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United Sells “0.00″ Fare Tickets – What Are Your Thoughts On Mistake Fares?

by on September 12, 2013 · 55 comments

in United

Earlier today a TPG reader emailed me that he had been able to book a ticket on United for $0 in airfare and $5 in taxes from Kansas City to Washington DC.

United mistake 1

For a little while this afternoon, this FlyerTalk thread was also buzzing about the mistake fares that United’s booking engine was generating. Curious, I started investigating, and although by the time I started looking at United.com, the site’s reservations page had been shut down temporarily, it looks like a lot of people were able to get in on these mistake fares – someone even reported getting a ticket from Washington DC and Houston to Hawaii for just $10 roundtrip!

Clearly this was a system error, and other news outlets are reporting that United shut down its entire booking page for both paid and award tickets – though it looks like it’s back up and running now and pricing out normally.

For those of you that did manage to snag those free fares quickly, I hope that you took screenshots of your reservations since the airline has yet to issue a response and might say that it will not honor these tickets – although in the case of some travelers, they booked flights for today so they might just be able to squeeze onto them before the airline decides to clamp down.

One lucky traveler who managed to book one of the mistake fares even tweeted to United about them – and though the airline did not offer an official response, it did reserve the right to “do what is appropriate,” which sounds rather ominous.

united tweet

Based on past fare mistakes like this one, I suspect United is going to do everything possible to wiggle its way out of honoring tickets bought during the system glitch, just as the airline did last summer when its award system allowed bookings from the US to China for just 4 miles; or earlier this year when Alitalia canceled many mistake tickets booked under a promo it was running in Japan.

If your flight is today or tomorrow and there’s still no response from United, you could still try to chance it and fly out and then try arguing your way back onto a return flight since your travel has already commenced, but the rest of the folks who booked tickets in advance might find themselves out of luck.

Did you book one of these fares? Tell us about it – and let us know what happens when United finally starts responding. In the meantime, what do you think?

If you had the opportunity, would you feel okay booking one of these fares knowing it was a mistake?

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  • SeaBee3

    Those two instances referenced are completely different from this – if a ticket was issued, there is nothing that United can do about it without facing a stiff penalty. The award mistake was not treated as a purchased ticket and the Alitatlia deal did not involve the US rules on ticketed fares. It will be interesting to see what ends up happening.

  • Frequent Flyer

    Even though they’re a huge company, people taking advantage of these mistakes is just wrong. People screw up, make mistakes, including programmers. Taking advantage of it is awesome – being upset even in the slightest if they so “oops, no.” would be completely arrogant.

  • Cory

    I didn’t book anything as I had no idea it was going on. Which was disappointing in a sense. I generally have no problem with booking mistake fares. All’s fair in love and war and airfare. Where I normally have a problem is when, after an airline chooses not to honor the obvious mistakes, people cry foul, whine, complain and believe they are entitled to the mistake. I also don’t like the federal rule that more or less requires airlines to honor mistake fares. But I’m a libertarian, so take that for what it’s worth.

    Let’s hope Frugal Travel Guy doesn’t complain about being too old to get to the airport within 24 hours to take advantage of the ticket purchased.

  • SuperKirby

    Is this why most airlines are on the brink of bankruptcy? =)

  • RakSiam

    What goes around comes around. The airlines have no compunction about applying draconian rules and fees to their customers. This is just a little payback. I would imagine that there weren’t all that many tickets issued before they fixed the issue anyway so they are probably not going to be out too much money.

  • hansmast

    They’re not. They’re profitable for the first time in years. Shoot, even Virgin America is profitable!

  • jorge

    I think that expecting an airline to honor a mistake fare (in this case a free ticket) to Hawaii is unreasonable. If it were not so clearly a mistake then it would be questionable and possibly good for the airline to honor the fare. …..but this one, no person can reasonable expect this to be a real fare and trying to force the airline to honor something like this is akin to stealing in my opinion.

  • Lucky

    I ended up with $15 RT tickets from Newark to St. Thomas.

  • Laurel Heights

    My guess United will cancel this batch of free seats. I’m all for the super discounted fares in fact I took advantage of several mistake fares and one notable in 2009 with DFW-MEX-EZE on Mexicana for under $200 but Mexicana folded the following year.

  • Lucky

    In addition to the confirmation, I already received my eticket. So it seems like it will be hard for United to change it.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Sounds like you have a winner. At least according to the CFR.

