Hidden city ticketing: the best travel hack airlines don’t want you to know about?

Hi Frugalistas!  Have you ever realised that it’s sometimes cheaper to book an airfare with a connecting flight and get off at the connection, rather than book a direct flight to that same connecting destination?  I’d come across this myself recently, and wondered how common it was, and whether there was merit in trying it as a travel hacking strategy.  Well, apparently it is quite common.  Common enough for Aktarer Zaman to start a website called skiplagged.com.  And common enough to make the airlines mad at the thought.  United Airlines says it’s “strictly prohibited”.  It even has a name:  “hidden city ticketing”.  Read on to get the lowdown…….


Malaysian Airline and British Airways plane

Would you consider hidden city ticketing?

My own experience with hidden city ticketing

Last year I was looking at places for a family holiday.  There were a few destinations we had in mind, and it was a fairly eclectic list.  With three of us travelling, and MissG now needing an adult ticket, airfares were our biggest expense, so were a key factor in deciding where we would go.

As I looked around, I noticed something odd.  Virgin Australia fly from Sydney to Phuket via Perth in Western Australia.  It’s a domestic connection onto an international flight in Perth, then a direct international flight to Phuket.  I’d already looked at Perth as a destination, and decided the airfares were too expensive.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that the flights to Phuket were actually 10% cheaper, even though they were going via Perth…..

Maybe they’re different flights I thought……

But no, I searched Perth flights again, and the flights were identical.  Maybe the fare rules were different?  But no, that wasn’t the case either.

airline wingtip

Buy two legs, travel one

It was cheaper to book a flight to Phuket, get off in Perth and stay there, instead of booking a flight to Perth.  What the……?

Hidden city ticketing

Skiplagged.com is an aggregator site that identifies cheaper flights just like how I described above.  If you are planning a trip from one destination to another, it identifies whether it is cheaper to buy a direct flight, or buy a flight to another destination with a transit in the city you want to fly to.  You then don’t board your onward flight, and pocket the saving.

So here’s how it works in practice:

Say you are in Los Angeles, and want to fly to Chicago.  You check flights to Chicago and get your price.  Then you check flights to other destinations that require a transit in Chicago.  You find a flight from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago for $100 less.  You book the flight from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago and disembark in Chicago.  You save $100 and the airline has a “no show” on the Chicago to New York leg.

Is hidden city ticketing a legitimate travel hack?

That I don’t know.

What I do know is that it would only work if you take carry on luggage only.  If you check bags and fail to board your ongoing flight you will be one of those annoying people who make planes late.  Your bags will go on the plane, but then when you don’t, the whole plane will need to wait while your bags are removed.  And you’ll have to deal with the airline as to why you failed to board……

yellow wallet containing Euros

You can obviously save money, but I’m not sure it’s worth it

Will you be allowed to board your return flight?  That’s another thing I’m not sure of the answer to.  What I would say though is that if you are going to do this, I’d strongly consider booking an alternate airline on the return journey.  And I wouldn’t do it on the same airline on a regular basis.  You may find yourself banned by an airline.

What the travel industry says about hidden city ticketing

Both United Airlines and Orbitz have launched legal action against Aktarer Zaman and skiplagged.com.  They claim the practice is “unfair” and a breach of their fare rules.  I’m not a lawyer, and don’t live in the US, so I can’t comment on whether their case has merit or not.

What skiplagged.com has done though is expose some anomalies in ticket pricing.  This is no doubt somewhat embarrassing to the airlines.  Maybe they thought it was their dirty little secret.  But the information is freely available to anyone who bothers to spend a bit of time travel planning – I found it myself on the Virgin Australia website before I even knew skiplagged.com existed, or what hidden city ticketing was.

Skift makes the observation that travellers have been doing this for years.  But then points out that the practice breaches the contracts airlines including United, American, Delta and British Airways have with travel agents in the US.  But what of the individual traveller who books directly from an airline website without an online or shopfront travel agent involved in the deal?

