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Two Controversial Ways to Get Big Discounts on Airfare

Toss away a perfectly good plane ticket? Sometimes that's a good idea.

The experience of a friend shows why. He lives near Minneapolis and wanted to visit a sick relative who lives in North Carolina. He wanted a one-way ticket from Minneapolis to Charlotte, because he wasn't sure how long his relative would be hospitalized, and he wanted a nonstop flight because he has a bad back and didn't want the hassles of connecting. When he got online, he found that the least expensive one-way nonstop ticket would cost $517. "Way too much," he thought. "There's gotta be a better way."

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As it turns out, there are better ways.

Point-Beyond Tickets

Also called "hidden city" tickets, this approach involves buying a ticket with a connection, and not showing up for the connecting flight. Typically when you're looking for this sort of deal, you look for a good point-beyond city among the more popular tourist destinations in the region. My friend tried Orlando, and found a Minneapolis-Orlando one-way one-stop ticket for $111, with a Charlotte connection.

This strategy works best when you're traveling to an airline's "fortress hub," where that airline controls a large proportion of the total traffic. (Charlotte is a fortress hub for US Airways/American.) It works only for routes with no nonstop competition from a low-fare airline. The main problem with point-beyond is that you obviously can't check a bag. So schlep the largest carry-on you can, and maybe splurge on early boarding to increase your chances of finding space in the overhead bin.

"When you buy a product or service, whether or not you consume all or part of it is your choice. You shouldn't have to pay McDonald's more if you buy a combo meal and don't eat the fries."

Throw-Away Round-Trips

A variation on this theme applies when the round-trip fare is less than the one-way fare. This situation formerly arose often, when the cheapest tickets almost always required round-trip purchase with a Saturday-night stay. But you still encounter it today. My friend did on his trip: The cheapest Minneapolis-Charlotte round-trip was $385, nonstop in both directions—a lot less than the one-way ticket. Had the point-beyond ticket not worked, he could have bought a round-trip, taken the "going" portion, and thrown away the return ticket. Throw-away round-trip tickets have the advantage that you can check baggage.

Are These Strategies Unethical?

Using either point-beyond or throw-away round-trip tickets explicitly violates the rules of all major U.S. airlines.

In theory, the airline involved can bill you for the difference between what you paid and what the airline says you should have paid, although no such billings have recently been reported. Airlines have occasionally gone after travel agencies that have issued these tickets, however, so you should probably buy the ticket through the airline's own booking system. And cautious travelers suggest that you refrain from noting your frequent-flyer number to avoid being tracked through that record.  

Violating airline rules certainly raises an ethical question. The airlines say that both the law and the ethics are on their side. When you buy a ticket, you enter a contract in which the airline takes you to a prescribed destination. By not completing the trip, you broke the contract.

On the other hand, consumers counter that the airline rules, in and of themselves, are inherently unethical. When you buy a product or service, whether or not you consume all or part of it is your choice. You shouldn't have to pay McDonald's more if you buy a combo meal and don't eat the fries. But the ethical issues are broader. Consumers say airlines are being unethical by holding consumers to one-sided rules in their "contracts of adhesion" and by gouging people who fly to/from those fortress hubs.

So, what's your take? Do you think breaking airline rules is unethical? Would you throw away part of a ticket to pay $111 for a trip or would you pay the airline's asking price of $517?

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