What a way to kick off the new year, eh? 😉
Congratulations to those of you who got in on the bargain-basement Cathay Pacific premium fares over New Year’s Eve! You’ll be crossing the Pacific with one of the world’s leading airlines at some shockingly low prices.
I haven’t written much about “mistake fares” in the past, and that’s because they don’t come around too often, and when they do it’s never a certainty that they’re honoured by the airline. This one was the exception, and it might just be one of the deals of the decade. Here’s a recap of how everything played out...
I’m pretty sure it was One Mile at a Time who first broke the news on the evening of December 31, Eastern Time. There were some pretty incredible business class fares on Cathay Pacific originating in Vietnam to virtually all destinations in North America.
You could book round-trip business class for US$560, or round-trip First Class for US$845. These tickets are typically more in the range of $5,000 to $20,000, so you were getting an unbelievable discount.
Mistake fare, New Year’s fire sale, whatever you wanted to call it, people flocked to book these tickets given how good of a deal they represented.
Sure, you had to originate in Vietnam, but if you lived in North America and were planning to travel to Asia, then you could easily use this fare as the return portion of your first trip combined with the outbound portion of your second.
Moreover, sometimes these “special” fares are limited to certain dates or destinations – not so with this one. Virtually all destinations in North America were in play, and the fare was available throughout the end of schedule. Basically, anyone who wanted to travel between Asia and North America anytime in 2019 stood to benefit from booking one of these crazy deals.
Just How Good of a Deal Was This?
Here’s another way to look at just how crazy good this fare was. The tickets booked into the “A” First Class fare bucket on Cathay Pacific, which earns 350% redeemable miles when credited to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.
Let’s say you had booked one of the Da Nang–New York fares in First Class for US$845, which was just about the cheapest First Class deal anyone could find. You’d fly 8,072 flown miles in the “A” fare between Hong Kong and New York per direction, which would earn you 8,072 × 2 × 3.5 = 56,504 Alaska miles in total.
(The Da Nang–Hong Kong flight is operated by Cathay Dragon, which doesn’t earn Alaska miles, but you can credit it to American Airlines AAdvantage.)
Those 56,504 Alaska miles are already enough for a one-way transpacific flight in Hainan Airlines business class! In fact, it’d be almost enough for yet another reward flight in Cathay Pacific First Class as well, since those start at 70,000 miles.
Alaska miles are commonly valued at around 2cpp, so the value of the miles you’d earn from this ticket already exceeds the ticket price. Hell, if you were to sell those 56,504 miles to a broker (which is prohibited as per the terms and conditions, but some people still do it nevertheless) then I’m pretty sure you’d recoup the US$845 you spent, or at least come close to doing so.
You’re basically getting paid to fly Cathay First! Now that’s living the dream.
How Do Mistake Fares Happen?
Airline pricing is a mysterious beast as we all know, but what isn’t so mysterious is a simple fact: that behind all the algorithms and automated fare buckets lies a human somewhere controlling the inputs manually, and humans make mistakes.
And so “mistake fares” happen from time to time – flights that you can book for a drastically reduced price when someone at the airline has a bad case of fat fingers. Mistake fares are unpredictable by nature, and when they do show up, they’re typically gone within the blink of an eye as the airline takes notice and implements measures to correct them.
In this case, the fare lasted for a few hours before Cathay Pacific took the rather drastic step of zeroing out all First Class and business class fare buckets on all their North American routes. So for a brief period, even you wanted to book a legitimate flight for the usual price, you couldn’t, since they had made every single premium seat unavailable for booking.
To me, this indicates that Cathay Pacific needed some time to identify the error within their fare systems and to correct it – time they simply didn’t have, given the pace with which their premium inventory was getting snapped up. And so they pulled the plug on all bookings to stem the bleeding until the faulty fare could be sorted out.
By midday on New Year’s Day, the fare had been fixed, the regular premium fare inventory was back up and running, and the waiting game had begun...
What Did I Book?
I was in Paris celebrating New Year’s Eve, so I read about the news after the countdown on the Champs-Elysées and coming back to my hotel at around 12:30am local time.
To be honest I’d had a little too much to drink by that point, so I was desperately scrolling my phone like a madman, trying to understand what was going on!
Fares available through the end of schedule? Nice! Originating in Vietnam? Okay, okay, I can make that work…
You know, I was actually about to book the cheap business fares when I clicked through to the Cathay website and saw that First Class was available too for only a few hundred bucks more!
And that was a game changer. You see, I had actually recently been trying to book some Alaska Mileage Plan awards on Cathay Pacific for next year. Jessica and I needed to be in China during the summer, and then had to return to Vancouver for a wedding in late July.
I had been fiddling around with Cathay First award space a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t quite make the dates work. And even if I did, I would’ve only been able to book one seat in First Class and would have to wait for the second one to open up last-minute, since Cathay only makes a single First Class award seat available this far in advance.
I had gotten busy with something else at the time, so when these crazy First Class fares showed up, I knew I had to act. I booked a round-trip for Hanoi to Vancouver via Hong Kong for US$988 per person, with the outbound leg in July as planned.
