Last week, a few lucky travelers scored the bargain of a lifetime: They managed to get free tickets on United Airlines.
This wasn't the result of an insane promotion by United (UAL), nor was it a case of judicious use of airline miles. Rather, it was a simple mistake: An unspecified error on the airline website's ticketing system resulted in a brief window where tickets were sold for $0 (plus taxes and fees). A number of enterprising deal-hunters spotted the deal and snatched it up before United shut things down, but the airline ultimately decided to honor the free tickets, a decision likely driven by both legal and PR concerns.
It's a huge win for the lucky few who took advantage, and surely a lot of people are kicking themselves for having missed out. But here's the good news: Screw-ups of this sort, which are generally known as "price errors" or "price mistakes," are more common than you might think. Here's how you can get in on the action.
A Marketplace for Mistakes
When a retailer commits a pricing error, it's a race against time to place your order before the company wises up and shuts things down. So it's crucial to roll in the right circles.
Because these deals are so time-sensitive -- the error could be snuffed out within an hour -- it's not enough to just visit the usual deal sites and hope that the news filters up to their editors in time. Instead, you'll want to check out the various forums where eagle-eyed members post hot deals. Some of those forums can be found on the deal sites themselves -- FatWallet and SlickDeals, for instance, have active forums where users swap tales of deals they've stumbled across.
"Price mistakes happen a lot," says FatWallet's Brent Shelton. "The term to look for in forums is 'possible PM.'"
But you shouldn't limit yourself to deal sites. Discussion boards for travel, tech and other industries often have sub-forums dedicated to deals, and occasionally a member will find and publicize a price mistake.
"Price mistakes pop up somewhat frequently in travel," says Brad Wilson of BradsDeals. "The primary place these seem to collect is the long-standing travel forums like milepoint.com and FlyerTalk.com."
Price mistakes also sometimes appear in the tech world, allowing lucky customers to get gadgets, computers and peripherals for way less than the manufacturer intended. Shelton says that in addition to the FatWallet forums, the forums at AnandTech can be a good place to spot short-lived deals that may be the result of a pricing error.
You probably don't want to spend all day clicking "refresh" on these forums on the off-chance that a price mistake appears. Fortunately, many of these forums will let you create an account and set up email alerts that will ping you when someone posts on a topic of interest to you.
"Set up email alerts in deal forums for topics, stores, brands and products you're interested in purchasing," suggest Shelton.
Your Mileage May Vary
United isn't the first company to honor its price mistakes: Zappos lost $1.6 million after a glitch capped all prices at $49.99, and computer peripheral store Razer lost a bunch of money after accidentally posting a 90 percent-off coupon. But these companies are the exception, rather than the rule. "More often than not they aren't honored," says Wilson.
If a company discovers its error before the orders ships, it will usually void the order and refund your credit card. That was the case, for instance, when the Sears website briefly offered an iPad 2 for $69.
That doesn't mean it's not worth the effort. Shelton observes that when companies screw up like this, they'll often try to smooth things over by sending an apology email with a more modest coupon enclosed. So even if your attempt to get free stuff fails, you might still get, say, a 20 percent-off coupon. (Shelton says that some forum members will respond to price mistake posts with a wry "Thanks, I'm in for a consolation email.")
Furthermore, some price mistakes are more likely to be honored than others. While a 90 percent-off coupon or a free flight is obviously the result of some sort of computer error, other "mistakes" are simply a matter of people stacking coupons and deals in clever ways that the retailer didn't anticipate. Shelton says that he once combined coupons, rebates and cash-back deals to get a 51-inch plasma TV for $450. Unless the various discounts combine to make for a truly egregious price, the retailer is unlikely to void your order.
It's unlikely that we'll see another free flight deal in the near future. But if you're willing to put in the work, and you don't feel bad taking advantage of a company's misfortune, you can score some great deals that you were never supposed to get.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
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