You Can Save Money on Airfare With Hidden City Ticketing. Here are the Tricks (and What Not to Do)

The UK’s Daily Mail carries a piece on saving airfare with hidden city ticketing.

It sounds mad, but it is possible: an airfare hack that will save you a fortune provided you ‘miss’ a connecting flight.

Known as ‘hidden city ticketing’, the trick works by booking a flight to a destination where your intended city is a layover, rather than the final stop.

There are some important cautions that I don’t think are well-enough spelled out in the piece, however.

What Is Hidden City Ticketing?

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.

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.

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.

Why Is Hidden City Ticketing Controversial?

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.

What Are the Risks of Hidden City Ticketing?

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.

Which Airlines Are Most Likely to Go After You For This?

British Airways has been cracking down on this.

Brian Sumers reported 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..”

I’ve had two readers recently tell me that United sent them letters detailing their hidden city tickets and demanding payment for the difference in fare between what they paid and the prevailing fare for the routes actually flown. In both cases they (1) employed the technique frequently (more than monthly) and (2) gave their United frequent flyer number to the airline each time.

How Can You Mitigate the Risks When Employing Hidden City Ticketing?

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

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. Gary — I’m a little confused. You write an entire post about “hidden city” ticketing and then end it by saying “don’t do this super regularly.”

    What does that mean? Once a week? Once a month? Once a year? Once per alliance?

  2. Also, when you talk about the risks of using “hidden city ticketing,” you say not to enter your preferred frequent flyer number because “they could do something unpleasant to your frequent flyer account.”

    What does that mean? Something unpleasant to my ff account? If this is one of the risks, I hope you would elaborate a little more than just using the word “unpleasant.”

    Are you still writing these articles? Or do you have interns writing them?

  3. Soooo….this may sound like a silly question, but how do you fly back to your original departure airport? Or are you buying (2) one-way tickets and not saving money on the return trip?

  4. @roundtrip
    you can do the same on the return, simply using your return hub as the middle point
    for example
    you fly NEW YORK-CHICAGO-MILWAUKEE (and get off in chicago)
    and return
    CHICAGO-NEW YORK-RALEIGH (and get off in new york)
    you could even check luggage if you buy the one way as multi cuty, with a long enough stopover in the middle city (over 24 hrs)

  5. Gary — I think this sentence is causing some confusion: “As long as you’re only skipping the final segment of the ticket you’re not going to cause problems for your return.”

    I know what you’re saying, but I think people are misinterpreting it to say that if you only skip the outbound last segment you’ll be ok for a return on the same ticket. I know it doesn’t say that, but FYI.

  6. Do not – do not – do not do this!
    I am a travel agent. If the airlines catch you doing this they can revoke ALL miles in your frequent flyer account, ban you from EVER flying with them again, make you pay up for the fare difference in the hidden city ticket, possibly have you arrested in the airport, and cancel the return portion of your flight itinerary making you buy an expensive one way ticket. It’s just not worth it !!

  7. Do not – do not – do not do this!
    I am a travel agent. If the airlines catch you doing this they can revoke ALL miles in your frequent flyer account, ban you from EVER flying with them again, make you pay up for the fare difference in the hidden city ticket, possibly have you arrested in the airport, and cancel the return portion of your flight itinerary making you buy an expensive one way ticket. It’s just not worth it !!

  8. @JH
    Take a deep breath…breath in…breath out….
    No airline will BAN you for doing this
    You can not get arrested as this is not illegal
    This should only be done on one way tickets (so they do not cancel your return)
    They MAY take your miles, but unlikely if you don’t do it on a monthly basis on same route
    As a travel agent you are right and you should not do it, but individuals booking their tickets online should be encouraged to do this…if the airlines decide to abuse their pricing methods, any mean to beat them is kosher

  9. On a subject similar to this, can you explain why it is cheaper to go A to C than A to B. It cost the airlines more money and they lose out on selling the a ticket that is from B to C.
    Thanks!

    For example im going from IAH to Rome with a layover in LHR and it cost 700 round trip but if I do IAH to LHR its 1200. Why????

  10. If it only happens occasionally, I don’t think there should be much problem. People miss flights all the time for any number of valid reasons. Some years ago, before I was really into miles and points, I was in a situation where I found myself with an itinerary for which the next to last stop would be perfect for attending a family reunion that had been organized after I booked my ticket. It would be much better for me to miss the last segment and book a one way home later. I actually called the airline about rebooking and a helpful phone agent told me that yes, I could rebook and pay a change fee if I wanted, but “I’m not supposed to say this, but why not just throw away the last segment. Nothing will happen.”

