip will be canceled (unless, of course, you want to pay the difference to the regular price). Therefore the golden rule is to avoid any unnecessary human interaction with the airline personnel, no matter how tempting would that be. Do not call for an upgrade. Do not call for a special seat assignment. Do not call for a travel date change. Do not call to check how many miles will be credited to your account. Do not call for any reason whatsoever. Do not send them an email either.
Check-in online, try to travel with carry-on baggage only (see below), so as you could go straight to security and then to the gate, and you’ll have a smooth, safe trip.
Rule No. 4: BOOK FAST
Typically, error fares don’t last long: eventually, someone at the airline or at the OTA headquarters will become aware of the mistake and fix it. Depending on the importance of the error, the number of bookings (a huge increase in sales on a specific route will certainly spotlight the issue) and so on, that could take anywhere between a couple of hours and a few days.
Fuel dumps tend to have a longer life span and even if they die, sometimes they reappear in a similar form a few months later. Nonetheless, when they become public and draw a lot of attention, airlines react and close the loophole. Without reaching a “critical level” of publicity, some fuel dumps last for months and even years (this and the amount of effort put into searching for such glitches – it really takes months and years of continuous learning and practice to understand what, where and why to search for – are the reason why fuel dumps are published far more seldom than error fares). But when they come up, keep in mind that they will soon become history.
As a result, in both cases, the rule is plain simple: have you seen a trip that you like? Does it have a crazy cheap price? Buy it! Most likely, tomorrow will be too late.
Rule No. 5: MAKE FURTHER PLANS, BUT DELAY APPLYING THEM
Many airlines will honor the error fares for issued tickets even if it’s crystal-clear for everyone that is was a mistake. Some don’t. The bigger the error, the more chances of ticket being canceled and money fully refunded to your bank account. Yet, there were situations when airlines remarkably honored business class fares sold for discounted economy prices or even less; be it because they wanted to live up to their name or because the math showed that the amount of publicity greatly covered the loss, what really matters is that some lucky and proactive travelers who didn’t spend days before making the decision to buy the tickets actually did fly for a tenth of the regular price (as it happened in August 2015, for instance, with the American Airlines biz tickets from Sao Paulo to Hong Kong).
Also, depending on the country the purchase is made in, the seller could be legally compelled to honor the fare, based on the consumer protection regulations. In EU, for example, as long as you didn’t use any fraudulent method (such as breaching the computer systems) to forcibly alter the fare and you bought the ticket in good faith, the listed price is what you pay for that specific service or product. There is one small escape door out of this rule for the seller, defined as “unless the price is obviously lower than normal”, but that’s extremely difficult for a company to use in a court except for prices, say, one tenth of the regular fare, as in the above example; a price a third of the common fare could always be interpreted as a promotion or a seasonal discount.
That being said, there is always a chance of having an error fare ticket cancelled and money reimbursed a few days after the purchase, regardless of how the matter will eventually be settled up in a court or elsewhere. That’s why you shouldn’t make any other reservations (hotel rooms, car rentals etc.) right after buying such flights. Wait a few days, in the meantime bookmark the accommodation options you fancy, and if no cancellation notice appears in your inbox within a reasonable amount of time, proceed with them. It is also wise to use the free cancellation option that Booking.com and other online agencies offer on many hotel rooms.
Rule No. 6: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Customary, fuel dumps, when found by the airline, are treated more harshly than error fares; they are not considered either airline’s or traveler’s fault, but something in-between: it could be another airline’s mistake or OTA’s mistake (see the short explanation at rule no. 4 about the third flight), but the client voluntarily wanted to take advantage if it. Also customary, especially in US, the airline prefers to reach a settlement before the case is brought to court, the more so as it’s extremely difficult to prove that the client never intended to fly that third flight.
If found before the outgoing flight (see rules no. 1-3), the ticket is voided, the client gets his/her money back and that’s it.
If found by an over-zealous check-in counter employee right before the outgoing flight (highly unlikely, since the personnel there usually doesn’t have the necessary knowledge and training to spot a fuel dump, but you should still observe rules no. 1-3, that is “check-in online and avoid any unnecessary human interaction with the airline staff”), the client is first questioned about the missing taxes – and here comes the first part of “being prepared”: play the fool. “Uhmm?! I really didn’t realize the any taxes are missing (how should I know that? I know basically nothing about how the prices are constructed, I have just found that price, it seemed attractive and I bought the ticket. Yes, when I return, I will be going to Berlin instead of simply stopping here in London because my mother-in-law throws her birthday party there bla bla…”. If playing the fool is convincing enough, you will be allowed to board the plane. If not, you will be either offered to pay the missing taxes or be denied on boarding, normally with reimbursement of the price paid. Case closed, you have not lost anything except for the taxi ride to the airport and maybe the accommodation for the first two days at the destination, if you followed the advice given at the previous rule.
If found between the outgoing and incoming flight, the situation becomes more complicated, and that’s why you should be prepared twice as much. Playing the fool is the obvious first strategy, but if that’s not working, you will have to either pay the missing taxes or find yourself a one-way flight back home. Unless you don’t mind asking for permanent residence in that country, of course. Therefore, you should always keep on your credit card or in your pocket a “strategic reserve” that covers the taxes you were trying to avoid or the price of a one-way ticket. Alternatively, you should have in your frequent flyer account enough miles to buy yourself a ticket. When you get home, call your lawyer. But first, you need to get back home. Expect the unexpected, then, and be ready to overcome the issues that might appear.
Rule No. 7: TRAVEL LIGHT
If you are on a fuel dump, you don’t want your checked baggage to get to the final destination that appears on the ticket while you skip the last leg. Also, you certainly don’t want to ask the nice lady at the check-in counter to only check your baggage up to the airport you are planning to end your trip, as this might raise undesirable questions (unless there’s a long stopover there, of course). Travel with carry-on only and you’ll be just fine. Aside from the above reasons, not having to wait at the belt offers many other advantages: your baggage will never be lost; you won’t have to wait in line at the immigration; any connecting flight will be much easier to catch, you’ll even have time for a coffee; you’ll move easily from here to there at your destination. And really, everything you need in a trip fits in a 55x40x25 cm suitcase.