This search engine for fare errors could be the worst idea ever

Burying the news is a time-honored tradition in American journalism. Just wait until the day before a major holiday to share information someone is reluctant to publicize, like a CEO resignation or a company “restructuring,” and hopefully no one will notice.

So when I saw the press release about an airline “error fare search engine” launching just a few hours before the American Thanksgiving holiday, I suspected someone was trying to deep-six the news.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth. Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

And then I read the announcement.

“As travelers clamor to find the best flight deals this black Friday, CheapFlightsFinder introduces a new service which displays the cheapest flights ever published from your local airport including super cheap airline error fares,” it announced.

Oh no.

Fare errors have been a hot topic on this site for years, since we handle more than our fair share of airline complaints. To get caught up on the topic, read this story about a woman who booked a fare error and this discussion of the government’s involvement in fare errors. (There’s more if you’re interested — just do a search.)

My position on fare errors is unambiguous. It’s stealing, and if you knowingly book an erroneous price, you’re a thief.

So how could I not conclude that CheapFlightsFinder is anything less than an accessory to theft?

The new search engine, the press release explains, works by unveiling the cheapest flight prices found from over 1,200 sources then launching a search for those fares on a multitude of search engines, including Skyscanner, momondo, Dohop, Kayak, Google Flights and more.

“Not only are airline error fares uncovered,” the company explains,”but also genuine time sensitive travel deals officially published by the airlines.”

OK, CheapFlightsFinder is also offering legitimate fares? That’s good, but not quite enough to make up for the fact that the site is encouraging its users to steal, in my opinion.

“Gone are the days where you have to sign up to deal alert email services which jam your inbox with tons of irrelevant offers,” CheapFlightsFinder CEO Shahab Siddiqui explains. “Now you can get targeted results with one simple search.”

Did CheapFlightsFinder just pivot to a meta-search site halfway through that press release? Isn’t that like saying your drug dealer also carries a variety of legal, over-the-counter medications?

I find the timing of the release, the way in which the site promotes itself, and the way in which it framed fare errors, to be deeply troubling.

For the last time: Booking erroneous prices is wrong.

The fact that airlines play other price games with us is no justification for booking fare mistakes. Two wrongs don’t make a right. If you know a fare is an error and you book it, you are guilty of attempted theft. If you fly on that ticket, then congratulations, you’ve stolen from the airline.

Also, airlines are in the habit of canceling erroneous tickets. I wonder what will happen when the first complaints start to roll in from the fares found on CheapFlightsFinder? Will the site pay the difference between the mistake fare and the new ticket? Or maybe the aggrieved passengers will ask us for help, demanding that my advocacy team pressure the airline to honor the fare. (We won’t, of course.)

The site seems to know that it’s encouraging users to do something questionable:

The airline is under no obligation to honour these super cheap error fares but your chances are increased greatly if you follow these guidelines –

1.) Try to book directly through the airline’s website. CheapFlightsFinder not only displays the error fare but also shows numerous options of where to book including in many cases the airline’s own website.

2.) Book quickly before the airline figure [sic] out what’s up. Error fares don’t last long at all so you have to pretty quick to book them as soon as they are published. CheapFlightsFinder takes care to only publish fares that were live in the last 15 days.

3.) Don’t book other plans till your seat is secure. Sometimes the error fare is not honored but don’t worry, airlines must reimburse all out-of-pocket expenses made in confidence upon the reservation.

And now they’re giving users directions on how to manipulate the system? Come on.

This search engine for fare errors could be the worst idea ever.

There’s little room for discussion here, my friends. And I know you’ll try to debate it in the comments. I suspect I’ll hear from the hackers, whose blogs used to prominently promote fare errors before I called out their reckless and immoral behavior.

But the comments of these thieves are not welcome here, and for their convenience, I’ve even blocked them from linking to this site. I will have nothing to do with them or their illegal behavior, and neither should you.

Is a site that searches for fare errors ethical?

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32 thoughts on “This search engine for fare errors could be the worst idea ever

  1. If an agent of a company says something off hand, verbally, during a conversation with a customer about a price, discount, service or compensation:

    – regardless of whether the agent’s words reflect policy of the company
    – regardless of whether the agent has the authority to do so
    – regardless of the review the statement is given by the company

    …this site generally calls that statement a “promise” and advocates that the customer receives it.

