“I love paying full price for airline tickets!” –No one, ever.
It’s no secret that buying airline tickets can be the bane of many people’s existence. There is a thriving industry for finding the cheapest ticket prices, with countless variations on toggles, aesthetics and assurances. But even with dozens of competing algorithms promising the best deal, we’ve all had that moment of looking all over for the flight we need and finding nothing but an exorbitant, even absurd, price tag. And, at that point, there’s nothing we can do but pay it, right?
For those in the know, there is one last option, which can yield huge savings: hidden city ticketing.
The Basics of Hidden City Ticketing
Hidden city ticketing is the act of buying a ticket that connects through your desired city on the way to a cheaper destination—and getting off in the connection city. Simply stated, you’re buying a ticket from A to B to C, where A to C is cheaper than buying A to B, but you’re getting off in B. That’s right: the ol’ switcheroo.
A little context for the system that hidden city ticketing intends to buck: In 1978, when air travel was deregulated in the U.S., the largest carriers established “hub-and-spoke” route networks, requiring passengers to connect through a handful of strategically located airports on their way to most destinations. The hub-and-spoke system greatly reduced costs by enabling the airlines to transport the same number of passengers on fewer flights. An important side effect of this model, however, is that each carrier tends to dominate the market at its hubs, giving it significant pricing power, which can lead (or at least contribute) to a United Airlines flight from New York to Milwaukee through Chicago being much cheaper than just flying New York to Chicago.
How to Find Hidden City Fares
There are now travel sites that specialize in hidden city ticketing (Skiplagged is the heavy hitter), but the “old school” way of searching for hidden city fares, according to Gary Leff, travel hack expert and founder of InsideFlyer.com, is to use any of your preferred travel booking sites, enter your departure city, then search for a variety of cities that are likely to have cheaper ticket prices and that might connect through your desired city. Kayak even lets you choose your preferred connecting city, cutting down on the legwork you have to do.
Leff recommends a number of cheap-fare cities to try, depending on where you’re flying. On the East Coast, try Providence, Atlanta (as a connection, not on Delta), Orlando, Jacksonville (Florida), Charlotte, Raleigh and New York (various airports). Milwaukee is a good bet for Midwestern travel. On the West Coast, good fares to Tucson, Las Vegas and Orange County abound.
Why Hidden City Travel Is Controversial
This sounds great. So, why doesn’t everybody know about this? Well, the honest truth is that, while hidden city ticketing is legal, the airlines don’t exactly encourage the practice, with United Airlines and Orbitz having sued Skiplagged, a travel website that seeks to help travelers exploit the hidden city loophole (they settled, and Skiplagged is still going strong).
Best Practices for Hidden City Travel
Again, hidden city ticketing is not illegal, but there are a number of considerations to keep in mind to ensure that you have as smooth and incident-free a trip as you would on a normal round-trip flight.
Only Book One-Way Flights
Generally, when you skip one leg of your itinerary, the airline will cancel any remaining points of travel, meaning that, if you booked a round-trip flight and then skipped out on the last leg of your initial flight, you run the risk of your return flight being canceled.
No Checked Baggage
Checked bags go all the way to the final destination, so unless you want to be without your toothbrush and underwear, you’ll need to carry on your baggage. And make sure you get on the plane in a timely fashion, so the overhead bins don’t fill up, because—guess what—gate-checked bags also go all the way to the final destination. And, again, we’re operating under the assumption that you’d like your toothbrush and underwear to come on this trip with you and not have their own adventure in Milwaukee.
Don’t Use Your Frequent Flyer Number
Since you’re exploiting a loophole in the airline’s pricing structure, it’s best to just eat the miles you would have gotten. You can certainly opt to enter your frequent flyer number anyway, but, if you make a habit of hidden city travel, you run the risk of the airline canceling your frequent flyer account.
Don’t Engage in Hidden City Travel Regularly
The more often you play the hidden city game, the more likely you are to be caught. What happens if you get caught? As mentioned earlier, there are no legal grounds on which to prosecute people who employ this travel hack, but you run the risk of losing your frequent flyer account and any points/miles accrued.
With a handful of hidden city ticketing sites having popped up in recent years and the proverbial “secret” having gotten out, there are a few airlines beginning to crack down on frequent hidden city travelers, chief among them being British Airways and United Airlines. A few travelers have even reported receiving letters from airlines asking them to pay the difference in fare between what they paid and the prevailing fare for the routes actually flown.
If Caught, Don’t Lie
As outlined by Nate Silver in his hidden city travel primer for the New York Times, “Misstating your intentions could leave you facing fraud charges.” Hidden city travel, while frowned upon, is not illegal. And surely your intentions, rather than fleecing the poor, suffering airline executives, are to help shine a light on the illogical and inefficient pricing structures of modern air travel.
So, the next time your search for airline tickets ends with an eye-poppingly high price tag, consider a hidden city trip. You’ve gotten the inside scoop on how to find and book the best hidden city fares and how to avoid the major pitfalls of hidden city travel. And be sure to let us know how your trip goes in the comments or on our Facebook page!