    I do see one ethical issue not mentioned here and probably never considered by this writer’s ethical beacon, the New York Times ethicist. When you book a hidden city ticket, you are blocking out a seat on a flight that someone else may be wanting to purchase or use miles for. These days many flights are totally full, and if you take a seat that you don’t plan to use, it is not only the airline that suffers the consequences, but potentially some fellow traveler unable to get a seat or forced to pay a higher price because a fare bucket gets sold out. You don’t know for sure when that’s the case when you book it, of course, but the potential of it raises questions of selfishness and doing harm to others for one’s own benefit.

  11. You are also screwed if overhead bins fill up and the airline decides to check your bag.

    The UA agents at PHX are well aware of the common hidden city routes and seem to be actively looking to bust people.

  12. @DaveS

    ” … you are blocking out a seat on a flight that someone else may be wanting to purchase … ”

    Nonsense: you paid for that last segment. By the same logic, is it unethical to buy ANY seat and thus preventing others from buying it?

  13. Why is there no mention of the massive skiplagged lawsuit and how the airlines tried to bully a very young man who created the site? Their deep pockets were not enough and he prevailed, with a lot of financial support from others tired of the airlines pushing them around. Google skiplagged and see how awful the airlines are. And no, it is not illegal but that won’t stop them from trying to press charges at the airport because you owe them money and won’t pay (which is illegal). If they are able to convince police to harass you then you miss your flight and have a lot of unpleasantness which is what they want to do to you. They know they will lose in court but they still want to scare you simply because they can.

  14. TWO REASONS I FEEL NO GUILT:

    – I purchased a ticket from Vegas to Minneapolis, but with intermediate stop in Dallas. Due to pilot illness the last leg was canceled, and I argued I should get the FULL ticket back since they did not fulfill the contract (deliver me to Minneapolis). The airline refused saying “We got you halfway there.” They refunded some of my money, but I still had to pay 2/3rd the cost & they put me in a city I didn’t want to be.

    – If airlines can refuse to deliver a passenger to his/her destination, and essentially split the ticket into two separate flights with two separate charges, why can’t we do the same?

    – I used to fly direct from LAX to PHL but when US Airways & American merged the direct cost increased from $350 to $750. Same flight…. but now they had a monopoly. So I started splitting my ticket by buying LAX to PHL to NYC or LAX to PHL to BWI (and get off in PHL). That brought my price back to what it used to be, and I felt zero guilt because US Airways/American screwed customers when they raised the price $750 for the same Direct flight that used to be $350.

    – Megacorps are Things like rocks. They have no souls or morals and therefore don’t care if they rip-off the customer. We should adopt the megacorp’s morality (or lack thereof) when dealing with them
    .

  15. Hey there. I am travelling from Orlando to Belgrade, via Frankfurt and Zagreb: Orlando – Frankfurt – Zagreb – Belgrade.
    My plan is to do this: I would get off in Frankfurt and skip the other two flights ( to Zagreb and Belgrade). Instead, I would be taking a flight from Frankfurt to Berlin.
    Do you think I could do that on a same date?
    Because my passport number is going to be linked with two flights: the one from Frankfurt to Zagreb (which I plan to skip), and the one from Frankfurt to Berlin (which I am going to take)?
    Is that possible?

  16. @zana
    The passport number has no meaning but you need to make sure that you dont plan to return to orlando with same ticket that you are going to europe as the return will be cancelled
    Also, in europe usually luggage is tagged all tje way so if you are flying with checked luggage they will most likely tag it in orlando all the way to belgrade so fly with trolley only
    Also, try to fly to berlin on a different airline than the one you are arriving with to frankfurt
    Good luck

  17. @doug
    Thanks. It is a one way ticket, so returning to Orlando is not an issue.
    However, I do have to travel with checked luggage :/ So I called Lufthansa call center and asked them if there is any possibility for my luggage to be checked only to Frankfurt (not all the way to Belgrade), so that I can pick it in Frankfurt, (I explained that I would be needing my stuff to refresh, change clothes, ect. because I have a 9 hours long layover), and they told that would not be a problem, as long as I specify at the Orlando airport that I want my luggage to be checked only to Frankfurt.
    Are there any risks of my demand being declined at the Orlando airport?
    Тhank you guys :*

  18. @zana
    some airlines are hesitant to “shortcheck” the luggage…American Airlines usually refuses but since you have 9 hrs, you will probably be successful in pleading your case….

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