United Trying to Crack Down on Throwaway Tickets. Here’s How to Still Succeed and Save.

Brian Sumers reports that United Airlines sent a memo to airport employees telling them to be on the lookout for ‘hidden city’ tickets.

The memo tells agents “[w]hen fraud is suspected, the Customer Service Representatives should send an email to Corporate Security for follow up..”

British Airways has been cracking down on this too.

So what are these tickets, how much can you save, and what are the risks?

Hidden city ticketing is one of 10 Techniques to Save Money on Your Next Airline Ticket.

You may be able to save hundreds of dollars on a one-way fare buying an itinerary that connects in the city you actually want to travel to, and never taking the flight beyond that city to the final destination on the ticket.

For instance, flying non-stop next week from Washington National to Phoenix is running $664:

Book the same flight, but add a connection to Las Vegas, and the price drops to $263:

Hidden city ticketing is not illegal (and the New York Times “Ethicist” endorses it), but it’s generally against airline rules, and there are some basic practices you need to follow to make sure you or your bags don’t wind up in the wrong city.

  • You’re buying a ticket from A to B to C, where A to C is cheaper than buying A to B, but getting off in B.
  • You can’t check bags or else they will go to C.
  • In the event of weather or cancellations, an airline may want to reroute you to C via a different connecting city (“D”).

Airlines see themselves as selling you a ticket from A to C, rather than a seat on a plane for A-B and also B-C where you have the right not to sit in the B-C seat.

If you put the frequent flyer number of the airline you’re flying in the reservation they could do something unpleasant to your frequent flyer account.

They probably won’t, at least unless you do this very regularly. But I like to use a partner frequent flyer account in the reservation, just in case, when doing any kind of throwaway ticketing.

Travel agents who did this regularly for clients would get ‘debit memos’ — requiring them to pay the difference in fare (or risk losing their ability to issue tickets on the airline). Individual flyers aren’t forced to pay up.

This technique is most useful when you are flying to an airline’s hub city since they’ll have connecting flights beyond the hub. Just pick a (usually nearby) city to fly to where fares are cheaper, likely because of competition from low cost carriers or because there’s less business travel. Just avoiding non-stop markets dominated by a hub carrier can be sufficient due to greater competition.

As a general matter,

  • As long as you’re only skipping the final segment of the ticket you’re not going to cause problems for your return. You don’t want to do this on anything other than the last segment in your itinerary (unless you really know what you’re doing, you can sometimes skip a flight on one airline when the rest of your itinerary is on another).

  • So you want to do this with one way tickets, or with the final segment of a roundtrip only.

There’s always the risk of irregular operations — that your flight will get delayed or cancelled and the airline will want to reroute you through a different city. I’ve never actually had a problem insisting on my original routing (and I’ve even concocted some squirrely reasons why I needed this, like “I’m having an affair in connecting city ____, don’t worry I only need 45 minutes…”). But it’s something to deal with.

  • Don’t check bags
  • Don’t put your preferred frequent flyer number in the reservation
  • Be prepared to explain the need for your original routing in the event of flight delays and cancellations
  • Only drop the last segment of your itinerary
  • Don’t do this super regularly

You’ll want to check out my guide Using Hidden City and Throwaway Ticketing to Save Big Money on Airfare and see how this technique can sometimes save on fuel surcharges on your award tickets as well.

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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Comments

  1. I think the affair line is hilarious, but a “I need to meet with a client in City X for 30 minutes is even more reasonable”

  2. What about if there’s not enough overhead space and you need to check your carry-on at the gate and they say they’ll check it “to your final destination”?

  3. There are some good award ticket hidden city as well. Like its cheaper with award miles to fly to PPT via AKL, than to just AKL…

  4. @Nicholas, award tickets in some markets are so hard to come by that I think it really is unethical to do hidden city ticketing with those. What a person by booking an award segment they don’t intend to travel is to block out some other traveler from access to a very limited award seat. It’s pretty selfish to do that to save a few thousand miles, even though some bloggers do describe those techniques.

