Using Hidden City and Throwaway Ticketing to Save Big Money on Airfare

Back in January I explained how to use hidden city and throwaway ticketing to save big money on airfare.

Airlines often price tickets from one city to another through a hub cheaper than flights that terminate at the hub.

Flying United New York to Milwaukee through Chicago is often much cheaper than just flying New York to Chicago.

But if you get off the plane in Chicago and don’t board your connection to Milwaukee, you’ve potentially saved yourself a lot of money. This is called hidden city ticketing.

Most people think they’ve purchased two flights, New York to Chicago and Chicago to Milwaukee. They only take one, but the airlines still got paid for both.

The airlines don’t like it. And instead of seeing themselves as selling you a ticket from New York to Chicago to Milwaukee with you having purchased both flights, they see themselves as selling a ticket from New York to Milwaukee — and you’re using that fare to improperly fly New York to Chicago instead.

No great secrets being let out of the bag here by the way, this was written up by Nate Silver in the New York Times.

And it certainly isn’t illegal to buy a ticket and not fly all of the segments (although Silver recommends not actually lying about what you’re doing if caught since that could technically introduce a fraud element).

As I explained in January,

The practice violates the contract of carriage of most airlines (not Southwest, and up until a few years ago tossing the return portion of a trip and flying only one way wasn’t a violation of United’s but that’s been updated). And a travel agent who consistently sells tickets where final segments are unflown can get a debit memo and owe money, which they need to pay in order to continue selling tickets on the airline (and indeed not to jeopardize their access to the computer reservation system itself). But that’s a contractual and ongoing business issue between airline, reservation system, and agent..

The most that can happen to a passenger is likely that they could theoretically be banned from an airline. Most people don’t care because they aren’t loyal to an airline to begin with. The customer more likely could see consequences to their mileage account. This is something that could happen through repeated and frequent use of the technique, including your mileage number in the reservation. If you consistently buy one-way tickets through Chicago to Milwaukee and get off in Chicago (Milwaukee is often a much cheaper market), and give your United Mileage Plus number each time you do it, United might have a problem with you. United might send you a warning letter. They might threaten your miles. They could even close your account.

On the other hand, they’ll have a more difficult time penalizing your miles if you credit to partner airline programs. It will even be harder, though not impossible, to track. I don’t advise doing this every week. But I’ve never personally known anyone that’s done it only a few times a year per airline to have problems.

If you’re not breaking the law, and the airline can’t reasonably ‘go after you’ for doing this especially for doing it infrequently, what are the real risks involved?

  • Do this only as the last segment of a reservation. Only throw away the final leg of a roundtrip. Or book two one-ways if you want to do a throwaway in each direction. Because when you miss a flight, the airline is likely to cancel the rest of your itinerary.

  • Don’t check luggage. Most airlines used to let you ‘short check’ baggage, or check it to an intermediate stop and not your final destination. This isn’t usually allowed any longer. United certainly stopped permitting the practice a couple of years ago. If you check bags, your bags will go to the final city on your ticket, you will not. So this only works with carryons (except for international flights arriving in the U.S. and a few other countries where you have to pick up your bags on arrival and walk them through customs and then drop them back off. If you’re checked to a domestic destination other than the one you arrive at in the U.S., you usually just won’t drop your bags back off.)
  • Don’t let yourself gate check luggage. For the same reason you don’t want to check a bag, you don’t want to board the plane and find no overhead space and a flight attendant telling you they’ll check your bag to your final destination. That’s not okay, since you aren’t going to your final destination. So these tickets work best if you have status or an upgrade, or at least can board in the middle of the pack and not be the last to board. But if you are last to board, there’s no overhead space, and they won’t let you hunt and peck for space, then you need an excuse why you either need to get the carryon on the plane or you need them only to check it to your intermediate destination. In the former case, tell them you’re connecting on a separate ticket to a carrier they’ve never heard of. In the latter, just tell them your final destination is where the aircraft is landing. And they’re more likely to check it to your planned arrival city rather than your reservation’s final destination.
  • There’s still a risk of irregular operations. If your flight cancels, the airline might offer to send you to your ‘final destination’ via some other connecting city. That obviously won’t work for you. I’d suggest saying that the connecting city is important, you’re meeting folks in the airline’s club lounge there. Add some color, maybe you’re having an affair there (and only need a 45 minute connection in one fo the conference rooms?). Agents are usually pretty accommodating during irregular operations and will give you an itinerary that works for you if anything is available that suits you. But you’ll need to be proactive about the rebooking.

