Getting 'Mistake' Airfares for a Song

Ever bump into a Kardashian at Kmart? They sell clothes at sister-store Sears so it could happen, and so can "mistake" airfares.

Mistake airfares are impossible-priced airline tickets that come along once in a blue moon. One of those extraordinary events occurred Aug. 6 when El Al offered flights to Israel worth up to $1,600 for as little as 300+ bucks. Blame computer glitches and/or human error. Either way, it's not supposed to happen but when it does, wow.

Here are five things to keep in mind when it comes to grabbing your own impossible airfare:

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1. Use technology

You have to hear about airfare mistakes in order to take advantage of them but the airlines sure as heck aren't going to splash them all over their Facebook pages, not if they're true mistakes. What to do? Use technology: sign up for airfare alerts that'll catch these anomalies. My site offers this and so do many others.

Also check with that savvy group of travelers over at FlyerTalk; when mistake airfares appear, they spread the word because their whole raison d'etre is attaining (and keeping) elite status in miles programs via the cheapest way possible so they can enjoy first class perks. FlyerTalkers are the gold medal Olympians of the mistake airfare world.

2. Act quickly

Back in 2007, the now defunct airline ATA offered airfares from Orlando to Maui - flights that normally sold for $1,118 each-way - at the bargain basement price of just $118. As you can see, someone forgot to add the extra "1" to the price. You better believe those seats went fast and when you hear about such deals you do have to pounce.

Remember, even legitimate airfare sales do not cover an entire planeload; only about 10 percent of any flight's seats are marked down to the lowest prices, and they always go quickly. When they're sold out, that's it - the sale is over. With mistake fares, you have two things working against you: the limited quantity of seats and the fact that once the airline figures out they've screwed up, they'll make these wonderful fares disappear. Again, act fast. 3. Be flexible

Mistake fares do not always appear at convenient times. Example: a couple of years ago, Lufthansa offered flights from Chicago to Frankfurt with 'mistake pricing' - either a computer or a human neglected to input a fuel surcharge - and the result was round-trip tickets for $300+ in May. That's worth moving summer vacation plans forward and begging the boss for the time off.

On the other hand, sometimes the airlines make it easy. In 2010, American Airlines erroneously offered its "this coming weekend only" deals - but on weekends throughout the summer. Sharp-eyed bargain hunters enjoyed some very nice getaways.

4. Be socially (media) conscious

Sometimes airlines do not wish to honor mistake fares. Okay, at no time do airlines wish to honor mistake fares - but often they do (though don't skip #5 below). A little social media publicity doesn't hurt or so it seems according to anecdotal evidence.

Take El Al's bargain basement prices to Israel earlier this summer which turned into a drama with three acts: first the carrier said, yes, we made a mistake but we will honor the fares. Then they had second thoughts and El Al's execs said they might not honor the fares. Finally, they caved, telling passengers, you win, we will honor your tickets. By then, of course, would-be Israeli travelers had tweeted and Facebooked the deal all over the place and maybe El Al didn't want to look like the bad guy.

Suggestion: If you see a miracle deal, book it first, then talk it up. And it's a nice touch to thank the airline, too. It's been estimated that the El Al will eat about half a million dollars in losses from its mistake fares, but the carrier is also dining on priceless publicity. 5. Brace yourself for disappointment

Sometimes airlines don't honor mistake airfares. Some airlines even put this in writing, including Delta, which notes in its contract of carriage that it "reserves the right to correct any erroneously published fare that Delta did not intend to offer for sale." In other words, you may snag a miracle deal, but you may not get to use it.

Here's something else: While new Dept. of Transportation (DOT) rules say airlines can't raise the price of a fares after they've been purchased - including, it would seem, the mistakes - apparently the airline can cancel the ticket. The DOT is no doubt still looking into all the ramifications of the rule but just know that the mere act of booking a mistake fare is no slam dunk. You still have to see if the airline will actually get you where you want to go.

Suggestion: If you snag a mistake fare but can't get the airline to honor it, send them a polite note explaining the trouble you went to securing this deal and expressing your disappointment at how it turned out. Who knows? The airline may toss a voucher or some miles your way. It never hurts to ask.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.