Should I help passengers with their United Airlines “zero” fares?

Anatoliy Lukich /
Anatoliy Lukich /

At 2:47 p.m. today, I received the first email from reader Nancy O’Neill. She wanted to know if a “zero” fare she’d just found on the United Airlines website would be honored. I’m sure it won’t be the last one.

O’Neill already felt a little beat up by United’s incomprehensible fare rules. She was trying to make a change to a flight from Houston to Louisville, but the $200 change fee would eat most of the value of her ticket.

“I decided to look at canceling my entire trip and just booking one way return from Louisville to Houston,” she says.

That’s when United quoted her the zero fare, not including $2.50 in taxes. Wow.

“My question is: will United honor this ticket when I show up at the airport?” she asked.

Probably not.

United is reportedly considering it. I think it’s well within its rights to cancel all of the tickets.

But should I pressure United into honoring these fares? I mean, it offered them online. Shouldn’t it have to honor these prices?

We’ve had this debate a time or two. O’Neill is one of the honest ones, for which I’d certainly consider going to bat.

The ticket thieves who found out about this fare glitch on one of those bottom-feeding loyalty program blogs or discussion forums and took advantage of this? Less inclined to help them.

What do you think? Should I get involved if necessary?

Should I help passengers with their United Airlines "zero" fares?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • DavidYoung2

    Zero fare? Really? Is there any realistic expectation that this is NOT a mistake? The answer, of course, is no. It’s an error and everybody knows it. If they choose to honor the fare, good for the people who booked it. But if they say, “No, it’s a mistake, the real price is $XXX,” then don’t whine or snivel about it.

    Let your ethics prevail and walk away from this one. No, wait. Run……

  • $16635417

    “After a great deal of frustration trying to cancel my outbound flight from Houston to Louisville, because I will be in Las Vegas longer than expected, and being told it would cost me more to fly lessdue to the $200 cancellation fee and then the higher-priced advance-purchase ticket, I decided to look at canceling my entire trip and just booking one way return from Louisville to Houston,” she says.


  • bodega3

    Chris this need some explanation. What is considered a zero fare for her? If taking the original fare of the first ticket, less the change fee, then the price of the new fare, deducting the original taxes and fees and adding in the new taxes and fee, it is possible to only owe $2.50 but I have to say what the OP wrote isn’t very clear at all. If over the phone UA is handling this, then there shouldn’t be an issue. But she isn’t mentioning a fee, which is charged by phone. We need more clarification of the breakdowns in the linear.

  • BillCCC

    Of course not. It is an obvious error. Why would you consider going to bat for someone that would attempt to exploit this? What does it matter how, where or why it was booked? You would have to change your definition of honest.

    If you do decide to advocate on their behalf my opinion of your work as a consumer advocate would be lessened.

  • Alan Gore

    Folks, you should know by now that if an airline posts a fat-finger fare, it’s an honest mistake that they have every right to correct before the flight. Let the passenger have trouble navigating their crappy website with its constantly changing data, on the other hand, and you will be gleefully humiliated in front of all the other people in line and be made to pay full walk-up plus whatever vat of punitive fees they can pour into your open wound.

  • Christopher Elliott

    That’s a little confusing. I fixed the narrative. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • bodega3

    Actually what is sounds like to me is there was no add collect in fare, but in an airport fee, so it was almost an even exchange, which I do all the time for clients.

  • bodega3

    No, it could be an even exchange on the fare with an add collect on an airport fee. We do ticket exchanges all the time like this.

  • $16635417

    I think there was a mistake fare (pricing at $0) on United’s website. The OP found it was cheaper to “buy” a new ticket at the mistake fare vs. changing her existing one. The OP wants to know if UA will honor the ticket. (Assumed to mean …will Chris help if it isn’t.)

  • Raven_Altosk

    No, no, no.
    Two wrongs don’t make a right.
    …even if two rights make an airplane.

  • Bill___A

    It is an obvious mistake on the website and no one should expect them to be valid. Everyone should have known it wasn’t for real. If, in the unlikely event they were giving away “free” tickets, then in addition to quoting them, they’d be advertising it.
    Don’t hold others to things that are not fair.

  • bodega3

    It is still confusing. Did she find a fare that was free with only an airport fee or did she do a ticket exchange and the exchange is only costing $2.50 in fees? This needs to be explained before everyone makes comments on something that may or maynot be correct.

  • MarkKelling

    Not this time.

    UA was offering anyone who booked any flight a $0 fare where you only had to pay the security fee. This was not offered just to the OP.

    Here is one newspaper’s article:

  • bodega3

    We need to see what Chris means by a zero fare. A fare is not the ticket price, as there are taxes and fees to consider to get the full pricing.

  • MarkKelling

    Why is it any different to go to bat for someone who knows she bought a fat fingered fare because she is “nice” vs. those who book the fares when they are members of the frequent flyer groups? Whatever choice is made should apply to everyone impacted.