So how do you go about finding the savings with this technique?

I search one-way using ITA Software Matrix, although novice users may prefer Hipmunk.

I specifying my real starting city, and then I let the system find fares to a variety of cities that I know to be generally cheap, and might connect through the city I actually want to go to. And I may tell the website to search for other airports within 300 miles of the one I’ve specified too, why not?

And I’ll even limit the search by specifying my connecting point as the city I want to go to.

Cheap cities on the East Coast might be Providence, Atlanta (as a connection, not on Delta), Orlando, Jacksonville (Florida), Charlotte, Raleigh, New York (various airports). In the Midwest Milwaukee is a good one. On the West Coast one often finds good fares to Tucson, Las Vegas, and Orange County.

The cities you’ll try depend on whet’s in the same general region of the country as where you’re actually going (and sometimes connecting through the Northeast to Florida works great, actually).

So here’s a real world example. Flying DC to Phoenix almost three months from now non-stop on US Airways without a Saturday night stay is pricing at $1574!

But searching for DC through Phoenix to Long Beach, Orange County, Tucson, Oakland, San Jose, and Las Vegas I stumble upon the DC-Phoenix flight I want (combined with a Tucson flight I don’t) for $159.

And searching for Phoenix through DC to Charlotte, Raleigh, Orlando, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Providence, Boston, and New York LaGuardia I stumble upon the Phoenix – DC non-stop flight that I want (combined with a connecting flight to Providence or New York LaGuardia that I don’t) for $186.

We see that the $1574 itinerary can be purchased for $345.

My favorite version of this, sadly, doesn’t exist anymore. United used to have bus service from San Jose to San Francisco. Back then a cross country flight in and out of San Francisco without a Saturday stay was usually over $2000. But that same cross country flight through San Francisco to and from San Jose was about $600. The bus segment required a paper ticket, you yanked out the San Jose bus segments and checked in in San Francisco with no worries. (You would grab your bags from the bus and re-check in anyway, so you could have checked bags with this strategy even.) What’s more, you’d even earn the miles for the bus segment…

Throwaway ticketing is most commonly buying a roundtrip ticket instead of a one-way and ‘throwing away’ the return. It’s very rarely the case in the U.S. anymore that a roundtrip is cheaper than a one-way. but it’s still quite common in Europe — where one-ways will only price as full fare, with the major airlines you’ll often find it advantageous to book a roundtrip instead. Here the caveats about checked luggage don’t apply..

I’ll be interested to hear from folks that have done this and had success. And I’m always open to criticism from anyone who feels like these techniques aren’t things folks should do, or aren’t things I should share. What are your thoughts and experiences?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I first learned about this through your blog and have successfully used it several times as I need to fly from NYC to Detroit a LOT. First I found that I could get a ticket to Midway in Chicago that connected in Detroit, for $125 instead of the regular one-way NYC-DTW fare of several hundred dollars. Then I discovered that Delta flies to Akron, OH through Detroit, for an $80 one-way fare! SCORE! If only I could find a hidden city ticket that works going the other way… (Detroit to NYC)!

  2. Doing this tomorrow. Detroit to Tucson is cheaper than Detroit to Phoenix and still connects through Phoenix. We only need one way.

  3. @Montana – I plugged in a random date and found one-way Detroit-Newark-Baltimore on United for $100…. Detroit-Newark-Orlando on United for $136…Detroit-LaGuardia-Washington Dulles on Delta for $190…

  4. I noticed last year that open jaw tickets in Europe priced as returns.

    First example (LH) I was planning on going BUD to MUC, then taking the train from Munich to Vienna (I like the train). Was going to throw away the return to PRG from MUC, but decided to try BUD»MUC stop MUC»VIE and got a very very good price.

    Did the same thing with OK, flew BTS»PRG then PRG»BUD for a very good fare.

