Hidden city ticketing can save money on airfares, but are there risks? :
“I read Nate Silver’s New York Times article on hidden city ticketing and am thinking of using it for an upcoming trip, where it could save me thousands of dollars on an international itinerary. I’ll probably go ahead, given the savings, but what are the risks? Have the risks or penalties changed at all since Silver’s 2011 article?”
What Is Hidden City Ticketing?
Hidden city ticketing is a strategy some fliers use to reduce their airline ticket price, by taking advantage of cheaper airline ticket pricing to non-hub cities.
If you fly into or out of a major captive hub city dominated by a single airline, such as American’s Dallas Fort Worth hub or United’s Chicago hub, you’ll often pay more than if you were on a ticket that connects in that city but has another city as its destination.
Examples of Hidden City Ticketing
Example 1: San Diego (SAN) to LA (LAX) Nonstop: $85 vs. $274
LA is a major hub, and you can see the effect of this even on a simple economy one way between San Diego and LA, which can easily run to almost $300.
If you instead route via LA to Las Vegas, you can get a nonstop for just $85, in this example.
Example 2: Las Vegas (LAS) to Milan (MXP) via Miami (MIA)
In this example, a regular business class ticket from Miami (MIA) to Milan (MXP) is over $9000:
If instead you bought a roundtrip business class ticket from Las Vegas to Milan via Miami, including the same MIA-MXP flights, it’s just over $2000 (which can be further reduced for AARP members, who can get $400 off business class fares booked by October 14 and flown by March 31, 2015). That would mean a ~$1600 business class roundtrip to Europe, if you use the AARP discount (you do have to be an AARP member, but membership is inexpensive, and is open to adults of all ages).
While this particular deal is a temporary one, from some Western U.S. cities to destinations such as Milan and Amsterdam, and only works as a roundtrip, it could be worth it for some folks in the connecting city, in this case Miami, to book themselves a one way to Las Vegas, then fly the trip and throw away the last segment of MIA-LAX on the return. Even with the one way, you’re looking at over $6500 in savings thanks to hidden city ticketing, just by flying from another city and connecting through Miami, instead of originating there.
Risks of Hidden City Ticketing
There are risks to leveraging hidden city ticketing for airfare savings, especially if you take advantage of it a lot, while attempting to earn miles for it. Here are some of the risks that you should be aware of:
Denied Boarding, Remaining Ticket Confiscated, and Charged the Difference in Fare
An American Airlines letter meant for travel agencies reads in part “Passengers who attempt to use hidden city tickets may be denied boarding, have the remainder of their ticket confiscated and may be assessed the difference between the fare paid and the lowest applicable fare.” If caught, you could have this happen to you, as did Flyertalker krlcomm, although in his or her case, it was easily caught by the airline because it was booked as a return ticket, such that the remaining ticket was automatically cancelled when s/he didn’t fly the final segment on the outbound:
“…my corporate travel person (idiot?) did DTW-MSP-ABQ to try and save $$$ (DTW-MSP was $1200)… busted on the return and had to pay the fare difference before they would let me on the return flight home PLUS I was read the riot act by the PSA at MSP. Lesson learned… never again.”
Frequent Flyer Account Frozen or Closed
If you have significant frequent flyer miles and/or elite status with the airline you’re planning to use for hidden city ticketing, you should be aware that there’s a small chance you could have your frequent flyer account closed and lose your miles. That risk of course increases the more you engage in hidden city ticketing, especially on the same airline, within a short period of time.
Banned from Flying the Airline
Along the same lines, it’s possible the airline could ban you outright from its flights, most probably if you’ve been a signficiant abuser of hidden city ticketing.
Your Travel Agent Gets a Debit Memo
Most travel agents won’t assist you with ticketing a hidden city itinerary, for the very real risk that they could receive a debit memo that requires them to pay the difference in fare between the itinerary you booked and the one you actually flew.
You Get Rerouted, Such That You No Longer Fly Through Your Target Connection City
If for some reason your original flight is changed or cancelled by the airline, and you’re rerouted, you could end up not flying through your original connection city that you planned to deplane at.
Tips if You Do Take Advantage of Hidden City Ticketing
It’s up to you if you find that the hidden city ticketing savings are worth the risk. If you decide it’s worth it to you, here’s what I’d recommend:
- Book One Ways or Don’t Fly the Last Segment: Remember that any unflown segments will prompt automatic cancellation of the rest of your ticket. So hidden city ticketing or throw away ticketing only works if you don’t fly the last segment.
- Credit to Another Alliance Partner: For example, if flying British Airways, credit to American AAdvantage. If flying United, credit to Singapore Airlines
- Don’t Check Luggage: While some folks do have luck with short-checking baggage, I wouldn’t count on it. Instead, fly with hand carry luggage only, and travel especially lightly so that you don’t run the risk of being forced to gate-check luggage, since that luggage will go to the final destination instead of where you plan to deplane.
- Don’t Involve a Travel Agent: Debit memos are a very real risk for travel agents, so please don’t try to involve a travel agent in a hidden city ticket.
- If Asked, Tell the Truth: As Nate Silver points out in his article, while hidden city ticketing is not illegal and you won’t be prosecuted for it, you could get in serious trouble for lying about what you’re doing. So if you are questioned, it’s important to tell the truth, so that you don’t wind up facing fraud charges.
Have you used hidden city ticketing to save on airfare?