Since the one-way fares were virtually identical to the round-trip fares, it would’ve been a waste not to book a round-trip. We didn’t have any plans for Thanksgiving next year, so I guess we’re gonna do something in Asia now, by way of the return leg in Cathay First in October!
The rule for mistake fares is always to book first and ask questions later, because you never know when the fare might be gone!
Indeed, I didn’t have time to optimize routings, or plan a long layover in Hong Kong, or anything like that – I simply found the dates I needed, entered the passenger information, and hit Book.
To my dismay, my Chase Visa failed to process the transaction, but thankfully I also had a US-issued Amex Business Platinum on hand, which did the trick. I received a booking confirmation in my email, followed by the ticketing confirmation which let me know that the tickets were fully validated and issued.
Incidentally, by this point, I had already spent half an hour on New Year’s Eve completely ignoring my girlfriend, and I got into a little bit of trouble for that. But I’m sure she’ll understand by the time she’s sipping champagne over a caviar dinner somewhere over the Pacific (twice!)
In terms of Alaska miles, I won’t quite be earning as many as the example above, but it’s still quite a significant amount. The Hong Kong–Vancouver flight clocks in at 6,392 flown miles, so I’ll be earning 6,392 × 2 × 3.5 = 44,744 miles in total.
Not only is that a good chunk of change, but I’ve also saved myself the 70,000 miles I was planning to splurge on a Cathay Pacific First Class award anyway, and it gets me to within touching distance of Alaska MVP status!
Would Cathay Pacific Honour These Fares?
It wasn’t quite time to get excited yet, though, because after a mistake fare is pulled, there’s always a bit of uncertainty as to whether the airline will actually honour it.
There’s valid arguments on both sides. On one hand, a confirmed and ticketed itinerary should not be unilaterally cancellable by either party. When we as consumers make mistakes on our bookings, we’re subject to hefty change fees and penalties, but an airline being able to unilaterally cancel their own mistakenly-issued fares? That’s an unfair practice.
On the other hand, I’m also sympathetic to the fact that hundreds if not thousands of transpacific First Class fares were sold for around US$1,000, and thousands more business class flights were sold for even less. Given the usual retail prices of these flights, this was going to represent a huge hit to Cathay’s revenues from premium bookings throughout the year.
It was speculated that almost 80% of Cathay’s transpacific First Class inventory throughout 2019 had been sold out as a result of the mistake fare. While I think this is an exaggeration, the results from ExpertFlyer don’t make for pleasant reading – here’s a snapshot of the HKG–YVR route in July around my date of travel:
I was pretty torn as to whether or not the fares would be honoured. Certainly, Cathay Pacific enjoys a very good reputation among the world’s airlines, so I felt like they’d be more likely than other airlines to own up to their mistake and honour the fare.
But then again, with the airline already in dire financial straits, I wasn’t sure whether the revenue loss of a year’s worth of premium bookings was something Cathay could stomach.
Well, they’ve made up their mind now. As they tweeted:
Happy 2019 all, and to those who bought our good - VERY good surprise ‘special’ on New Year’s Day, yes - we made a mistake but we look forward to welcoming you on board with your ticket issued. Hope this will make your 2019 ‘special’ too!— Cathay Pacific (@cathaypacific) January 2, 2019
They emphasized that their decision was ultimately down to honouring the trust that their customers put in them, which is not something they’d take lightly:
Thank you for the kind words Ed. It's not the fault of our customer and we don't take the trust they put on us lightly! Happy new year and hope to see you on board soon! - Toto— Cathay Pacific (@cathaypacific) January 2, 2019
How’s that for a classy airline?!
As a result of all these premium fares being honoured, a few major implications come to mind. The most significant is the fact that award availability for Cathay Pacific First Class and business class is likely to be extremely difficult to come by.
In fact, with First Class award space seemingly sitting at F0 A0 across the board (as depicted above), I’d say the chances of getting good award flights with Cathay Pacific in 2019 are looking pretty grim. If you’re planning to redeem your Alaska miles this way, I’d recommend either waiting until 2020 or looking at alternatives, such as the excellent Japan Airlines First Class instead.
Also, it’s pretty rare to see all six First Class suites taken on a Cathay Pacific flight, given how expensive the tickets usually are and the general difficulty of securing award seats. So with all these flights going out completely full, I imagine the crews are going to have their work cut out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the general quality of Cathay Pacific First Class were to slip a little here and there.
Nevertheless, it’s still no doubt going to be an amazing way to fly, and I can’t think of a better New Year’s surprise than these sub-US$1,000 round-trip fares we saw. Congratulations to everyone who got in on the action!
While collecting points and redeeming them wisely has always been the best way to attain premium class flights at a drastic discount, you should also be keeping your eyes peeled for unbelievable deals such as this. You never know when a mistake fare is going to drop, and even though it’s never a guarantee that they’ll be honoured, it’s always advisable to book them as soon as possible on the off-chance that they do remain valid.
In this case, Cathay Pacific’s commendable business ethics shone through, and another set of memorable First Class flights – booked at US$988 and discounted even further by the Alaska miles I’ll be earning – promises to be one of the highlights of 2019!