  5. Generally speaking, I like to make sure that the final destination is as close as possible to the hidden city. In other words, if I end up in Tucson instead of PHX due to weird irrops, I could still get to Phoenix with a manageable 2-3 hour drive. On the other hand, if my final destination was San Jose, I’d find myself in a pickle if something went considerably off-plan.

    I’ve never had a problem and needed that backup option, but I’d hate to find myself out of luck.

  6. A recent o/w ticket from DEN to IAD cost about $320, but a o/w ticket from DEN to ATL with a stop in IAD was only $140. Also, when I got off the plane I spent some time in the IAD senator lounge.

    I’ve been doing this a lot over the past few years, and I’ve never run into any trouble, but I try to limit myself to keep the airlines from catching on.

  7. I had great success with this approach a few months ago when needing to book a one-way flight home from Europe. A one-way ticket from MXP-EWR was ~$2000 (in coach!), but a round-trip MXP-EWR-MXP (returning several weeks later) was only ~$400!

  8. I was able to gate check a bag recently to the connecting airport without a problem, since that was the destination of the flight. In this case it was LAX and the CSR in the jetway simply wrote LAX on the manual tag when i informed her where i was going.

  9. I went to Montreal this year by doing DCA>YMQ>YTZ and YMQ>IAD>PHL. Saved $800/ticket as it was somewhat last minute. I was worried about having points voided, but they actually posted quickly given that I was crediting to a different airline. Not something I’d do often, but it really worked here!

  10. AA seems to make this more difficult. Tried several searches with SFO/SJC to DFW with throw aways to several other cities to no avail. Round trips to DFW I have found are almost always cheaper than one ways.. really odd.

  11. Great post! My question is the following. Qatar Airways flies from Budapest to Dubai for $800 with a stopover in Doha. I want to fly just to Doha but the ticket is $1,500. Let’s say I buy the Dubai round trip for nearly 50% discount. If I get off the plane @ Doha on the way over its fine. But what happens when I try to board in Doha on the way back to Budapest? Won’t my ticket be cancelled since I didn’t fly the Dubai – Doha segment? Thanks

  12. About 2 years ago Southwest removed the paragraph in its Contract of Carriage specifically permitting hidden city tickets. The reason for that change is not clear, since the practice is still permitted.

    Southwest’s fare structure does not lend itself to hidden city ticketing unless you purchase during one of their rare system-wide distance-based $49/$79/$129 style sales.

  13. To each his own, but I’m too fearful of getting caught to ever give it a try. I worked hard for my miles and don’t want to risk losing them!

  14. I got an e-mail from T&L today, what do you think of this? I am not saying it’s correct, but it’s a bold statement re: retroactive charging.

    “Be aware that most airlines prohibit ‘throwaway ticketing,’ i.e., purchasing a more affordable round-trip airfare when you plan to use the ticket only for a one-way flight. If you try, airlines will often retroactively charge you the higher one-way fare and may even revoke your frequent-flier membership.”

    http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/airline-rules-understanding-the-not-so-fine-print/4

  15. @truthiness – that is simply wrong. First, they cannot charge you. Simply won’t happen. They can issue a debit memo to a travel agent that regularly issues these tickets. But an individual passenger won’t be on the hook. Do it every week for a year and they’ll revoke your frequent flyer account, which is why I suggested crediting these flights to a partner mileage program. Do it every week they could ban you from flying the airline, even send you a threatening letter, but no they do not “often retroactively charge you the higher one-way fare”

  16. I recall that there have been a few reports over the years on Flyertalk about folks having their frequent flyer accounts forfeited for repeated “hidden city” tickets. But it seems VERY rare. Are there any meaningful stats on this?

    I rarely do it (perhaps once or twice a year), but if I did a lot of biz travel on my own dime, I’m sure I’d do it more often. The biggest savings seeem to come on last minute tickets, especially on short monopoly routes. I remember that PHL-BOS was notorious on US, with the cheapest roundtrips going for something like $1200 — prompting pax to find “creative solutions” to lower their costs. WN entered the market briefly, but has now pulled out. I’d bet there are a fair number of hidden city tickets again being sold between these city pairs. I wonder if the airlines target these obvious routes for any extra enforcement.

