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Tricky Ticket Strategies: Sometimes a Good Idea?

In recent years, travel writers have pretty much laid off of reporting two "insider" strategies for cutting airfare costs, mainly because those strategies had lost much of their usefulness. And, of course, they also violate airline rules. (See our Ultimate Guide to Airline Contracts of Carriage for more information on each airline's prohibited ticket uses.) But despite the competitive influence of Southwest and the other low-fare airlines, they can still sometimes be useful.

These days, "tricky ticket" strategies are mostly limited to trips when you need a one-way ticket to or from some big airline's fortress hub. On routes where competition is lacking or weak, the legacy lines like to stick it to business travelers by charging very high one-way prices for nonstop flights. You have three ways to avoid the gouge—one that's OK with the airlines, and two that aren't.

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Take a Stop: Often, the fare for a one-stop connecting itinerary is a lot less than the price of a nonstop. On a trip from Phoenix to Charlotte on US Airways, for example, the lowest fare is $254—for a connection in Atlanta that takes almost six hours. If you want a nonstop, you have to pay $440. That's perfectly fine with the airline, which figures business travelers will fork up the extra $186 but a couple on vacation, who might balk at the stiff price, would be willing to take the connection to pay $242 less. Cut-rate stopping fares are common on long-haul domestic and intercontinental trips, in business class as well as economy.

Buy a Hidden-City Ticket: This works only when you're flying from a "spoke" city into a fortress hub. The fare from a spoke city on one side of a big hub to a different spoke city on the other side, with a connection at the hub, is often lower than the fare from either spoke city to the hub. So if you want to cut your cost, you buy a ticket from one spoke to the other, then get off at the hub and don't take the connection. Here's an example from a friend who recently did it. He wanted to fly from Toronto to Charlotte. The fare was $351. But the fare from Toronto to Orlando with a connection at Charlotte was $191. So he bought the Orlando ticket, didn't take the connecting flight from Charlotte, and pocketed an extra $160.

Obviously this strategy has three drawbacks:

  • You can't check any bags—airlines will not check bags to a connecting hub on a through ticket.
  • You may have to do a lot of checking to find the right "beyond" spoke.
  • It violates airline rules. In theory, an airline can detect this and bill you for the difference, but I haven't heard of any recent enforcement.

Buy a Throw-Away Round-Trip Ticket: This works either to or from a fortress hub. Often, you find a round-trip fare that is much less than the one-way. So you buy a round-trip and throw away the return coupon. Here's another example, again on US Airways.

The lowest round-trip fare from Charlotte to Chicago is $309, while the lowest one-way fare is $517. Want to knock an easy $208 off the cost? Buy the round-trip and throw away the return.

Back when most airlines required a Saturday-night stay on their cheapest tickets, you could use this ploy to avoid the much higher no-Saturday fares: Just buy round-trips starting at each end of the trip and throw away the returns. Repeat travelers could even schedule those return tickets for second round-trips within a 30-day period. Unlike the hidden-city trick, this ploy works in either direction and allows you to check baggage. But it, too, violates airline rules.

My research also uncovered an unrelated but fascinating additional tidbit: Between Phoenix and Salt Lake City, Delta posted one-way fares in both directions of $139, or $278 for two separate tickets—but the round-trip posted at $328. Go figure.

Opportunities to apply hidden-city and throw-away are a lot rarer then in earlier years, but you can still find them. Only you can decide whether violating airline rules represents an ethical barrier.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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