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What is "Hidden City" Airfare Ticketing and is it Legal?

Lying about your ultimate destination may help you score a better fare, but airlines will penalize you if they catch it.
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A 22-year-old programmer named Aktarer Zaman made headlines this week when he was sued by United Airlines and Orbitz over his website Skiplagged, which helps travelers find cheaper fares through the practice of "hidden city" ticketing. According to the complaint, United says the whiz kid "intentionally and maliciously” interfered with airline industry business relationships “by promoting prohibited forms of travel,” which they claim could affect departure times and fuel calculations.

But what is this practice, and do the airlines have any right to shut it down?

Use Layovers to Get Cheaper Fares

In their complaint, the companies describe hidden city ticketing like this: "In its simplest form, a passenger purchases a ticket from city A to city B to city C but does not travel beyond city B."

Major airlines often have a "hub" city, and dominate most of the flights into and out of that hub (for example, Delta in Atlanta or American in Dallas), so they can charge more for a flight to that city. So sometimes, it is cheaper to buy a flight to a more competitive airport in a different city with a layover at the hub, and then just stay in the hub city.

In a 2011 article on hidden city ticketing, the New York Times gave this example: "A nonstop one-way ticket from Des Moines to Dallas/Fort Worth is $375 on American Airlines [...] But what happens when you’re interested in flying American from Des Moines to Los Angeles, which hosts a more competitive airport? That flight is only about half the price ($186), despite its being more than double the distance. Now, here’s the trick: American flights from Des Moines to L.A. have a layover in Dallas. If you want to travel to Dallas, the best way to get a reasonable fare is to book the flight to Los Angeles instead, and simply get off the plane at Dallas."

It's Legal (But Risky)

Short answer: yes, it's legal. But it's also perfectly legal for airlines to penalize you for using this practice.

Almost all airlines forbid hidden city ticketing in their rules, and if they catch you, you might have problems booking with them in the future. Members of frequent flier programs have been known to lose their benefits for doing this.

Passengers skipping a leg of their trip could be a minor logistical headache for airlines, but otherwise, there doesn't seem to be much of a justification for this penalization, other than the fact that it exposes inefficiencies and costs the airlines money.

"Use of hidden-city ticketing can save a lot of money, and airlines aren't in the business of promoting, allowing, or turning a blind eye to practices that can break the system down," Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, told Bloomberg.

In an open letter on their website, American Airlines (which is not involved in the lawsuit against Zaman), the company wrote that stating a false departure city is "unethical."

"It is tantamount to switching price tags to obtain a lower price on goods sold at department stores," it states.

An airline invoking ethics when discussing pricing is hilarious, and the analogy is misleading; hidden city ticketing seems more like a store trying to sell apples "50 cents each, or 5 for $3," and customers just buying them individually to avoid this clear contradiction.

How to Do It (Without Getting Caught)

Experts suggest using this practice sparingly to avoid getting caught — no more than a few times a year. Also consider not linking these purchases to your frequent flier rewards programs, which could make it easier for airlines to find and penalize you. (Although missing out on rewards may negate the advantages of using the hidden city ticketing.)

Also be aware that this practice only works on one-way flights. Airlines usually cancel the rest of your itinerary if you miss a leg of your trip, so if you try this with a round-trip fare, you might find yourself stranded.

Finally, hidden city flights must be carry-on luggage only — or else your checked suitcase will end up in your "final" destination, while you stop in the layover city. And if the overhead bins fill up and you're forced to check your carry-on (as happens frequently in this age of high luggage fees), you're out of luck.

What do you think of hidden city ticketing? Have you ever tried it? Let us know in the comments below.


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Originally from the Hudson Valley, Ben now lives in Brooklyn. He has an English degree from Harvard, and loves movies, theater, and cooking. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenDealNews and @BKGlaser.
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11 comments
Scroogus Maximus
Cab driver charges you $40 to go from the airport to your house. Fare to downtown (twice as far) costs $20, but cabbie will stop by your house on the way downtown. He TELLS YOU UP FRONT he's going downtown anyway, regardless of whether or not you're in the cab. You got a D in math; you take the $20 fare, go into your house & don't come out. If the airlines win, it means the cabbie can now sue you because you intentionally and maliciously interfered with taxi industry business relationships “by promoting prohibited forms of travel. Insane much?

There's a phrase for this: You reap what you sow. No one feels sorry for airlines who rip people off by charging 2-5x as much for flying less distance on the route they're already flying. (It saves on fuel to have a light load..)

