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Three common airfare ticketing scams

SmarterTravel

The airlines rig their fare systems against consumers, and consumers try to find ways around those systems. It’s a longstanding struggle—especially regarding a few popular ticketing tricks that airlines think are evil and consumers think are just fine. A reader recently asked about one of them this way:

“The current round-trip fare from Sacramento to Dallas-Ft Worth is around $250, but the round-trip fare from Sacramento to Oklahoma City— by way of Dallas— is about $200. What problems will I have if I book a Sacramento-to-Oklahoma City round-trip but get off the flight (or not make the connection) at Dallas?”

The short answer is two big problems: The airline would likely cancel your return flights and you couldn’t check any baggage just to Dallas.

Although low-fare airlines have obviated the need to use this sort of trick on lots of routes, they may still come in handy. Here’s a bit more on this so-called “hidden city” ploy, along with the companion “throw-away” and “back-to-back” ploys that also can work to cut costs. I call these tickets “tricky” because they violate airline rules.

Hidden city

Travelers sometimes use hidden city tickets when the fare to the place they really want to go is higher than the fare to a more distant city by way of the real destination. These situations arise most frequently when fares for trips from “spoke” cities to major lines’ hub cities are higher than fares from one spoke city to another, by way of the hub. The airlines can maintain high fares to/from their hubs because they operate monopolies or near-monopolies at these hubs, but competition keeps fares from spoke to spoke low.

When you try to use a hidden city ticket, you face two problems, as illustrated by the Sacramento-Dallas-Oklahoma City case:

  • Once you miss the connecting flight from Dallas to Oklahoma City (or get off a through flight when it stops at Dallas), the airline becomes immediately aware of the situation. In almost all such cases, the airline automatically cancels the remainder of your ticket—specifically including the return trip. To return, you’d have to buy a new, one-way ticket at a walk-up fare, probably costing far more than the hidden ticket would nominally “save.”
  • Obviously, if your ticket says your destination is Oklahoma City, any checked baggage must be tagged to Oklahoma City—you can’t check it just to Dallas.

Because of these problems, nobody I know ever recommends using hidden city tickets for round-trips. Over the years, the most frequent users have been business travelers who buy two one-way tickets rather than one round-trip and take only carry-on baggage. Unless you’re in that category, forget about hidden city.

Throw-away

Absent low-fare competition, legacy lines still often price one-way fares far higher than the lowest round-trip fares on the same route. On a recent check, for example, I found that a one-way ticket on Northwest from Spokane to Minneapolis was $645, but you could buy a round-trip on that same route for $468. Thus, you could knock almost $200 off the price of a one-way trip by buying a round-trip ticket and just throwing away the “return” coupon.

This ploy, of course, works only in the relatively infrequent cases when you actually need a one-way ticket. I suspect that isn’t very often.

Back to back

Before the advent of widespread low-fare competition, round-trip tickets without a Saturday-night stay cost more than twice the price of round-trips with the mandatory stay. The idea, of course, was to make those cheap tickets unattractive to business travelers, who typically want to get home on weekends.

In those times, you could cut costs of a midweek trip by buying two separate round-trip tickets: the first from your home to your destination, the second departing later the same week from your destination back home. You used the “going” portion of each round-trip ticket to complete one actual round-trip and toss the “return” portions. You could even ticket the “return” flights for a second round-trip within a 30-day period at no additional cost. To avoid detection, goes the standard advice, buy the two round-trips on two different airlines.

Although guidebooks and columns still may suggest this strategy, I couldn’t find any current examples of routes where the round-trip fare without the Saturday night stay was even close to double the cost of a round-trip with the stay. Although you might still encounter a few cases, my guess is that this particular ploy is becoming obsolete.

Enforcement

Hidden city, throw-away, and back-to-back tickets all violate airline policies. Whether you think those policies are “fair” or not is beside the point. The airlines establish the rules, and—supposedly—you accept them when you buy your tickets.

The more practical question is how the airlines might enforce their policies. As noted, they’re pretty well able to obstruct use of hidden city tickets, or at least limit use to a few cases of one-way trips.

Theoretically, airlines could also detect use of throw-away and back-to-back tickets by careful screening of ticket records. As far as I know, this doesn’t happen regularly. However, I’ve read of a few cases where an airline has targeted an individual believed to be a routine violator of policies, and the penalties can be draconian: loss of frequent flyer credit and even a lawsuit to force payment of what the traveler “should” have paid.

Any time you violate airline ticket policies you run some risk of detection and penalty. As far as I can tell, the risks for occasional use are small. But they’re still there; be advised.

On the way out?

By now, just about anyone knows that low-fare airlines have revolutionized the air travel marketplace. Oddly enough, however, the biggest impact hasn’t been on lowering the prices of the cheapest round-trips: Even before the low-fare lines, the legacy lines usually offered cheap round-trips, as long as you bought tickets two to three weeks in advance and stayed at your destination over a Saturday night.

The biggest changes have come with other tickets: round-trips that don’t require a minimum stay, and one-way tickets that are just half the round-trip rates. Several big low-fare lines sell all their tickets one-way.

Low-fare lines are also invading at least some of the legacy lines’ formerly “fortress” hubs. Atlanta has AirTran; Chicago, Oakland, and St Louis have Southwest. Delta, American, and United no longer control pricing at those important hubs. On the other hand, other hubs remain fortresses—at least for a while.

The net result of these changes is that the old tricky ticket ploys no longer offer the huge advantages they once offered. Still, they’re there when and if you need them.

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