Airfare can often seem mystifying, especially when it can cost more to take a short, regional flight than to travel from one coast to the other, or more to fly into one airport than another.
For example, a nonstop flight from Los Angeles, California, to Charlotte, North Carolina, could cost $553, while routes with a layover cost closer to $200. A flight from Los Angeles to Orlando, however, with a stopover in Charlotte on the same day, could only cost $121.
Hidden city ticketing — or point beyond ticketing — is when a traveler books the flight to Orlando but doesn’t continue past Charlotte, getting a much cheaper, non-stop ticket. It’s controversial to say the least.
Hidden-city ticketing can be harmful to other travelers…
Skiplagged, a website known for promoting cheap fares that use hidden city ticketing, has popularized the tactic. And while it’s strongly opposed by airlines, the question of ethics has made it hotly contested by travelers, too.
As Airfarewatchdog founder George Hobica told USA Today, hidden city ticketing deprives other travelers of seats they actually need, and can force them to pay higher prices. Over time, airlines may need to further increase prices.
Because airlines often wait for passengers who are late for connecting flights, travelers who use hidden-city ticketing can even cause flight delays and muddle the travel plans of others.
…and it can ruin your trip.
Even if you don’t have much sympathy for your fellow travelers, hidden city ticketing can have direct consequences for those who try to cheat the system.
You absolutely cannot check a bag if you’re booking a ticket with plans to abandon the itinerary at a stopover. But even carry-on bags can be at risk. If a flight attendant gate-checks your bag, you’ll have to do without your belongings.
And unexpected changes to the flight plan can ruin your travel plans. Re-routing can be caused by a number of circumstances, like inclement weather. And your airline will not be sympathetic if you try to rebook a hidden-city ticket.
There can be consequences.
Even on the Skiplagged website, travelers are warned about some of the penalties travelers can face for booking these fares.
In addition to last-minute itinerary changes and luggage, travelers are urged not to use frequent flyer accounts, and to always bring a passport for international flights (even those that terminate domestically).
“You might upset the airline,” Skiplagged adds.
Hidden-city ticketing isn’t illegal. Both United Airlines and Orbitz filed a federal lawsuit against Skiplagged founder Aktarer Zaman — and lost due to what CNN Money called a “technicality.”
“United claimed Zaman broke the ‘contract of carriage,’ but that’s a contract between passengers and airlines — not third parties like Skiplagged,” CNN Money wrote.
When travelers violate that contract (all the fine print you gloss over when you purchase a ticket) the airline really doesn’t owe you anything. In addition to revoking elite status and invalidating frequent flyer miles, an airline has every right to refuse you service, bump you from future flights — whatever revenge they see fit.
Travelers who book tickets with the intention of skipping the final leg should also be aware that this only works with one-way fares. If you fail to show for a flight, the airline will cancel any succeeding flights.
Instead of looking for sketchy loopholes, travelers seeking a bargain should look for flight deals and airfare sales, take advantage of error fares, and learn to capitalize on off-season and shoulder-season bargains.