Another phrase: "Nobody likes a wise guy." Mr. Zaman isn't being sued because he did something wrong, but because he made money off the airlines' greed and stupidity. They want that privilege reserved for themselves!
InMyOffice
I did this for the first time this past Summer, but didn't realize it was so widespread or had an 'official' name like 'hidden city ticketing". A flight from DEN to DFW was $300, but a flight from DEN to IAH (Houston) was $150 with a layover at DFW. I was trying to decide between flying into DFW or IAH, otherwise I wouldn't have noticed the strange pricing. I figured I would just buy the cheaper ticket and decide last minute where I wanted to stay - ended up choosing DFW and skipping the last leg to IAH, while saving $150. I didn't know that it was against the airlines' rules at the time, or that it was 'unethical' of me to do so, but the airline (AA) never asked me about the missed flight.
illkitty
If this lawsuit holds & the airlines win, does that mean restaurants can start to charge people for bringing their leftovers home? You get a good deal on a big meal (A little bit of everything that you like), but you only plan to eat half of it.

:P It's unethical to only eat half your meal, and plan to take the rest home to eat later :P

The airline's analogy is horrible. They are comparing stealing, with someone who paid to travel, but just stopped half way. It's not like the people are asking to get refunded for the later half of the trip.
Dan de Grandpre (DealNews)
It's amazing to me that airlines have become one of those few industries where the customer has no loyalty to the business — "I fly with whoever charges least" — and the business in kind has so little loyalty to the customer. Flying is now akin to buying gas for your car.
srl99
I used to do this when United had "service" from SFO to SJC (which is about an hour's drive, and hardly worth a flight). They got rid of the puddle jumpers which were usually delayed longer than the drive would take and started using busses. If you just wanted a transcon to SFO you would book the "connection" to SJC and skip the bus leg. They didn't actually check people into the bus leg, so you were home free, even on a round trip.
Aaron A
I used to do this quasi-intentionally when flying United to Milwaukee through Chicago. Thanks to midwestern weather, the connecting flight to Milwaukee was almost inevitably delayed longer than the flight itself. My goal wasn't to save $50 on airfare; I just couldn't justify being stranded at O'Hare for 4+ hours when I was so close to my destination. So I would skip the last leg altogether.

Thankfully my return trip was never cancelled, but I stopped doing this anyway after 9/11 when the airlines started claiming that people who did this were potentially terrorists.

It's been generally frustrating to have an airline rep indicate that they'll reserve the right to reroute you within an airport cluster (like ORD/MDW/MKE or DCA/IAD/BWI) but that they won't do it upon request for the convenience of a mere customer.
nimer
Wanted to add: Shoprite usually has an annual superbowl promo: 4 12-cans Pepsi products + 2 bags of Lays for $10. Buying only 3 12-cans of Pepsi and one bag would cost $13. Is it illegal if I use the promo and my guests only eat one bag or leave some soda unopened?
nimer
Airlines should be stopped. They have killed farecaster (well, Microsoft bought it and set it as bing.com/travel, but as they have Expedia, they didn't want to annoy their airline partners, so they killed it). I think airlines try their best to take advantage of people and make them pay top dollar.

A few years ago I had a family emergency and had to go to Pheonix. I paid through the nose simply because I was in need. Calling customer support didn't help.
eastside_golfer
This was a very common practice years ago where you would buy two round trip tickets, say Phoenix, Dallas, New York and New York, Dallas, Phoenix. You actually wanted to fly from Phoenix to Dallas so you didn't use the Dallas, NY portion. For the return, you didn't use the NY to Dallas portion but the Dallas to Phoenix one. The secret was that each leg had its own ticket coupon and it was pre 911 so no one really checked who used what coupon. Some companies actually had travel departments that matched unused coupons with travel plans. In the example above, I would use the Phoenix - Dallas coupons while someone else in my company would use the NY - Dallas ones. It all went away with computerization and of course matching tickets to ID's. Still for an airline to complain is so disingenuous considering how little service some of them give you.
dealnews-bglaser (DealNews)
@Kyser_Soze Even better analogy, thanks!
Kyser_Soze
I think hidden city ticketing seems more like a store trying to sell apples "50 cents each, or 2 for 35 cents," the customer wants an apple, buys 2 and throws one away. I was unaware of hidden city ticketing, thanks for the info.
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