    But if a company publishes a written fare or other price, through the official established channel for purchasing the fare, after having as much time and as many layers of review as it needs, and the customer agrees to purchase it….

    This site classifies it as theft by the customer.

    Why the dichotomy?

    1. “Not responsible for typographical errors” used to be in print ads all the time. All the airlines need to do is include the digital equivalent on the “Buy” screen. If they don’t, they should be on the hook.

      1. As an IT person, I can’t imagine not having an “Are you sure?” type alert should an entered price go below a predetermined threshhold for a given route and fare code. Most of the mistake fares written about by bloggers are so ridiculous that it’s hard to fathom the lack of a circuit breaker for them.

        1. I’m a data person, and not only should there be an on-screen alert if the price is outside of a threshold, there should be an email that is sent immediately to management for when the keyer ignores the warning and enters the price anyway. It blows my mind that these things get posted and are not caught until many tickets are purchased.

          I have no moral qualms about purchasing any ticket published at any rate. One, I do not have the insider knowledge to know whether a price is legitimate or not. If it had been real, I would have kicked myself for not booking when I had the chance. I would certainly not feel better for taking the moral “high ground”. Two, it is the one time out of a hundred where the tables are turned. The airlines certainly have no moral dilemma about holding their customers to honest mistakes, and charging exorbitant fees to fix things that take little effort on their part. If they lose a few thousand dollars over a clerical error, I will not be sad for them. And three, they have tools at their disposal to limit or prevent these errors, and if they have not spent the money to do so then it’s their own fault.

  2. Simple solution: The airlines use the site as a last check for the dreaded fat finger fare, allowing a quick cancellation of errors. Then, if the fare is left active, using it is not stealing.

  3. Kind of funny to have a site where the biz model often amounts to extortion criticize another site for facilitating “theft.”

    1. Interesting idea, BJ123. Your definition of ‘extortion’ seems to include telling the whole truth about what travel businesses choose to do with customer’s problems. Isn’t this simply information sharing to help customers make better choices, and give them the tools to advocate for themselves?
      Cockroaches scurry from the light, as do predatory/shady/compassionless travel businesses. To reframe; perhaps Elliott is merely helping sketchy businesses evolve into better corporate citizens?

      1. I think perhaps the word “often” in BJ123’s post could be misleading.. I’m a big fan of bringing unethical businesses into the light. But I’ve also seen companies headline-shamed; lying, deceptive consumers helped through advocacy; and plenty of money grabs for passing, verbal promises with no proof that they actually happened. And I think those do amount to “extortion” in a sense.

        And before we get all high and mighty on the legal definition of extortion, let’s make sure we understand that this post quite calls people who book mistake fares thieves – literally – guilty of stealing.

          1. It’s certainly OK for you to record them. You just need to inform them that you’re recording them (to be safe, given that the legality of one party recording varies by state).

          2. It’s the legality point that bothers me. It should be reciprocal–if one party records, it should be okay for the other party. Is there a sensible reason why not?

          3. My understanding is that it’s a grey area, but the ACLU’s recommendation is that, by saying you’re going to record a call, you’re not necessarily giving consent to the other party to do so.

      2. Extortion (or blackmail, depends on your state) is threatening to disclose negative information about an entity unless the entity provides some form of compensation. Saying “if you don’t refund my ticket, I’ll post a bad review about you” is without a doubt extortion/blackmail, under the law.

        It’s certainly far more justifiable to say that enages in extortion than it is to say that someone buying a mistake fare is engaging in “illegal” conduct or “theft,” as Chris claims here.

        Glass houses, and all that.

