The perfect mistake fare: $900 for 21 hours in first class (with a flying nanny)
Buckle up. What follows is a tale of the stars and universe aligning perfectly to give my family the best mistake-fare trip that ever was — and arguably ever will be.
In 2015, I was stationed just outside of Tokyo on active duty in the Navy. I was just three years into becoming a points-and-miles fanatic but had developed a fairly comprehensive award-travel system and spent a lot of free time on it. Late one weekend night, I was searching random routes on different online travel agencies. I was searching the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal for first class from Tokyo Narita (NRT) to the Maldives (MLE) when a $900 first class, round-trip fare on Etihad Airways displayed. I had found a fantastic error fare!
I knew Etihad had a layover program consisting of a free chauffeur service and hotel for first-class passengers in Abu Dhabi, so I priced out the itinerary with a stopover both on the way to the Maldives and on the way back to Tokyo. The $900 fare held. I booked tickets for my wife and me for $1,800 and screenshot the confirmation showing first class. The tickets arrived in my email inbox, but the confirmation now showed business class instead of first. I would later learn this revolved around a known problem with OTAs and airlines putting tickets with fare code Z in different buckets. OTAs like Expedi or Orbitz would make Z fares first class whereas Etihad sold Z fares as business class.
The $900 for Tokyo to Abu Dhabi (stopover) to the Maldives, then back to Abu Dhabi (second stopover), then finally home to Tokyo was outstanding even in business, but my confirmation said first class. I called up Chase.
I politely asked about the difference in my confirmation screenshot and my email. I demanded nothing, happy with business class for this rate but also happy to question the discrepancy. An apologetic agent asked me to hold, spoke with a manager, confirmed my contact info and said someone would be in touch. Two days later I got a confirmation email from the Chase travel portal with new tickets saying first class, a fare difference of $3,143 per ticket paid, and a receipt showing the last four digits of what I assume was the Chase corporate card:
I assume Chase found a first class fare for $4,043 and after the $900 I paid, they paid the remaining $3,143. We were confirmed in a mixture of F and R paid first class from Tokyo to the Maldives and back with two stopovers in Abu Dhabi. I was floored. I called and paid another $900 for an infant fare for my son (10% of a different adult fare)and a few months later, off we went.
We flew Etihad Diamond first class on an A340 for the two legs between Tokyo and Abu Dhabi. A flying nanny (trained in London) greeted us at the boarding door and took care of our son when we wanted to eat or sleep — and yes, having a flying nanny take care of our kid and routinely check on us for the duration of the two long flights was as amazing as it sounds. Unfortunately, the only photo I have of our son with her is a little blurry:
The suites on the A340 were wide and very comfortable, the service impeccable. There was an onboard chef who greeted us and served traditional Arabic tea and dates while he took our dinner orders and asked how we'd like everything prepared.
Mom and son settled in well for much of the flight, sleeping side by side with the suite made into a lie-flat bed. This was after the nanny gave him back to us when dinner was complete. I can't think of a better way to fly with an infant.
Upon landing in Abu Dhabi we were expedited through arrivals and customs and shown to a luxury sedan which drove us an hour to the Park Hyatt Dubai which I had reserved on a cash+points rate for three nights, and enhanced with a suite-upgrade certificate. (You can read my full review of the property.) Dubai and the hotel were amazing for our time there.
We had scheduled an Etihad chauffeur to pick us up at the Park Hyatt and deliver us back to the Abu Dhabi airport. A five-hour flight on an Etihad A330 which only had business and economy cabins (we flew in business) delivered us to Velana International Airport (MLE) in the Maldives. We boarded a seaplane to the Veligandu Island Resort and Spa.
We've covered travel to the Maldives several times so I won't dwell on the details of our time there, but we were thrilled to have such an opportunity, all based on the luck of finding the mistake fare and having it honored.
Our son seemed to enjoy his time in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the Maldives and was rather an attraction for locals, staff and tourists alike. I suspect not too many infants arrive in the Maldives, and while I wouldn't recommend it, the opportunity to take this trip was too good not to go and we didn't have anyone in Japan to leave him with for the week.
We left the Maldives and flew another Etihad A330 in business class back to Abu Dhabi, where we had a free chauffeur transfer to the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. Etihad had provided us a free room for the night with the first-class transit program. We had a great evening at the hotel, swam in the Persian Gulf, had a complimentary breakfast and headed back to Abu Dhabi Airport via our fourth complimentary chauffeur to catch our final flight home to Tokyo. On the way home the cabin wasn't full and after a long week of travel, my son seemed to enjoy his own version of the Diamond suite lie-flat bed:
Before the flight, I status-matched to Etihad Gold status, which earns a 50% mileage bonus. Etihad also at the time had a 300% promo for F and R fare-class tickets. You could family-pool miles in the Etihad program for free, meaning my wife's miles would be transferred to my account. We ended up with 89,836 Etihad miles and as we've written several times, that is enough Etihad miles to book a lot of partner flights. For example, American Airlines domestic economy flights cost 12,500 Etihad miles, meaning that on top of our fantastic trip we earned enough miles for seven free American domestic flights.
I know I hit the jackpot with this trip in 2015 and most likely we will never have a similar experience. I continue to do business with Chase and give them leeway anytime I have poor customer service because of what they did for me to make this trip happen. I don't think this would work today, but although most airlines won't honor mistake fares, there are some exceptions. I still have a habit of jumping on various online travel agencies late at night and searching premium fares. You never know what you may find.