Things To Learn From Yesterday’s Mistake Sale on United Fares

It was a fun 12+ hours yesterday watching folks react to the news that a travel website (OTA) in Norway was selling dirt cheap tickets on United Airlines by way of the fact that they weren’t adding fuel surcharges to any flights.

Personally, I was able to grab 3 trips, though I’m still not sure I will fly all 3.  The first two were IAD-DXB-IAD.  For those who don’t commit airport codes to memory, that’s flying from Washington Dulles to Dubai, a roughly 13 hour flight, hanging out on the ground in Dubai for 7 hours, then boarding the plane and doing the same thing back to Dulles. All in coach.  For $300 a piece.  A great price, but I must be nuts.

I also grabbed 3 tickets for my wife, daughter and I to fly to Paris on a long weekend in February.  My daughter has never been, and I can’t reasonably expect to find those tickets under $400 very often.  That will be another painful flight in coach, though not as bad as IAD-DXB-IAD.

I thought it would be good to assemble a list of things that are good to know as it relates to these types of situations, since these types of opportunities continue to arise.  Some of these are things I already knew, some were not.  But, all are good things to keep in mind for the next fare sale.

  • Act Fast.  Yesterday’s deal was up a long time, most of the day.  Other deals last only minutes or hours.  When you hear about one of these deals, you need to be ready jump on a ticket and ask questions later.
  • Know The Cancellation Policy.  In this case, the deal was for flights on United Airlines.  As a general rule, United allows 24 hours after booking to cancel.  That means assuming you have the space free on a credit card, you can quickly book tickets you might use while a deal is going on and then “sleep on it” and decide whether you want to cancel.  Alternatively, if you weren’t sure whether you would be able to cancel, jumping on a deal just because it’s a deal may not be the best decision.
  • What’s In Your Bucket?  I have a bucket list of places I want to visit in my head.  If you don’t have them committed to memory, take a moment to write down a list of places you’d go if price were no option.  In yesterday’s example, some tickets that are normally over $1,000 could be had for less than $300.  Not free, but pretty close.
  • Know What Your Getting.  In this case, if you were looking to book mileage runs, you were getting tickets on United dirt cheap that would earn Premier Qualifying Miles and redeemable miles.  But, since they were issued on Wideroe ticket stock, these tickets did not earn Premier Qualifying Dollars.  So, in some cases, they may not get you what you need to qualify for elite status.
  • Wait To Book A Hotel.  The DOT rules are pretty clear on what can (and can’t) be cancelled by the airlines when such errors happened.  But, that doesn’t always mean things will end up that way.  People were pretty sure United wouldn’t cancel award tickets they issued for 4 miles to Asia recently.  Turns out they let people keep the tickets who had travel imminently scheduled and cancelled them for everyone else.  In that case, if you had booked a non-refundable hotel on that one, you’d have been in trouble.
  • Don’t Call The Airline.  As a general rule, if you hold a ticket that’s supposed to contain fuel surcharges but doesn’t, calling the airline will likely lead them to re-ticket you with the fuel surcharges or cancel your ticket.  Certainly not the desired outcome.
  • Call Your Credit Card Company.  If you’re planning to book a bunch of airline tickets all at once (and, like yesterday’s deal, on an overseas website in a foreign currency) that can send a red flag to your credit card’s fraud prevention team.  The last thing you want to do in a situation like this is do all the hard work to score cheap tickets and have your credit card company block the charge.
  • Use Other Tools.  The site that was selling tickets without fuel surcharges yesterday wasn’t the easiest site to navigate.  And, when news of the deal leaked far and wide, the site slowed down to a crawl.  I was used to figure out itineraries and then plugging them into wideroe.  If you’re not familiar with ITA, you could use any OTA like Expedia or Travelocity to find what you’re looking for, then plug the correct dates and flights into the booking engine selling cheap tickets.
  • Be Patient.  Even I got a little impatient yesterday waiting for my tickets to book.  Eventually, I went to bed 5-6 hours after making my reservations hoping I would wake up in the morning with airline tickets.  I did, in fact get the tickets, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I didn’t.