    If UA comes out today and says the flights are not going to be honored and offers everyone who booked one some sort of discount if they rebook or a full refund of their $2.50 to $10, that would be good. IF UA says nothing and people show up at the airport and are told only then they need to pay the difference between zero and whatever amount UA wants to charge them (probably full Y), then I say go after UA.

    It was frustrating to try and book a fare today on the UA web site, I know because I tried. While that 1st class round trip to Paris CDG for a total of $10 sure was hard to ignore, I knew it wasn’t real and they were having issues so I didn’t book it. The prices have since been reset to more reasonable levels (at least as reasonable as UA gets these days).

  • MarkKelling

    The issue was UA posted fares for $0 on their web page today for all new bookings. (I tried to post a response with a web link but that never showed up. Go to the Houston Chronicle web site. It is front page news there in the business section.)

  • bodega3

    Wow, so this was something Chris got today and posted right away? Sorry, but the initial entry by the OP was so confusing that I didn’t get it and didn’t know about the UA glitch.

  • bodega3

    Thanks, I hadn’t heard about the glitch and wouldn’t have guessed Chris would post something that is current.

  • bodega3

    Thanks. I didn’t think this was something current.

  • MarkKelling

    Yeah, it is unusual for something to make it to this site same day. :-)

  • Amanda

    Please do something about this! While searching for flights there were a handful of days that offered a $10 fare so I took it (naively) thinking it was some sort of flash sale. I’ve since made nonrefundable hotel and car reservations so I’m out quite a bit of money due to United’s error.
    I’m one of those people who didn’t get what was going on because I’m clearly not savvy and was booking a flight in good faith, not trying to take advantage of an error.
    Any help you can offer would be so greatly appreciated!

  • $16635417

    Well, now that Chris has decided to respond to emails, maybe we’ll see some more current, timely cases. ;)

  • $16635417

    This is a good point. Airlines will allow you to cancel a non-refundable flight within 24 hours of booking, due to DOT regulations. Are hotels and car rentals regulated in the same way?

  • Christopher Elliott

    No, from what I can tell, she rebooked an entirely new ticket. That’s where the zero fare happened.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Same day service. Who would have thought?

  • $16635417

    Now that you get your emails, you don’t have to worry about anyone getting a different consumer advocate and see this headline elsewhere: “My consumer advocate won’t respond to my emails!”

  • mszabo

    I’d say the answer here is clearly no. However I wouldn’t be opposed to intervention a month from now when some poor online travel agent customer who booked their vacation package and doesn’t know the individual prices gets stranded at an airport because of this.

  • technomage1

    No. The prices were clearly an error. Having said that, the ball is in United’s court to contact the travelers immediately to let them know of the error and a discounted ticket offer would not be remiss, either.

  • John Baker

    I find that an individual’s beliefs are most always challenged by the extremes. I have always said that I think an airline has up until they charge your card to catch a fare mistake but once they charge it they own the mistake. This is an extreme case but I stand by my beliefs. UA should honor the tickets they sold in error.

    I was happy to hear on the news this morning that UA has decided to do just that and honor the tickets.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Since I didn’t get one, no way should you help these people. ;-)

    Seriously, I saw a newspaper article about this yesterday and imagined what I’d have done had I come across this as a consumer trying to buy a ticket. I’d have been the one to call United and say, “Really? Are you sure this is correct?”

    But then, I have integrity and don’t believe one should enrich themselves because of human error. *Shrug*

  • $16635417

    “Since I didn’t get one, no way should you help these people. ;-)”

    I wondered if anyone else felt that way …or if it was just me! ;-)

  • MarkKelling

    The fares were available through online reps as well. So they would most likely have said yeah.
    EDIT: meant phone reps.

  • Blackadar

    Oh heck no. This isn’t a case of “well, it was a good deal but it might have been a real fare”. We all know the airlines aren’t flying us around the country for free. So this is a bunch of people who took advantage of an obvious error to try to get something for nothing. If United pulls the plug on those tickets – and I bet they will – then don’t waste time trying to help because we all know it was an obvious error. If we want the airlines to play fair, then we have to do the same.

    At the same time, I’m not going to begrudge anyone for their luck f United chooses to honor the fares.

  • BillCCC

    You do this for thousands of customers? This was an advertised fare on the United Web Site. This was not an adjustment for one customer. If this had had been for one customer I might have believed it.

  • BillCCC

    I think that if they were actually selling fares at these prices it might have been mentioned in bold letters or advertised in some other way. You tried to take advantage and now are claiming that you did not know what you were doing.

  • William_Leeper

    In her defense…not everyone is apparently as travel savy as you. Had I found one of these tickets online, I would have booked it. Much the same as her I would have felt it was a sale, not a pricing glitch.

  • moonshin

    get involved. if united can jack people for insane fees when they make an honest mistake than united should be forced to pay when they make a mistake

  • moonshin

    if united can make people pay up when they make an honest mistake then they should pay up when they make a mistake…

  • BillCCC

    There is nothing savvy about being honest.

