It was a Christmas miracle.
On Christmas Eve in 2014, United Arab Emirates-based airline Etihad Airways offered deeply discounted tickets from major U.S. hubs — New York City, Washington, Dallas and Chicago — to cities around the world such as Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg and Mumbai. Some of the tickets were priced as low as $187 round-trip.
The catch? The tickets weren’t a Christmas Day stocking stuffer from the airline; they were the result of a pricing glitch. An Etihad spokeswoman told Forbes at the time that “a system filing issue caused ticket prices for a promotion in the U.S.A. to be temporarily listed incorrectly.” Nonetheless, the airline honored the mistake fares, and thousands of people traveled around the world on Etihad.
I was one of them. A friend called and woke me up early Christmas morning, out of breath and explaining that I needed to quickly book a ticket before they ran out, or before the airline caught the error.
“It’s about taking action immediately, and then figuring out whether the destination makes sense,” said Matthew Ma, a co-founder of TheFlightDeal.com, the site that broke the news of the Abu Dhabi glitch.
According to Ma, more than 20,000 people around the world booked the flights. Two friends and I were among them. We went to Abu Dhabi in February 2015 and paid $265 for round-trip tickets — including travel insurance — out of Washington Dulles International Airport.
Since the Abu Dhabi trip, I’ve booked two more glitch fares — to Lisbon and Panama City — and one “fare war” deal to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The Vietnam ticket allowed my friends and I to hop around Southeast Asia to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.
Booking error-fare tickets requires patience and flexibility. The Transportation Department ruled in 2015 that airlines no longer have to honor glitch fares, so travel blogs recommend waiting until a ticket and confirmation number have been issued before making further plans. Even then, airlines may still cancel the fare.
Travelers dedicated to spotting glitch fares have multiple ways of doing so. Some people mine travel blogs such as The Flight Deal and Secret Flying. Some use Facebook and set Twitter alerts to make sure they never miss a deal. My friend learned about the fare from another friend who heard about it on Twitter.
Members of Evita Turquoise Robinson’s travel group sent a “bat signal” upon learning about the glitch. “It was like anybody’s sense of respectable-hour etiquette [went] completely out of the window,” Robinson said of the glitch, which was discovered at 1 a.m. She booked a ticket to Johannesburg and didn’t go to bed until 4 a.m.
Robinson is the founder of the Nomadness Travel Tribe, an invitation-only online social group, which is predominantly comprised of women of color and has nearly 13,000 Facebook followers. (Full disclosure: I’m a member.) While most glitch fares are the result of human or computer errors, she says their availability underscores the group’s philosophy.
“Travel is not something that is only for the elite or [people] from certain economic brackets.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect name for the co-founder of TheFlightDeal.com. His name is Matthew Ma. The text has been updated.