Bloomberg BusinessWeek has pointed out that airlines have been known to cancel frequent flyer miles if a passenger has been found to have deliberated engaged in hidden city ticketing.  Repeat offenders risk having their frequent flyer accounts cancelled.

Am I prepared to give hidden city ticketing a try?

Not at the moment.  Given I only ever travel with carry on luggage, and it definitely is a way to save money, it’s a strategy that could work for me.  Before the publicity surrounding the skiplagged.com case I would have been very tempted if the opportunity arose, but I’m sure airlines have a heightened sense of awareness about the practice.  Given frequent flyer points are a key strategy I use to save on travel expenses and be frugal and first class, any loss of points would have to save me a significant amount of money to make it worthwhile – $100 or so?  No way.  I will await the outcome of the United case with interest.

Have you ever used hidden city ticketing as a travel hacking strategy?  Did it work?  What sort of reaction did you get from the airline?


Disclaimer:  I do not understand how the law treats hidden city ticketing.  I have never tried it, nor do I necessarily endorse it as a travelling hacking strategy.    For the record, we booked a trip to Phuket.


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17 Comments on “Hidden city ticketing: the best travel hack airlines don’t want you to know about?”

  1. Carolyn @ Holidays to Europe 04/01/2015 at 10:12 pm #

    This is an interesting article, Jo. When I worked as a travel consultant it was always drummed into us that should a client of ours try this type of ‘hack’ in an attempt to save money, the airline would send our travel agency an ADM (agency debit memo) – ie. a bill – for the lost revenue. With return airfares in Europe (with many national carriers) often cheaper than one way fares, it was always tempting to offer this option to clients but the risk wasn’t worth it. Obviously the onus is on the individual traveller if they book direct on the airline’s website or an aggregator’s site, but like you, I believe the risk is too high if loss of frequent flyer points are at risk. It will be interesting to follow the outcome of this lawsuit.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 05/01/2015 at 7:30 pm #

      I’m very interested in your industry perspective Carolyn. I don’t understand how a company can hold a third party responsible if a customer chooses NOT to use a service…….

      • Carolyn @ Holidays to Europe 05/01/2015 at 9:23 pm #

        It’s certainly an interesting way to operate! I guess back in the days before the Internet travellers would mostly book via an agent rather than directly or via an aggregator. Agents were then kind of held ransom to the airlines’ rules, which, as you point out, are based on getting the most revenue.

        Today, with more booking options and the ability to research travel routes more thoroughly, consumers are finding ways to beat the airlines at their own game. I totally agree that it seems ludicrous that a company can penalise a client of theirs, or a third party, for NOT utilising a service they have already paid for.

        Hopefully this case will put a stop to this once and for all.

  2. Geek Goddess 05/01/2015 at 1:15 am #

    Technically,you’ve paid for the seat all the way through, even if you walk off midway in your itinerary. Likely, when the vacant seat is noticed, the airline may fill it with a standby, which results in them selling the seat twice. I call BS that they’ve lost revenue.

    $200 for a change fee that you make yourself, online?

    My home town airport was serviced primarily by Continental (now United) so they are who I normally fly. They once again increased the number of miles/dollars you must have to have meaningful rewards. That, coupled with the fact that I now take most of my frequent,but short haul, business trips on small private planes owned by my company, means I am unlikely to even make the lowest level status, were it not for my United-branded credit card. United also does not participate in using my Amex Platinum to use their lounges or transfer points, which was a main source of my FF miles. I’m rethinking brand loyalty, because it increasingly is not offering me any benefits.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 05/01/2015 at 7:25 pm #

      I must admit I find the concept that a company can penalise a customer for NOT using a service they have purchased an interesting one.

      What this practice has exposed is the way airlines game on the routes they think they can make more profit on – in our case here, Perth is a mining boom town where everything is SOOOO expensive. Virgin Australia make Sydney travellers fly via Perth to get to Phuket, whereas their competitor will fly you direct – so the price needs to be more competitive.

      I’m definitely interested in the outcome of this one.