  4. The problem with “mistake fares” is how do you know they are mistakes? And don’t give me any of that: “you’ll know them when you see them” nonsense. It’s easy to say that that $5 fare to Europe was a mistake fare and nobody should have booked it. But, we flew to Singapore from Chicago last year for $460 a ticket on China Eastern (all in including taxes). Was that a mistake fare? Everyone else was in the thousands, so that’s just “too good to be true”. But, it wasn’t a mistake. It was China Eastern deep discounting to build business out of Chicago. (and we had a fabulous trip). United recently had a similar route one way for $137, which was widely publicized and not a mistake, either. I bought two products yesterday for 99% off ($1, each!) Must be a mistake, right? No, just a Black Friday sale, which you could find in many places including the manufacturer’s web site itself. We booked a hotel a couple years ago on Expedia for 70% less than anyone else including the hotel itself was charging. I’ll admit to wondering if it was a mistake, but the trip went fine. I think they were just trying to build business during a slow season by posting a deeply discounted price in the search engines.

    I have no problem with ethical questions about mistake fares, but in this day and age of creative and targeted marketing I sure would like a clear definition of “mistake fare” that will ensure I’m not passing over legitimate offers because they “look too good to be true”.

  5. I guess I’m more likely to shrug. I never sought fare errors, and to be honest, I don’t understand people who will search multiple airlines and multiple travel sites for hours to save 20 bucks (or even 50). Still, I appreciate your principled stand here. You advocate to the airlines for people who have made honest mistakes, and I think it fair that you advocate for airlines when they make an honest mistake.

  6. I am sorry, Chris. Fare structure is voodoo. When an airline publishes a fare, they should honor it. The airline industry is reaping what they sow. Their business models and ticket contracts are one-sided and predatory. Greed attracts greed.

    1. Another word for what you are describing is ‘symmetry’. I do understand Chris’s principled stand which may give his site some credibility in advocacy with the airlines, perhaps at the expense of consumers. If you have had a bad experience with an airline using their market power & deeply unfair adhesion contracts to squeeze more out of your wallet, then you may find that a fat-finger fare is less troubling to your conscience.
      Ideally, each side should not take advantage of the other, and that will happen on the day that pigs fly!

  7. The question is what is an error? Is it fair for a business to say when you check in, ‘oh, it was meant to be $198, not $188? Pay us $10, or you can cancel the purchase.” After all, it is an error fare. What makes an error “believable” vs “unbelievable?”

  8. Totally agree. Booking a fare you know is an error is stealing. I hope that anyone who does it gets what they deserve . . . left without a ticket.

  9. I’ve the same problem as some others. I know an airline flight from NYC to Paris for $5 is a fat finger error. But that same flight for $50 with WOW and Norwegian Air offering similar flights for $99 now it’s a grey area. So do I pass on a real deal because it “might” be erroneous?

  10. You’re missing another problem with CheapFlightsFinder’s press release: they’re not actually doing anything differently from all other search engines. They ALL show price errors — how would they not? The reason price errors are elusive is that it’s hard to find them amongst all the correct fares. Unless CheapFlightsFinder goes out of the way to flag price errors (which is not stated in your post or their website), they’re not doing anything special. They brag that they don’t annoy you with alerts about price errors, but if you want to take advantage of price errors (and can deal with the ethics and risk), you WANT to be alerted.

  11. Simple solution is already there. We have 24 hours to cancel or confirm. The airline should have the same. If you are flying within 24 hours of booking that fare, too bad for the airline. Sounds like a fair fare.

  12. I try to stay out of the comments as much as possible, since they belong to our readers. But I’ll make an exception for this story.

    I love and respect the diversity of opinions on this topic. We can politely agree, or disagree, that knowingly booking a mistake fare is theft.

    But I wanted to say something to those of you who think we are engaged in “extortion” here. We are not. If you’re an infrequent reader or commenter of this site and believe we are committing a crime, you are misunderstanding what we do. I invite you to review our archives and familiarize yourself with our advocacy.

    If you’re a frequent reader or commenter, and you think we’re extorting companies, you must know better, and you are cynically twisting our mission and purpose with your words.

    I would invite those of you who think we are criminals to find another consumer advocacy site that better reflects your values.

  13. When I can correct an obvious mistake on my own part (like misspelling my own name) without charge then I will feel much more inclined to let airlines correct their obvious (and perhaps not so obvious) mistakes.

  14. I tested the search engine out of curiosity. Not impressed. I searched for the same flights directly at a couple airlines, and found better rates. Personally, I use a brick and mortar travel agent, since most of my travel is international, and I prefer the extra support a good travel agent with 24 hour accessibility provides.

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