  5. @DaveS I think that’s a stretch. I also book speculative award trips which I don’t always take. I only cancel when I know 100% I won’t take trip. The airlines compensate and release award seats based on projected sales. No-shows, cancellations etc are factored in. I suspect over time they are likely to release more award seats with increased hidden city ticketing and no shows.

  6. I have a hard time believing this is something an airline should spend time on. Yes, they should crack down on travel agents who try to create a “business” doing this. But individuals? C’mon. The reality is that it’s extra revenue for them because it’s extremely likely the pax would not have bought the “regular” revenue ticket absent the hidden city.

    It’s also just wrong to go after people who are just playing the game you created.

  7. “I’m having an affair in connecting city ____, don’t worry I only need 45 minutes…”

    I say something similar to people (usually a 60+ female) who feel entitled to challenge me on my Emotional Support Animal.
    When they ask what function she fulfills, I answer, “She cures erectile dysfunction. Would you like me to demonstrate?”

  8. It’s still crazy to me that they view this as “fraud.” If you purchase a seat on a flight, but then choose not to use it (or part of it), why isn’t that your business? It’s like saying it would be fraud if you buy a ticket to a concert venue, and then leave after the opening act. I just don’t get it. I understand why airlines don’t like it – but maybe they need to change their pricing models instead of calling it fraud. It’s also something that 99.99% of people would never even know of or think about, so hard to believe it’s worth their effort to even try and deal with it.

  9. @losingtrader: An emotional support animal is a pet, except for purposes of housing. It is not a service animal.

    Don’t try it in Florida – it is a criminal offense to misrepresent a pet as a service animal.

  10. @Andrew, the difference is they don’t charge a higher price for a customer to leave early at the concert than to stay for the whole thing.The price is the same.

    In airline pricing, it’s counter-intuitive that they do this perhaps, but the pricing answers to competition. Often there’s just one nonstop airline choice from a particular spoke airport to any given hub and the airline can set that price high. But for spoke to spoke travel, you might be able to choose from several airlines through several hubs, resulting in price competition. That’s why it’s sometimes cheaper to go beyond the hub than just to it.The airline very much dislikes throwaway ticketing because they want you to pay the high ticket price for the route you really travel, rather than a lower price for another itinerary that’s cheaper. And they also can’t sell that B to C ticket you won’t actually be using to someone else either, while they could have if you only bought A to B.

    It’s a game to be sure, and I’m not saying I’d never consider it if on a paid flight if there are plenty of seats available. I wouldn’t do it with an award ticket.

  11. Airlines need to simply pick their battles with what they want to offer. If the only way an airline can serve A-C is to sell A-B plus B-C, then the airline should evaluate if the A-C market is really worth pursuing, especially if a nonstop A-C service is available on a competing service. Only the most loyal of elite flyers would fly A-B-C, when most will just fly A-C nonstop with someone else. Then the airline should just focus on selling A-B and B-C and sell A-B-C as somewhat a bit less than the two legs combined to offer such a fare to elites who want it.

  12. it bears repeating that the price for frequently taking advantage of hidden city ticketing, is to give up the miles you would have earned on that trip.

    alternatively, set up a completely different united account (same name, but different address), and use that account for hidden city itineraries. it will take them a while to catch you, and you might collect enough miles for something worthwhile in the meantime.

  13. How about just eliminate all Mileage Programs. 99% of the people cannot attain status and once you get it … go on an upgrade list with 25 other people for 1 seat ?
    70,000miles for a one way ticket from FLL-PDX ? That what I can do with miles from United…what a deal …trash the whole useless program.

    These programs cost millions and millions of $$$ to run
    Back in the day but that’s gone.

  14. My friend and I are flying to LAX from Sydney Australia. The flight goes on to DCA where I reside but he lives in LA. This is the last leg of our trip so he plans on staying at LAX and not going onto DCA. I have read that when we get to LAX we will get our luggage to walk through customs and he can take it. Does anyone know if this is true? We don’t want his luggage to go to DCA.

  15. I’m sure you figured this out by now but I’m curious. Did they fly the bag to DCW since it’s an international airport and you can go through customs there?

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