  • emanon256

    Love the joke!! You clearly had your coffee today :) Took me a few seconds and my wife grew up in Kitty Hawk (no coffee yet).

  • Daddydo

    I am sure that United will come to a decision sometime today. They are evaluating their legal exposure and their public image. I am sure that they are into heavy discussions with the DOT. There was a similar situation 15-20 years ago and our office did issue a dozen or so round trip tickets PIT to LAX for $100.00. They were indeed honored. The Marriott Cincinnati airport last year had a non-refundable room rate of $15.00 – honored. These errors happen, good will generally prevails. Bottom feeder! – Pretty severe! Opportunity knocks many times throughout the year, I feel that United will honor these tickets.

  • Bill___A

    You know, if United is offering a zero fare, and none of the other airlines are (everyone should check more than one airline) it is rather obvious that there’s a mistake. United may have made an error in posting the fares, but you also made an error booking it. Go and book a flight with the real fare on it so you don’t lose the other bookings for car and hotel.

    I’m sure the car and hotel didn’t give you their services for free, so why would an airline do it..

  • Bill___A

    Marriott allows you to cancel non refundable bookings if you do it within 24 hours.

  • Bill___A

    Every adult buys things. Whether it is cars, groceries, or airline seats, when something is free, there is either a catch or it is wrong.
    Sales are like 10% or 20% or 50% off, not “free”. Have you ever gone into a store and see them having a sale where everything in the store is free? I think not.

  • William_Leeper

    Have you ever eaten at Chick Fil A? Every 100th customer eats free. And that is not advertised. That’s exactly what I would have thought was going on here. Personally I would not have considered it may have been a glitch!

  • bodega3

    I am off on Thursdays and didn’t know about this fare glitch. Then add to it the fact that most articles by Chris are based on past experiences, I never gave it a thought to this being in real time. Also, we don’t use the term zero fare in the business, so I was assuming this was an even exchange on the fare with an add collect on a fee….based on the initial wording that later got changed in the article.

  • bodega3

    Now that I know the article was in real time and having read about the glitch, I understand her concern that she addressed and that it wasn’t an exchanged ticket. It will be interesting to see how it all gets handled.

  • bodega3

    Amanda, you might get lucky, but then again, you might learn an important lesson. Errors have occurred in the past and these low fares have been not allowed. If you find something that is too good to be sure, tread lightly. You could have booked hotel and car that allows for cancellations. You took a risk and it could cost you. But if it all works out, consider yourself lucky.

  • $16635417

    So…had Amanda booked a Marriot property, she could have canceled that fairly easily. I’m curious how here car rental company and hotel would respond if she were to call and explain the problem.

  • BillCCC


  • bodega3

    Then it is important to state here that if the price is too good to be true for airfare,then just be prepared if you make the purchase that there could be issues with it down the line. So don’t make nonrefundable reservations with other travel components just in case. It nothing happens and you get to use that great deal, great.

  • MarkKelling

    NEws story in the Houston Chrinicle posted about 30 minutes ago as Iwrite this state UA has announced they will be honoring all on the tickets issued at the wrong price,
    Knew I shoulda bought that $10 round trip 1st class to HNL!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The airline made an error. People who booked it made a deliberate choice.

  • bodega3

    Wouldn’t that had been a buy! I am glad they are standing behind their error with letting passengers use those tickets.

  • dave3029

    Something just occurred to me…. if UA decided it would not honor the tickets, would they refund whatever fees were paid and that would be the end of it, or would they charge a change/cancellation fee up to whatever their normal fees are?

  • Nica
  • Nica
  • TonyA_says

    Don’t know why 2 voters did not like Chick Fil A.
    They are awesome. Unfortunately when I moved out of the South, I could not find them. Then I learned there was one in Manhattan. It was inside an NYU cafeteria :)

  • bodega3

    It might have to do more with this company’s anti gay view than their 100th customer eats for free policy. Just guessing.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Not even close. Hotels and car rentals have far fewer federal regulations than airlines. And properly so. Airlines are an oligopoly. The barriers to hotel ownership are slight compared owning and operating a hotel. Hotels pop up overnight. Mom and Pop may own a hotel. Probably not an airline.

    The result is the hotels and car rental places have less draconian terms as a rule.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Lol. What a silly comparison.
    Its one thing to give an unadvertised free meal to every100th customer. That’s 1%. Its quite another to give away a free (or nearly free) meal to everyone who walks in the door and on top of that, to nor advertise it.

  • JenniferFinger

    “Zero fares” sound a lot like fat-finger fares. I’m really skeptical that the airline would honor them.

  • TMMao

    This is clearly an error on the part of the airline and nobody should take advantage of it. A long time ago at the hotel I managed, the night clerk mistakenly entered the wrong rate for the Japan Yen exchange rate into the system, so it paid 10X the proper exchange, i.e. 100 Yen = $10 instead of $1. By the time an honest guest brought this to the attention of the front desk, over $2000 had been given out to at least five not-so-honest guests.