Hi Frugalistas! Have you ever realised that it’s sometimes cheaper to book an airfare with a connecting flight and get off at the connection, rather than book a direct flight to that same connecting destination? I’d come across this myself recently, and wondered how common it was, and whether there was merit in trying it as a travel hacking strategy. Well, apparently it is quite common. Common enough for Aktarer Zaman to start a website called skiplagged.com. And common enough to make the airlines mad at the thought. United Airlines says it’s “strictly prohibited”. It even has a name: “hidden city ticketing”. Read on to get the lowdown…….
Last year I was looking at places for a family holiday. There were a few destinations we had in mind, and it was a fairly eclectic list. With three of us travelling, and MissG now needing an adult ticket, airfares were our biggest expense, so were a key factor in deciding where we would go.
As I looked around, I noticed something odd. Virgin Australia fly from Sydney to Phuket via Perth in Western Australia. It’s a domestic connection onto an international flight in Perth, then a direct international flight to Phuket. I’d already looked at Perth as a destination, and decided the airfares were too expensive. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the flights to Phuket were actually 10% cheaper, even though they were going via Perth…..
Maybe they’re different flights I thought……
But no, I searched Perth flights again, and the flights were identical. Maybe the fare rules were different? But no, that wasn’t the case either.
It was cheaper to book a flight to Phuket, get off in Perth and stay there, instead of booking a flight to Perth. What the……?
Hidden city ticketing
Skiplagged.com is an aggregator site that identifies cheaper flights just like how I described above. If you are planning a trip from one destination to another, it identifies whether it is cheaper to buy a direct flight, or buy a flight to another destination with a transit in the city you want to fly to. You then don’t board your onward flight, and pocket the saving.
So here’s how it works in practice:
Say you are in Los Angeles, and want to fly to Chicago. You check flights to Chicago and get your price. Then you check flights to other destinations that require a transit in Chicago. You find a flight from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago for $100 less. You book the flight from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago and disembark in Chicago. You save $100 and the airline has a “no show” on the Chicago to New York leg.
That I don’t know.
What I do know is that it would only work if you take carry on luggage only. If you check bags and fail to board your ongoing flight you will be one of those annoying people who make planes late. Your bags will go on the plane, but then when you don’t, the whole plane will need to wait while your bags are removed. And you’ll have to deal with the airline as to why you failed to board……
Will you be allowed to board your return flight? That’s another thing I’m not sure of the answer to. What I would say though is that if you are going to do this, I’d strongly consider booking an alternate airline on the return journey. And I wouldn’t do it on the same airline on a regular basis. You may find yourself banned by an airline.
Both United Airlines and Orbitz have launched legal action against Aktarer Zaman and skiplagged.com. They claim the practice is “unfair” and a breach of their fare rules. I’m not a lawyer, and don’t live in the US, so I can’t comment on whether their case has merit or not.
What skiplagged.com has done though is expose some anomalies in ticket pricing. This is no doubt somewhat embarrassing to the airlines. Maybe they thought it was their dirty little secret. But the information is freely available to anyone who bothers to spend a bit of time travel planning – I found it myself on the Virgin Australia website before I even knew skiplagged.com existed, or what hidden city ticketing was.
Skift makes the observation that travellers have been doing this for years. But then points out that the practice breaches the contracts airlines including United, American, Delta and British Airways have with travel agents in the US. But what of the individual traveller who books directly from an airline website without an online or shopfront travel agent involved in the deal?
Bloomberg BusinessWeek has pointed out that airlines have been known to cancel frequent flyer miles if a passenger has been found to have deliberated engaged in hidden city ticketing. Repeat offenders risk having their frequent flyer accounts cancelled.
Not at the moment. Given I only ever travel with carry on luggage, and it definitely is a way to save money, it’s a strategy that could work for me. Before the publicity surrounding the skiplagged.com case I would have been very tempted if the opportunity arose, but I’m sure airlines have a heightened sense of awareness about the practice. Given frequent flyer points are a key strategy I use to save on travel expenses and be frugal and first class, any loss of points would have to save me a significant amount of money to make it worthwhile – $100 or so? No way. I will await the outcome of the United case with interest.
Have you ever used hidden city ticketing as a travel hacking strategy? Did it work? What sort of reaction did you get from the airline?
Disclaimer: I do not understand how the law treats hidden city ticketing. I have never tried it, nor do I necessarily endorse it as a travelling hacking strategy. For the record, we booked a trip to Phuket.