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‘Hidden city’ ticketing could cost you more than you save

This booking practice might save you on air travel – but also get you kicked from frequent flyer programs or sued by airlines. Here's what you can do

Summary

If you’re considering using “hidden city” ticketing to save on airfare, think again. You could get kicked out of frequent flyer programs – or get sued by airlines. Here’s what to do instead.

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Hidden city bookings can help you save money on air travel but there can be unintended consequences if the airline takes issue with your frugal approach.

German airline Lufthansa recently sued a passenger who missed a flight, calling foul on the use of hidden city fares.

The case involves an unnamed passenger who booked a return flight from Oslo to Seattle aboard the airline, with a layover in Frankfurt. The passenger failed to catch the Frankfurt to Oslo return flight, choosing instead to take a different Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Berlin. The lawsuit was initially dismissed in December 2018 but the airline has since appealed.

If you’re considering a “hidden city” strategy for booking flights, here’s what you need to know first.

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How ‘hidden city’ ticketing works

“’Hidden city’ ticketing is when you book a flight with the intention of ending the trip at a layover city along the way, rather than the final ticketed destination,” says Scott Keyes, founder of air travel site Scott’s Cheap Flights.

Keyes gives an example of how it works.

“Say a traveler in Houston wants to fly to Chicago. Searching that route, she finds that flights cost $200 one-way,” he says. “When she searches for flights from Houston to Detroit that connect in Chicago, she finds flights for just $100 each way. To save money, she buys the latter flight and ends her journey in Chicago rather than taking the final flight on to Detroit.”

Jordan Bishop, CEO of concierge travel booking service Yore Oyster, says “hidden city” bookings “often happen because high-demand flight routes come at a premium, since they’re full of non-price-conscious business travelers and splurging vacationers.”

Bishop has used this tactic to save tens of thousands of dollars on air travel, and that’s a huge part of the appeal for flyers.

“Cheaper airfare is far and away the reason travelers buy ‘hidden city’ flights,” says Keyes.

What airlines think of ‘hidden city’ ticketing

“Hidden city” ticketing isn’t illegal, says Keyes. “No law is broken when a passenger decides not to take a flight he or she bought.”

But that doesn’t mean airlines are in love with the practice. “Hidden city” bookings undercut the bottom line for air carriers.

“Cost savings can be substantial and this is why airlines don’t like it,” says Sasha Ramani, frequent traveler and Corporate Strategy and Canada manager at student loan lender MPOWER Financing. “But the costs for customers are essentially negligible, as long as you’re not doing it too often.”

As the Lufthansa case shows, there’s no rule against airlines suing passengers for “hidden city” ticketing. The airline is seeking approximately $2,400 in damages to make up for the lost revenue associated with the passenger’s flight practices.

The difficulty for the airline lies in proving that a passenger missed a flight intentionally as part of a hidden city strategy.

“Airlines may try to go after passengers, but they’ve so far lost many fights here,” says Ramani. “It’s like fighting a customer for only eating half a bag of chips.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that booking “hidden city” tickets can’t come back to bite you.

“Airlines may try to go after passengers, but they’ve so far lost many fights here. It’s like fighting a customer for only eating half a bag of chips.”

Hidden consequences of ‘hidden city’ bookings

Your airline may not sue you for “hidden city” ticketing, but they may try to curb the practice in other ways.

“The most common action airlines take is wiping out your frequent flyer miles or status,” says Bishop. “This is generally only done if they notice you doing this multiple times, though.”

Losing your frequent flyer miles or elevated status in a frequent flyer program could be more painful than dealing with a lawsuit if you travel often and rely on miles to save money on fares.

Additionally, the airline could insist that you make up the difference in the fare between the itinerary you booked and the one you actually followed.

Short of a lawsuit, the airline could deliver a double whammy by requiring you to pay the difference and stripping you of your frequent flyer miles or elite status.

Bottom line, “’hidden city’ ticketing is not without risk,” says Keyes.

Do this, not that when booking ‘hidden city’ flights

If you’re comfortable taking a gamble with “hidden city” bookings, keep these tips in mind:

  • Don’t do it too often. If travelers get caught using this strategy, “it’s typically because they’re constantly buying ‘hidden city’ tickets, rather than once in a while,” says Keyes. There’s no set rule defining how often is too often; but be aware that airlines can and do monitor passenger flight habits to look for patterns that might suggest a “hidden city” ticketing strategy.
  • Watch out for travel interruptions. Having your flight rerouted unexpectedly could throw your travel plans – and your attempts to save money – off-course. “If there are any travel interruptions, then customers may find themselves rebooked onto an itinerary that doesn’t include their connection in stop B,” says Ramani.
  • Stick to carry-on luggage. “Your luggage will end up wherever your ticket is going,” says Bishop, which could be a problem if you’re skipping your itinerary’s final destination. “If you have too much luggage to carry on, verify with the gate agent that you can access it at City B.”

It’s also helpful to know where to look for “hidden city” flights. Keyes says Skiplagged is the industry standard for finding cheap flights, including “hidden city” fares.

Skiplagged, which was itself the target of an unsuccessful lawsuit over hidden city ticketing practices brought by United Airlines and Orbitz, uses a unique algorithm to pinpoint “hidden city” flights and the cheapest fares on regular air tickets. The site also helps travelers find rock-bottom fares on hotels.

“If you’ve picked out your destination, your dates and don’t have any flexibility, 90 percent of what you can do to bring down the cost of airfare is already out the window.”

Save on air travel: Alternatives to ‘hidden city’ ticketing

Use rewards points or miles

Be flexible

  • When it comes to booking air travel on the cheap, adaptability is your friend.
  • Whenever possible, be flexible with where and when you travel, suggests Keyes. “If you’ve picked out your destination, picked out your dates and don’t have any flexibility with either, 90 percent of what you can do to bring down the cost of airfare is already out the window.”
  • Keeping your vacation or leisure travel plans as open as possible and letting cheap flights be your guide in choosing a destination is a better approach, he says.

Plan ahead

  • Start looking for travel deals several months in advance. Don’t wait until right before you plan to travel to book. “Last minute flights are insanely expensive,” says Ramani.
  • Airlines may increase late fares to take advantage of last-minute planners who may not be very price-sensitive.
  • If you’re looking for a last-minute deal, consider using travel apps like Skyscanner, GoLastMinute or Hotwire.
  • And of course, remember to check your rewards card’s travel portal and the airline’s frequent flyer program portal for discounted fares on short-notice bookings.

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