  17. Doesn’t the saying ‘some things are better left unsaid’ still ever get used? I’m all for sharing tips but sometimes I worry about highlighting certain tips in a very public forum sheds too much light on stuff we know most airlines hate. So far retaliation by airlines is minimal and let’s hope it stays that way.

  18. If you want to check luggage, why not schedule your last segment (I.e. the one you want to throw away) as a <24 hour overnight connection. Few agents will demand that you check in your bags to the final destination if you have an overnight stop in between.

  19. thanks Gary =) just managed to go from $261 for 6:45am departure to $225 for 8:30am departure … only saved a little, but anything counts =)

  20. Tried this for the first time earlier this year: XXX-PHL-BWI. BWI is a quick/easy train ride to Philly, if needed. Worked fine. No irreg ops. Saved a lot of money. Was worried about having miles account ramifications, so I did not attach any Frequent Flyer number. I have no status and flight was full, so I paid a few bucks extra for early boarding when I checked in. Thanks for the balanced exploration/discussion of this and other topics.

  21. Gary – even before the SJC-SFO bus, there was actually United Express service between the two airports. Could be a useful hidden city returning to SFO, or good for adding segments to mileage runs. (By the way, the fare basis for the bus segment was BUS. 🙂

    Brian – last year I found that a double open jaw in Europe (Munich to Moscow; St. Petersburg to Frankfurt) on Lufthansa priced as a round trip. Not sure if this is generally true.

    There are now quite a few city pairs (typically lower volume markets) in the US where one ways are more expensive than round trips.

  22. A lot of times you can also save a lot if you need to fly one way, but buy round trip ticket. Somehow one way tickets are much more expensive, then RT. When looking for tickets, I first check the best possible dates and routes on ITA Matrix and then just use Way Any Way ( http://www.wayanyway.com ) to compare many web-sites at once and get the absolut best deal on the airfare : )

  23. I’m still a little confused. I want to go from Charlotte to Key West. Do I search hub final destinations that will pass over Key West?

  24. Gary, many of your suggestions involve lying, and I’m surprised you don’t consider the ethical implications of this. Also, you do believe in freedom of contract, I know, and you don’t discuss the implications of knowing breach of the contract of carriage.

  25. @Michael, this suggestion does NOT involve lying, and I am clear above that my suggestion is NOT to lie if asked. I do think there are a ton of interesting ethical questions related to adhesion contracts which are in many cases not presented to customers as part of a purchase process.

  26. @Gary: Don’t you give suggestions, for example, about what to say if your bag must be gate-checed “to a final destination”? Aren’t those suggestions to lie? Respectfully, Michael

  27. First taking from the blind. Now this. When did you toss your moral compass in the trash?

    I don’t think this practice if used judiciously is immoral, but why bother posting it? What good can come of it other than greater scrutiny on the practice?

    And don’t tell me Nate Silver wrote about it. Your inclusion of that line only confirms that you too are self-conscious about posting this.

  28. @Michael – I guess my sense of humor got lost in the post. I did try to be clear about my suggestion not to lie. And I don’t actually think people should declare to a gate agent that they’re carrying on an affair in the airline’s club lounges.

  29. @Dogleg, my moral compass is off *because I posted it* even though you don’t believe the practice is immoral? That makes no sense to me, though perhaps it’s my own comprehension skills.

    My mention of Nate Silver was to say that i know some folks (like you!) would have a problem with my posting this, but it’s hard to argue I’m giving away secrets that have been printed in the New York Times.

  30. Comments from people like Dogleg always amuse me. Get a life loser. Gary did absolutely nothing wrong and has always been very moral. If you feel this stuff is so immoral then why on earth are you reading this blog anyway??!!

  31. I once had one of my renters that needed to go last minute from MIA to Los Angeles. That one way ticket was over $2K!!! I found an o/w FLL-LGB for $200. That ticket was on DL and was FLL-LAX-SLC-LGB. I told them to do only carry on and get off at LAX. He checked bags. DL can be a big pain on hidden city ticketing.

    I told them to explain (he was coming back from a funeral) that he had a death in the family and needed to get off at LAX. Due to him checking luggage, he had to retrieve his check bags at LGB. Lucky for him, LGB is less than 25 miles from LAX and was able to get his luggage.

    Since he does not fly very much, he was able to get away with the hidden city ticket.