  • Daddy’s girl

    I bought a round trip ticket from Huntsville, AL and Houston, TX for $5. My dad is in bad health and I have been checking prices frequently to try to find something I could afford, so I could visit him. I count it as a blessing that I happened to be at my computer during the 15 minutes of the glitch. On the other hand, if they don’t honor the reservation, I will be disappointed, but not angry.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    I don’t get the ‘mistake’ part. If I sell my used golf clubs to a neighbor for 100 bucks and later think they are worth 1000, I could always drag out a long legal process claiming ‘mistake’ but its a waste of time. They offered it for sale, if they were purchased and ticketed, done deal. Otherwise they could just change it on all fares.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Oh and if they were truly ticketed at zero plus taxes, I actually think legally the airline wins. Not for any moral reasons but you can not have a binding contract without consideration. A dollar is fine. Zero plus taxes, I would think ‘legally’ would fail. Just my two cents.

  • Shooooper

    I’m okay with mistake fares, but I wouldn’t be upset if my a $0 or $5 mistake fare was cancelled. If I had seen this I certainly would have made some bookings :P

  • raycifer10

    I rack up the max on the 5x office supply stores… I’ve become THAT frequent visitor to the local Office Depot (Unfortunately, it’s not a bar).

  • fbtor

    If you paid zero for a flight good luck trying to keep that reservation. Consumer laws dont apply when no form of currency is exchanged and taxes do not count. a refund for tax will be issued and thats it. If you paid at least 1 dollar then you have case for something since a purchase was made

  • Ryan Pham

    What about two cents?

  • Seth

    Lets face it, anyone involved in the points game has a greedy disposition to begin with. We’re all looking to get as much as we possibly can for as little out of pocket as possible, but there have to be limits. There is no way anyone could have possibly thought United intended to sell tickets for no cost other than taxes. To take advantage of this and to be outraged if the tickets are not honored is just the epitome of self entitlement. Complain all you want about the airlines being greedy, but two wrongs dont make a right.

  • Eric P

    I think it’s a little absurd for consumers to expect an airline to honor this. A mistake fare of, say, $300 from Miami to Peru is one thing (and I’d buy a ticket like that); a $0 fare is just people trying to get something for nothing. Feels awfully greedy.

  • Andrew

    Those who voted “NO” in the above Poll Question are lame. Like get a life, the airline should have safeguards in place so this doesn’t happen. If it happens, well we should be able to benefit.

  • Andrew

    So we go to legally check out on United.com for $5 in fees, provide our credit card number, name and info and we are stealing? I have a simple question. Have you ever paid for something you were stealing? Stealing is a bit harsh, no? I don’t typically provide my credit card # to the company I’m about to steal from.

  • Andrew

    Is this your thing? Go on to websites and make comments that are factually extremely wrong? Why would you do that? Do you have a lot of free time on your hands? You must.

  • SuperKirby

    I was obviously joking, hence my smily face. And we both obviously have some free time, since we’re both on here.

  • Andrew

    Right… pretty weird comment… The airlines aren’t exactly known for doing great and making tons of money. A lot of people actually think the airlines are doing poorly – it’s not unreasonable to think this w/ all of the airlines that have filed for BR in the last 10 years.
    My opinion – you made you first comment thinking the the airlines were really on the brink of bankruptcy and not doing well – then you were corrected by myself and Hansmast and realized you were incorrect and the airlines are doing well.!
    But it’s ok… You have a cute dog!

  • Viva

    What about if you mistakenly listed the golf clubs on ebay for $1.00 with free shipping and someone bought them? Would you honor the sale?

  • BobChi

    It’s fine to try for an obvious mistake fare. Don’t make any other arrangements you can’t cancel for free in association with it. And I have no sympathy for those who go whining to the government or the courts to try to get them to enforce this sort of fare.

  • Daryl-Atlanta

    I’m a travel agent and have seen this happen several times before. The gov’t has a rule that says the airlines cannot retroactively change a fare or not honor a ticket that they sold (paraphrased). we’ll see. The first time I saw this was in April 1997 on Northwest between Atlanta and Grand Rapids, MI via Detroit. Fare was $0 and the reservations system auto-fared the ticket at $12 round trip including the airport PFCs (then at $3 per flight leg). I have extended family in the GRR area and I bought ten roundtrips for myself, all round trip and all for weekend travel (and two for my parents for a day trip where flew ATL-GRR, then rented a car/drove over to Holland, MI in early May to see their Tulip Festival). Over the between late-April and late-July 1997, I flew every trip on NW and was careful to never standby, change or no-show a flight and was never challenged and even with agent checkin, no agent ever commented on the tickets. No followup or debits back to the agency either. NWA handled it right as they should have, the tickets were issued against valid fares and the Airline/Agency reservations system automatically fared/issued the ticket with no exception codes to otherwise “flag” the ticket to NW’s post accounting review. Hopefully UA will do the same or risk a lot of push-back in the media. Additionally, I hope US does not cause trouble for the traveler’s FF accounts for the earned flown mileage.

