Sunday, November 24, 2013

Newark to Tel Aviv for $395/Person!

One of my father's favorite websites/blogs is called The Flight Deal. They do a great job of promoting amazing fares for frequent flyers and leisure travelers alike.

Last November, my parents booked a $400/person flight on TAM Airlines from New York to Buenos Aires, Argentina for late March 2013. Normally round trip flights to Argentina were about $1,200+, so we were quite excited to get in on this "mistake fare." It also helped that TAM Airlines was in the Star Alliance at the time, so we could credit our 12,000 miles towards our United MileagePlus Accounts helping my father earn Gold status and my mother Silver for 2014.

This past Saturday, we had another opportunity to capitalize on another mistake fare. While my parents and I were out celebrating my belated 2nd birthday watching Disney on Ice, my father noticed that The Flight Deal posted an amazing $343 deal on trans-Atlantic flights on United Airlines.

Apparently, a Norwegian airline website was pricing out United fares at ridiculously low levels for winter travel through March 2014. Normally economy flights to Europe and beyond cost well over $1,000 a person, sometimes closer to $1,600+. But for some reason, this little Norwegian website was pricing them at less than half of the normal prices!
  • For example, many people were able to book round trip flights from the US to Dubai or Mumbai for $400-500/person. 
  • Fares to European destinations were even better, with many people getting round trips to Oslo, Stockholm, Dublin for $250-350/person. 
  • The best deal was a round trip to Milan for just $149 round trip!
Since the original post only had $343 deals to Europe in the winter, we didn't pay much attention. My father's not a huge fan of European travel (relative to other amazing parts of the world) to begin with, and the idea of walking around in the cold to see more cathedrals didn't entice him any more. However, a few hours later, The Flight Deal announced that the amazing deals were also applicable for Middle Eastern destinations, including Israel where my grandparents live!

Likely, this phenomenon was due to some mistake on the website that incorrectly coded and mispriced fares. Normally, such "mistake" fares tend to get resolved very quickly by the airlines (max ~2 hours), so the window of opportunity shuts well before "regular people" are able to book anything. However, for some reason, the Norwegian website didn't catch the error for almost 10 hours (perhaps because they were busy enjoying their socialist weekends off).

In fact, my father just assumed we wouldn't get back in time to take advantage of the opportunity. But by the time my parents and I returned home at 6PM, we were still able to book a ridiculously cheap $600/person flight to Tel Aviv for the 3 of us in mid-February. So we booked quickly knowing that we could cancel for free within 24 hours if we changed our minds.

But after looking around more, we found an even better deal in late January during my mother and grandfather's birthdays for just $395! So we booked a second trip to Tel Aviv and only then did we cancel the February booking. It's important we did it in this exact sequence, because with random websites getting abnormally high visitor traffic, there's always a chance your transaction won't go through completely.

We booked the second reservation at around 7:30PM on Saturday evening. We immediately received a confirmation email from Wideroe (the Norwegian airline site) with our booking details, but my father knew that we had to wait for the booking to be TICKETED before anything was even semi-official. Upon ticketing, our credit card would be charged. So we waited for the final ticket numbers to appear on, but due to the heavy backlog of bookings, Wideroe was likely backed up processing orders. Since Wideroe was the ticketing agent, it was their responsibility to complete the transaction, not United.

Unfortunately, the United website said the booking would be cancelled if not ticketed by "midnight on Saturday Nov 23," but YOU SHOULD NEVER EVER CALL the airline or the agents. By involving an actual human being, there's a strong likelihood that the mistake would be quickly identified and corrected (meaning that people's bookings would be cancelled), ruining the deal for everyone.

But as expected that United midnight deadline came and went without any issue. My father eventually just went to sleep with complete understanding that there was a high chance this deal was "too good to be true" and that it might be cancelled outright. If it worked out, great. If not, no harm done.

Around 9AM Sunday morning (over 13 hours later), our booking was finally ticketed by Wideroe, and our ticket numbers appeared on United's website with the same fare we booked the night before. So now we wait and see if the airlines will honor the fares. The fact pattern in our favor includes:
  1. Our credit card was charged for the correct expected amount of $395/person.
  2. United Airlines shows our EWR-TLV booking on their website.
  3. Wideroe sent us confirmations with our ticket numbers.
After the reservation was ticketed, we could then see the fare details on the receipt (seen here from United's website). We saw that the Fuel Surcharge (YQ) was not listed at all. So we booked 3 round trip tickets for 7,254 NOK (or ~ $1,185 USD) total - which came out to just $395/person. Note: 6 NOK = $1 USD.

While many people think a Fuel Surcharge would just be a modest % of the actual base fare, it's oftentimes much more. To see for himself, my nerd father replicated our same itinerary on the ITA Matrix website. In our case, the YQ Fuel Surcharge was actually $606 USD per ticket - almost double the $310 USD base fare! So it appears that Wideroe didn't include the Fuel Surcharge when it was pricing out the United tickets.

Now, there's always a chance that United and/or Wideroe may find a way to cancel the bookings even after ticketing, but I'll keep my toddler fingers crossed and hope that I'll get to see my grandparents in Israel in a few months.

And just so that I'm giving everyone a complete unbiased picture, I wanted to highlight a few pitfalls of trying to get in on these mistake fares. The negatives are as follows:
  1. Your booking may not ultimately be honored. Depending on how widespread the bookings were, the airline may rather face the wrath of negative press than lose millions of dollars on mistake fares. In fact, United cancelled and refunded passengers on another mistake last year when its website accidentally priced out First Class awards to Hong Kong for just 4 miles (vs 140,000 miles normally).
  2. You may book other non-refundable travel based on the flight working out (hotels, other flights, car rentals) and then lose money if you have to cancel.
  3. You may get your hopes up (and those of your friends & family who were expecting to see you).
  4. If the "mistake fare" is actually an active consumer manipulation of the computer systems rather than an actual mistake, the airlines may take severe action against you (including prosecution and shut down of your frequent flyer accounts).  See this example from earlier this month!
  5. The airlines will eventually fix their errors, which may mean that people will get fired and/or smaller companies may be forced to go out of business.

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