On a humorous note, when I told my daughter we were going to Paris but not in a seat that reclined to a bed, boy was she upset!  She was very torn between wanting to see Paris and really not wanting to fly in a coach seat overnight.  She’s only 7, severely spoiled as a traveler, and part of me can’t blame her.

I still don’t know if I can stomach 27 hours on a plane in coach with a 7-hour break in the Middle East.  I’ve got another 6 hours to cancel without penalty.  After that, it’ll cost me a $200 fee to wuss out.

Any bets?

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About the Author

My goal in life is to fill my family’s passports with stamps, creating buckets of memories along the way. You’ll find me writing about realistic ways for normal people to travel the world, whether you’re on a budget or enjoy luxury. I also enjoy taking us on the occasional detour to explore the inner workings of the travel industry.

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  1. Oh you big sissy, just fly in coach (assuming the tickets are honored) and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth :p

    And my children would complain about a non-flat bed seat, too. We’ve spoiled our kids, no? 😉

    1. jetsetr, I’m certainly a big sissy. And, if I decide after tonight that I don’t want to do IAD-DXB-IAD in coach, $200 seems like an appropriate sissy penalty to pay. We’ve certainly spoiled our kids, but oddly I don’t feel too bad about it. 🙂

      1. Compared to some of your Milepoint co-founders, you have, pardon the expression, “a body built for coach seating” 😉 I’ve done such trips, and I know you can, too. Just think of it as an excellent ROI on an RDM purchase (made more lucrative because of your 100% 1K RDM bonus). And with seven hours on the ground in DXB, you can certainly do some (but not all) activities. In my order of preference based upon two previous visits, you could have SkyTea at the Burj-al-Arab OR go indoor skiing OR go to the top of the Burj Khalifa (though you technically don’t go to the “top” of the building). If the timing were right, you could probably do both Burj options.

        1. Jetsetr, you’re right that of the Milepoint co-founders, my body is most built for coach. It’s my mind and willpower that are built for F.

          Thanks for the tips on activities in DXB. At least now I’ll know what I’m missing if I wuss out. 😉

          1. Here’s a strategy for you if you haven’t already thought of it: Credit your UA flights to US, which will soon become AA PQMs and RDMs. By crediting to US, you will lose on the 100% RDM bonus (unless you are also US CP), but you will make requalifying for EXP easier. No idea if the US miles will count toward the AA “staged tier bonuses” (if the new AA will even offer it again next year).

          2. jetsetr, I thought about crediting my UA flights to US. Also, thought about crediting to Aegean as well to take advantage of the lifetime Gold offer there. But, I suspect you’ll be able to double-dip on the US M/C and AA Exec card for 20K EQMs in 2014, so that gets me ahead of the curve for AA EXP requalification.

            In the end, I thought I’d have enough flying to get at least 50K on UA and decided that the progress to lifetime status on UA and status on UA was the better play, since I would be eligible for some domestic upgrades, though not many at that level. Taken further, if things changed next year (like, say I was crazy enough to fly to Dubai twice in coach) I might make Plat or 1K again and regret having credited a chunk to Aegean. I still have a long way to go to hit lifetime status on UA but likely think the Aegean thing may not last forever and would rather make the progress on UA.

            I may live to regret the strategy, but…

  2. Thanks for the tip to the deal! I booked DEN-SYD, and got ticketed for 2 adults and 1 infant (i.e. I have three ticket numbers). When I check the reservation on, the infant doesn’t show up. Any advice on how to confirm this worked?

      1. It wasn’t crystal clear on the Norwegian website, but given that it added only about $100 to the itinerary for the infant, I assume it is as a lap child.

        1. jetsetr, thanks for the clarification. When I originally read the announcement, I thought *both* had to be true, in that it had to be a UA ticket and a UA or Star Alliance flight.

  3. If you did cancel, it would have to be through the Norwegian website, correct? Which means if it was not working well today, you might be stuck with the $200 penalty? Or can you cancel another way? I just watched the fun from Twitter but perhaps I will jump on the next one and so wondered. Thanks.

  4. I feel your pain, as I have an 11 year old daughter. We are responsible for creating our own business-first class spoil monsters. Argh!

  5. The booking/refund policy is based on the ticketing agent/portal/engine, not the operating carrier. Wideroe does have a 24-hour fee-free cancellation policy but that is not at all tied to the UA rules.

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