  3. Lady Light Travel 06/01/2015 at 2:53 am #

    In the US legal system both sides have to pay for their own lawyers. There is no penalty for losing a lawsuit unless the other person countersues for another reason. What Skiplagged has done is legal, and there is already legal precedent to establish the fact. Under the US legal system Skiplagged will have to engage a lawyer to defend themselves $$$$. United will then keep moving the lawsuit around, delaying it, changing venue until Skiplagged runs out of money and is forced to shut down. It’s a common practice for big corporations to “win” a lawsuit by forcing the little guy to run out of money before it ever goes before the judge. It is very rare that a lawsuit is declared frivolous so that the defendant can countersue and reclaim their legal expenses.
    Hidden city ticketing does violate the Contract of Carriage for almost every airline. That means that the person that buys the ticket is breaching contract, not Skiplagged.
    I think you hit the real issue on the head though. More knowledge means an empowered consumer. United and Orbitz would rather keep people in the dark so they can charge more money. Remember what they did when the broke guitars.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 08/01/2015 at 8:01 pm #

      skiplagged is raising money through donations to fight the case. Reading the background articles in researching the post I think Orbitz may have a legitimate case against him because of some other practices he was doing with booking sites when you read some of the business articles. But I’m not American and I’m not a lawyer, so I’m waiting to see how it all pans out.

  4. The Guy 07/01/2015 at 11:19 pm #

    Putting aside an moral argument on the pricing of tickets I would very strongly avoid such tactics as hidden city ticketing. Airlines will often flag you as a no show and cancel your return flight. In this sense at best it can become an expensive scenario for you.

    Also, airlines will soon cotton onto your personal travel habits. Pulling your air miles may only be the start, what if they refused to fly you in the future? They have no legal obligation to accept any customer who is willing to pay money for a flight. They can quite easily refuse your money so you could not buy from them again.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 08/01/2015 at 7:54 pm #

      Yes, The Guy, I think that’s one of the key issues – airlines don’t have an obligation to sell you a ticket, you can easily find yourself banned. Whether we like it or not, its their businesses and they make the rules

  5. galanda23 08/01/2015 at 6:05 am #

    Great post, Jo. I’m so thrilled to find new ways to cut the airfare a little… they rip us off anyway they can lately. I thought about the “hidden city” tactic before, but then on the way back your flight has to originate in the same place it ended, right? So if it’s cheaper to go to London via Paris and I stop in London, on the way back I’ll have to board in Paris in order to make the connection in London (or so I thought). I’m not quite sure how to go around that. Maybe buy an open jaw ticket…

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 08/01/2015 at 7:55 pm #

      I’d just hold fire on the strategy Anda. Let’s see what the result of the lawsuit is.

  6. Craig Wickham 08/01/2015 at 9:21 am #

    The Guy: The airline will ALWAYS cancel your return leg – no “often” about it!

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 08/01/2015 at 7:56 pm #

      Yes, I did read that in one of the research articles I looked at in preparing the piece.

  7. Karyn Jane 08/01/2015 at 7:05 pm #

    This is so interesting and not something I was aware of! It seems like it could potentially save you a lot of money – but since the industry is now aware of it I’d expect that they may crack down on it shortly. The risk is probably too big for me to give it a go too.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 08/01/2015 at 7:58 pm #

      I think you’re right Karyn. The publicity around the case has raised everyone’s antennae on it – if I were an airline exec I’d be hyper-vigilant and act swiftly on the process.

  8. mags 15/01/2015 at 6:49 am #

    I’ve never done it myself, but I’ve certainly thought about it without even knowing it was a thing. I never imagined it would be against the rules! Seems like if you pay for a ticket you should be able to use it however you want, but I don’t know how it will shake out legally. I’m very interested to watch this one.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 24/01/2015 at 7:09 pm #

      Yes, I’m with you Mags. It seems odd you can buy a ticket, but then not have the capacity to choose what to do with it, but the general consensus is that you they make all the rules.

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