  • Daryl-Atlanta

    Correction…I typoed “US” and meant “UA” when I wrote “Additionally, I hope US does not cause trouble for the traveler’s FF accounts for the earned flown mileage.”

  • Daryl-Atlanta

    The referenced “Flyer talk” thread does not open to the specific thread that the writer is referring to.

  • jerry

    Thinking out of the box. Maybe the airline should honor the fares, or at least partially. Then promote it as a generous give away.

  • Han

    Even it was a dollar airline still will win. If it was an obvious mistake and if both buyer and seller perceived as it was a mistake (which we all did) seller has a right to either fix the mistake and charge more or simply not honor the contract.

  • Han

    Not stealing, but it is not a binding contract. Obvious mistake + both party knew it was a mistake = not a binding contract.
    But often, big companies like United will honor them just not to harm their publicity and make up for their mistakes. But legally, they are not liable. Just FYI.

  • Mokie

    Section 399.88(a)
    states that it is an unfair and deceptive practice for any seller of scheduled air transportation within, to, or from the United States, or of a tour or tour component that includes scheduled air transportation within, to, or from the United States, to increase the price of that air transportation to a consumer after the air transportation has been purchased by the consumer, except in the case of a government-imposed tax or fee and only if the passenger is advised of a possible increase before purchasing a ticket. A purchase occurs when the full
    amount agreed upon has been paid by the consumer. Therefore, if a consumer purchases a fare and that consumer receives confirmation (such as a confirmation email and/or the purchase appears on their credit card statement or online account summary) of their purchase, then the seller of air transportation cannot increase the price of that air transportation to that consumer, even when the fare is a “mistake.”

    A contract of carriage provision that reserves the right to cancel such ticketed purchases or reserves the right to raise the fare cannot legalize the practice described above. The Enforcement Office would consider any contract of carriage provision that attempts to relieve a carrier of the prohibition against post-purchase price increase to be an unfair and deceptive practice in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 41712.

    That being said, airlines will normally contact you when they discover the error and advise that they will not honor the ticket unless you pay the correct fare. If that happens, I would immediately write to the DOT and cite the above sections of the law. Make sure to keep all of your documentation…and don’t expect to get upgraded to First!

    Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75

    U.S. Department of Transportation

    1200 New Jersey Ave, S.E.

    Washington, D.C. 20590

  • Pingback: United Honors Free Mistake Fares | The Points Guy

  • Crissy

    I voted no, but my answer isn’t that simple. I think it’s OK to book the flight. HOWEVER, if you’re going to fight with the airline over it I”m not going to back you. I’m not going to fall for all the silly excuses that are just said to make the person who did it feel better, but aren’t actually legitimate excuses.
    If you get away with it, good for you. But if you’re going to be a baby about something you knew was too good to be true, I’m not backing you.

  • Crissy

    So if someone is selling you a 50 inch LCD TV out of their truck for $100 it’s OK because you paid money for it?

  • Andrew

    Is your point that I’d be buying stolen property? If so, that analogy has no place in this conversation. If not, the person selling the TV obviously really needed the money. People take crazy amounts for the items when they go to pawn stores. It’s not unheard of for people to pawn stuff for 3,5,10 cents on the dollar to what it’s really worth. So to answer your question yes it’s ok to pay $100 for a TV out of his truck.
    If you attempting the stolen property conversation it’s ridiculous as the issue with United there was a stolen property issue.
    My point in all of this- at check out, at the point of sale system, the price agreed to for those goods are the price. If you but a pair of shoes at Neimans and you go to check out at the pair of Louis shoes are $40, I don’t think it’s your issue that a clerk didn’t mark the shoes the right place and the cashier didn’t have an issue with it either. You agreed to a price. What would your of done? Called United and had the following conversation….
    “” Umm yes Hi, this is umm Crissy and I was looking for a bargain for last minute fares and I found one on your website leaving tomorrow in 10 hours but ummm yea I think it’s a mistake, so I wanted to let you know. People say I am ethical and we want to make sure you get all your money.”
    That’s now what I would have done- I would have booked the ticket and if they chose to not honor it, then so be it. I’d be interesting in learning of the precedent regarding individuals who have challenged the airlines in court regarding this. While many may suggest the airline has the right to alter and change fares perhaps the courts have a different view on the matter.
    Again, I really hope you didn’t offer a variable that didn’t initially exist- buying stolen property as that is completely irrelevant in this conversation .

  • Crissy

    I wrote a whole response and lost it, will try to recreate.

