While skimming news headlines last week I came across an article titled “United Airlines sues 22-year-old who found method for buying cheaper plane tickets”.
Being a 20 something-year-old who helps people learn methods for buying cheaper plane tickets, I was naturally a little concerned.
Apparently a lot of you were as well, as I received more than a dozen emails about it.
A quick peruse of the article confirmed my suspicions that one of the major airlines had finally decided to sue the creator of Skiplagged.com, a website that helps travelers find cheaper flights by using a strategy called “hidden city ticketing”.
Let’s walk through an example to show you how this works.
Let’s say that you want to book a flight from Columbus to Dallas next weekend to attend the College Football National Championship.
Dallas is a major hub for American Airlines, so chances are good you’re going to pay quite a bit for the flight (more on this later).
Add in the fact that thousands of other people are also trying to fly from Columbus to Dallas for the game and you have a recipe for an expensive plane ticket.
$304.10 to be exact. And that’s just for the flight TO Dallas.
Now let’s take a look at flights to Orlando that just happen to layover in Dallas. You know, because you like the dining options offered by the DFW airport….
And because I am a fan of Skiplagged, let’s run the search on their site.
Bingo. Just $135 to fly from Columbus to Orlando with a connection in Dallas. In fact, the flight to Dallas is on the exact same plane that would have cost $304.10.
So in theory you could book this itinerary instead, hop off the plane in Dallas, and save $169.10.
Which is exactly how hidden city ticketing works.
Put simply, hidden city ticketing is when you book a flight from A>B>C but skip the last leg of the trip. B was your desired destination all along.
Here are a few things to remember when using this strategy.
Do not check luggage.
Any luggage that you check will be sent to your final destination without you. For this reason, it is vital that you fit all of your things in to a carry-on bag.
This means that you will have to be ruthless about finding overhead space after boarding the plane. So try to book a seat near the front of the plane, pack light, and don’t be afraid to be “that guy” when it comes to finding a spot for your bag.
If all of the overhead space is taken you will likely be asked to gate check your bag. This obviously won’t work for you so you’ll need to make up an excuse for why you need access to your bag during the layover. “I need to access my prescription medication at X o’clock” usually does the trick.
As a last resort you can simply tell the airline staff that your final destination is where the aircraft is landing.
Do not book a round trip flight.
If you miss any of your flights the airline will void the rest of your itinerary. So this strategy only works with one-way bookings.
Do not attach your frequent flyer number to your ticket
Naturally, airlines are not big fans of people who use this strategy (more on this later). Attaching your frequent flyer number to your ticket will make you easier to track should you decide to use this strategy multiple times. Better to remain anonymous to avoid raising suspicion.
Besides, the mileage earnings that you miss out on are just a drop in the bucket compared to what you could be earning.
Be aware of the risks.
If your flight gets delayed or cancelled the airline might rebook you on a different route to your final destination. You can try explaining to them that you need to layover in a certain city to meet someone/pick something up/whatever but there’s no guarantees.
So I wouldn’t recommend using this strategy if you absolutely have to be somewhere at a specific time (weddings, job-related events, etc.).
Why does this strategy work?
It seems a bit confusing at first. Why would it be cheaper to book a flight from A>B>C than just A>B?
The answer is pretty simple. Airlines don’t see themselves as selling you a ticket from A>B>C, they simply see it as being a ticket from A>C.
So they treat the two itineraries (A>B vs. A>B>C) as being completely separate products and price them accordingly. Which creates gaps in the market like the one we just discussed above.
Airlines also typically charge more for flights that terminate in a hub. This is because they want to keep that availably open to use on longer, more complex routes.
By selling you a ticket from Columbus to Dallas there is one less seat available for the person who is trying to book Columbus > Dallas > Tokyo, for example.
So while this strategy typically won’t work for flights to small airports like Aspen, you should definitely give it a look when flying to hubs like Dallas, Atlanta, Washington DC, Los Angeles, etc.
Is this legal?
Hidden city ticketing is not illegal, but the airlines certainly are not big fans of it. Which is why they are pursuing a civil suit vs. a criminal suit against Skiplagged.
Skiplagged is not being sued because they take advantage of hidden city ticketing.
They are being sued because their website is likely reducing the revenues of major airlines by exploiting a strategy that violates their terms and conditions.
The worst outcome for a passenger using this strategy would be getting banned from an airline. With thousands of people using this strategy every day I don’t think you have anything to worry about.
So next time you’re planning a trip to a major hub city, check out skiplagged.com to see if you can save a few bucks.