How would you like to get home from a trip and receive a bill for $2,300 (plus interest) for a plane trip you had already completed and paid $840 for? That’s the amount Lufthansa recently sued a passenger for, after the customer skipped out on the final leg of a flight itinerary.
It’s just the latest in a series of occasional airline attempts to stop travelers from using a well-known ticketing gimmick to cut trip costs: the trick, sometimes called hidden-city ticketing, is booking a cheaper itinerary with a layover when the layover is actually your destination. In 2018, United threatened a passenger with going to a collection agency and/or cancelling his frequent flyer credit and status unless he paid the $3,000 fare difference. Other airlines have done the same in the past, too.
What Is Hidden-City Ticketing?
The hidden-city airfare gimmick is variously described—sometimes also as skiplagged flights, point-beyond booking, or throw-away ticketing. There’s even an airfare search engine site dedicated to finding these types of fares, Skiplagged. The basic idea is simple: Sometimes the nonstop airfare to a particular destination is much higher than a fare to a separate city that includes a stopover in your final destination. In that case, a traveler heading to the first city can buy the connecting fare to the second city and skip the final leg of the journey.
For example, let’s say I want to fly from my small home airport in Oregon to San Francisco, a distance of 329 air miles. United flies the only nonstops on this route, and no other lines fly to any other Bay Area airports. United charges $166 for a one-way nonstop San Francisco ticket, but just $67 for a San Francisco-connecting Seattle ticket, a total of 1,008 miles. So if I buy the ticket to Seattle and don’t show up for the connecting San Francisco-Seattle ticket, I can fly nonstop to San Francisco for $99 less than the price of a nonstop ticket, and collect more miles. The Lufthansa traveler did much the same by booking travel from Seattle to Oslo via Frankfurt, and not taking the final Frankfurt-Oslo flight.
Airlines price tickets this way because they can. When one airline has a monopoly route—or a dominant schedule on a route—it can charge high fares. This fare pattern typically applies to and from many “fortress hubs,” an airport where one airline has the bulk of the flights (like United at San Francisco). But airlines also typically match competitors on connecting routes. In the case of my Delta flight from Oregon, the airline probably knows that Alaska charges only $67 for the Seattle nonstop route—United matches this fare via San Francisco, but not the San Francisco-ending fares.
Is Skiplagged Airfare Too Risky?
The airlines claim they’re on the legal high ground because hidden-city ticketing raises the overall cost of airfares for everyone. Most airline contracts of carriage specifically forbid hidden-city ticketing; they claim they’re just enforcing contract terms. Consumers, on the other hand, say that they’re not obligated to consume 100 percent of anything they buy: If they buy a McDonald’s meal and don’t eat all the fries, McDonalds can’t charge them the difference between the bundled and separate-item price total. If they buy a gallon of paint but use only three-quarters of it, the paint store can’t demand they pay for three quarts at the quart price.
Legally, courts seem to be on the travelers’ side. A lower court denied Lufthansa’s initial filing, and United lost a 2015 suit against Skiplagged, the website that searches for hidden-city airfare opportunities. A court in Spain even specifically ruled that the practice was legal. The New York Times “Ethicist” column has even endorsed the practice, for whatever that’s worth.
Historically, reports indicate that if airlines want to enforce their contracts, they typically target travelers they view as frequent offenders. And they go after travel agents who sell the tickets. As far as I know, no airline has ever won a lawsuit against an individual traveler demanding payment for revenues lost through point-beyond ticketing—yet. But airlines do use intimidation and threats, and it would be hard to find any information about how often travelers cave in to those threats, or how many travelers have lost frequent flyer credits and status.
Regardless of the law and the ethics, if you’re considering hidden-city ticketing, you need to know the pitfalls:
- You can’t use it for most round-trip travel: As soon as you miss a connecting flight on the outbound leg of your trip, the airline cancels the rest of your ticket, including all return flights. The only round-trip on which it works is one where you miss the last connection on your return trip.
- You can’t check baggage. In most cases, airlines will not check bags to a connecting airport.
- You run a minor risk of re-routing. In my Oregon to San Francisco example, I could theoretically show up at the airport for my first connecting flight to San Francisco, only to have the agent tell me, “Great news: Your San Francisco flight is cancelled but we got you on a nonstop to Seattle on Delta,” or even “We’ve re-routed you through Denver.”
- Some bloggers recommend not using your frequent flyer number as it helps avoid detection—but that’s a suggestion I’ve never seen validated.
Until the courts settle the most recent lawsuit by Lufthansa, it’s ultimately your call whether skiplagged booking technicalities are too much, or if the reward justifies the risks.
Have you taken advantage of hidden city ticketing in the past? Comment below.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.