    My point with the TV is that you know the TV is most likely stolen and there are presumptions in the law backing that. Just like you know that there was a mistake with the posting of the $5 fare. Just because you paid money doesn’t mean you’re entitled to what you bought

    In the case where you buy the TV, you use it for a week and then the police come knocking on your door and have proof it belongs to someone else. Yes, you do have to return the TV.

    My issue isn’t with buying the ticket, hey if you can buy it and no one notices – go for it, you got over on “the man.” My issue is the argument that you paid $1 or $5 for the ticket that you know isn’t right and feeling you are entitled to the service. This is more so an issue to me for the people who fight with the airline over it.

    As for the exceptionally cheap shoes, I would probably ask if the price was right at the point of sale. Would I go crazy over it? No, but I would at least give the clerk a chance to check the price.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Well as in all things, only matters if they press the issue. Kudos to UA for sticking by their “deal”. My thoughts are that if you put out the computer system and it goes wacky, that’s YOUR computer system. Now it sort of makes me think this story could be a plant. Sorry getting too analytical. lol Come on by our Newly revamped UA website. Never know there could be a free fare for you. Sort of like winning a toy with a free spin on the crane machine.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Incorrect Han, but who in the world is going to go through all the motions to see it actually play out in reality. Answer. nobody because the cost to prove your point “legally” outweighs the value of what you would get. I’m just saying from a logical standpoint the way it was supposed to work a dollar is sufficient to form a binding deal. That’s why you’ll see plenty of deed recordings at county records for a buck.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    And not saying your analysis is incorrect Han, if both parties were to admit “mistake” yes, it works but seriously if somebody is going to press the issue that much, do you really think that the buyer is going to say, yes I knew it was a “mistake?”. Of course not, they are going to say, I thought it was a great deal… but this is all mental gymnastics. Have a great week.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    There’s no way to make such a blanket statement. Don’t get me wrong, you can do it. You can say for instance, I’m not human I’m a fish who likes to flop about but that doesn’t make it true. What’s so obvious about the “mistake”? You’re assuming everybody purchasing airfare is an educated buyer? What if you’re a toy collector and you love ebay and you’ve never been on a plane in your life. You go from ebay to united.com and there you go flight to Hawaii … 6 bucks. What a deal! You’re importing knowledge to the buyer you can never assume they already have.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Think about it. Let’s say you live in NYC and a gallon of milk is normally 7 bucks and up whereever you go. So you’re saying somebody in Des Moines already knows that the going rate for milk these days is 7 bucks a gallon? Absurd.

  • MMG

    I do not feel bad for United at all. They take advantage of their customers ALL THE TIME! I.e. charging $150 just to redeposit mileage back into my account from a cancelled ticket.

  • Bryce Griffler

    My only counter-argument is when a passenger “makes a mistake” and needs to rebook a flight or missed a flight, etc., using the argument “people make mistakes” will NOT grant you any leniency on the part of the airline–ever.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Sure it is. In fact, I bought mine in a similar fashion. Except no truck. It’s chattel. You can sell your property for whatever you want so long as you own it.

  • Brian Kavanaugh

    And SERIOUSLY, why is everybody always getting involved in everybody else’s BUSINESS? What are they? The wallet police? Do you run around town telling people they shouldn’t spend 5 bucks for a coffee at starbucks? Do you go into the supermarket and say you know, you could get your bread at “Blanketly blank” for 99 cent. People need to worry a bit less about other people’s $ .

  • Crissy

    If you don’t want people in your business then you probably shouldn’t post it on a website.

  • Crissy

    Yes you can sell your property for however much you want. But you can’t buy stolen property, then you’re in possession of stolen property, which is a crime. And if someone is selling a $1000 TV for a $100 out of the back of a truck, then they probably don’t own it. If you’re genuinely trying to be legit you’ll be asking a few questions before you buy that TV.

  • SuperKirby

    LOL! =)

  • SuperKirby

    But to think the airlines were doing bad because of mistake fares? Come on…..! No way that would EVER happen! No company would go BK for a 10 minute system glitch! That’s absurd.

    In 100% seriousness, I am surprised to see people actually thought my comment was real (non-sarcastic). The smiley face didn’t give it away?

    I was for sure it was obviously sarcastic….but it’s hard to tell online, and when obviously you guys are strangers and don’t know my personality. So I still take the blame. I’ll put “sarcasm” next time instead of a smiley face.

  • Mike Daily

    It would seem that the airline could rescind the ticket agreement on the basis of the price term/computer error being a mistake that was essential to the formation of the contract. If they honor the flights, then it would be out of kindness, not obligation.

  • Jus Deserts
  • Brian Kavanaugh

    Lol the “street” lawyer, and “street” cop rears it’s ugly head on the Inteeeernet.

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