    I am GUILTY as charged for setting one up for someone else. I have not done one for myself.

  32. Even if it were not prohibited by the C of C, I think it is rude to no-show on the last leg without telling the airline. Why? You will delay the process for everyone else. The gate agent knows what flight you came in on, that you didn’t misconnect. They will keep paging you right up to the 10 minute cutoff (particularly if you are a top-tier elite whom they want to treat well). Then at the last minute they have to offload you and process standbys and upgrades which could have been done much earlier had they known you weren’t coming. The result is a flight that leaves later than it otherwise would have.

  33. The big question is why is this cheaper? How can a flight from A-B be more expensive than A-B-C?
    I wouldn’t expect the answer to be supply and demand because either way you still fly A-B at the very least. You’re burning more fuel A-B-C and other costs such as FAs, pilots, maintenance yet you’re flying for, say, 30% less than A-B.

    It’s one of the most unfortunate situations in being a hub captive. Airlines are practically setting themselves up for this.

  34. Is FD’ing immoral? No, I don’t believe so. Should it have been posted about on blogs? No, I don’t believe so. Did its increased publicity cause a crack-down? Absolutely!

    As I said, what good comes of this posting?

  35. what the heck is wrong with all these people? only those holier-than-thou losers care about “ethics” and “morals” in business. in a business transaction (i.e. purchase of airline ticket), there’s only the rule of law. provided we’re playing within the defined sandbox, anything is fair game.

    airlines have only themselves to blame by setting pricing that contains arbitrage opportunities, and the consumer is at absolutely no fault by discovering those fares and saving a buck.

  36. @Michael – it IS supply and demand IF you understand demand not just to be quantity demanded but to include quantity demanded AT A GIVEN PRICE POINT. And then you also have to factor in the question of what is actually being sold — is it A-B-C or just A-C which happens to connect at B?

  37. My personal experience, as a 1P/2P over the last few years.

    I’ve used hidden city ticketing 5-10 times a year, often at significant savings. I’ve had a couple IRROPS, but none that have taken me away from the hub that’s my true destination. Frankly, I’ve saved so much money using this that if I completely miss my destination one day I’ll consider that the price of using this trick.

    So for this one traveler, 5-10 times/year of hidden city ticketing has yet to raise any flags (i.e. emails/warnings from United).

    That said, I will say that the savings/opportunities for hidden city ticketing have been less available, for my usual routes.

  38. It looks like this also works with Business / First Class tickets!

    For instance, if I am flying from TPA –> ORD, it is still cheaper for me to book a flight from TPA –> MKE (via ORD).

    In this example I booked the first segment (TPA–ORD) in first class and the second segment (ORD–MKE) in economy.

    Saved over $200… Anyone have any success with this?

  39. @Jeff

    Montreal is actually YUL (Trudeau).
    YMQ refers to all Montreal area airports, but because we only have one (Mirabel YMX closed to passengers over 15 years ago), it’s just YUL!

  40. Maybe I’m just missing some features but am having trouble searching multiple “detinations” and specifying my stop. Not sure it will help me but need to go BDL-LAS October 4th….Any advise?

  41. I think all this is fine, but I would not encourage people to lie about their reasons for needing a particular connection. That is, at the risk of sounding prudish, just wrong.

  42. Similar to your SJO bus situation, I used to book tickets from BOS-ZFV with a “stopover” in EWR and then would pick up my train tickets to 30th street station in Philadelphia and never get on the train. I would then use those train tickets on Amtrak later on. It was usually 50%+ cheaper than booking what is otherwise an expensive BOS-EWR flight. And it actually worked on the return since the tickets really werent connected.

  43. A couple of years ago, UA tightened their routing rules, which eliminated many “hidden city” options (and other low fare options). For example, SFO-SEA fares now require nonstop routing. This eliminated the ability to get off in “hidden city” Portland, and also increases the fare if (for example) the cheapest fare is an “L” fare basis, but “L” seats are sold out on the nonstop but available on a connection. (AS still allows connections.)

  44. Hey Gary!

    Whenever planning trips I have to plan for two, so does this become any more difficult if two people are throwing away tickets? I’m considering doing this for Europe so we’ll each do this twice!

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