Pay Less Money by Booking an Extra Flight You Don’t Need (AKA 'Hidden City Ticketing')
Airline ticket pricing can sometimes seem counterintuitive. An airline might charge more money for a flight to a city than they would for a longer trip that flies to that city and then continues on to some further destination. In other words, it is cheaper to fly from City A to City B and then to City C, than it is to fly just from City A to City B.
This happens most often when an airline is the only one that offers nonstop service to your desired destination. Since people prefer to fly nonstop, they can charge more for that trip.
At the same time, they need to offer lower prices to other destinations, especially if they need to compete with another airline that offers nonstop flights to that location. As a result, they charge less for a trip connecting through one of their hubs than for a trip that ends there.
You can often save remarkable amounts of money by booking a flight that makes a connection in the city that you really want to visit (rather than ends there). You then simply skip the final flight from the desired city to the ticketed destination.
This is called “hidden city” ticketing and is frowned upon by the airlines. But it can frequently save you a ton of money on your flights.
For example, rather than booking an expensive ticket from Cleveland to Washington D.C., you can book a cheap ticket from Cleveland to Tampa, which just happens to connect in Washington. When you finish the first flight, you just leave the airport in D.C. (skipping the final leg between Washington and Tampa). For this example, based on a post from Points with a Crew, the price of the one-way ticket dropped from $420 to $114.
For another example, one of us was looking for cheap tickets to Belize for spring break. Unfortunately, we weren’t having any luck. The return flight was particularly expensive—the most convenient routing through Dallas was priced at over $700:
We decided to check what just the ticket from Belize to Dallas would cost, figuring we might be able to combine that with a separate cheap flight back from Dallas. No such luck, the combined ticket would cost the same or even more money.
But there is another convenient route from Belize through Houston on United airlines. When we were checking for prices for that route, we found something interesting. Taking the same American airlines flight between Belize and Dallas that we were looking at above, and including an extra leg to Houston, dropped the fare from $543 to $190! We could pay only 1/3 as much, throw-away the Dallas-to-Houston ticket, and fly back to Seattle on a different plane from Dallas.
Tips for hidden city ticketing
There are some inconveniences and risks with taking advantage of hidden city ticketing. If you are only going to save a little bit of money, we would recommend booking your tickets the normal way. However, if you can save significant amounts of money, it can be worthwhile to deal with the potential problems.
- You’ll need to book one-way flights. As soon as you miss a flight, any additional part of your itinerary will be cancelled. Each flight you plan to travel must be booked separately.
- You’ll need to bring carry-on luggage, because checked bags will be checked all the way through to the official destination. The only exception occurs when you are required to go through customs at your desired destination (the connecting city). In that case, you’ll (usually) temporarily receive your bags to take them through customs and can leave the airport with them, instead of rechecking them.
- Unforeseen events can wreak havoc with this strategy. If there is no room on the airplane left for your carry-on bags, they will be checked through to the official destination, rather than to the connecting airport. You might persuade the gate agent to check them only part of the way.
- Doing this is against the rules of most airlines (but not Southwest) and they may take it out on your frequent flyer account. It is obviously easy for an airline to recognize that you didn’t board the connecting flight. If you often take advantage of this tactic, there is a slim chance that the airline might retaliate against your frequent flyer account. Thus, some online sources suggest that you should keep your frequent flyer account off the reservation or at least credit the flight to a partner airline.
- Don’t book through an online travel agent like Expedia. Otherwise, the airline may come after the travel site you used, charging them the higher price for just the leg you flew. The travel site will pay them and then come after you. You are better off dealing directly with the airline, rather than a third-party that has lost "real" money.
If the flight is cancelled or overbooked, you might get re-routed on flights which don’t connect in the original connecting city (the city you are really trying to get to). For example, if you were planning to get off in Chicago, you might find yourself re-routed through New York and then on a different flight to the official destination. If this happens, you can try to tell the gate agent that you need to meet someone at the connection city and can’t be re-ticketed on a different routing. But you never know how that will go.
Seeing whether you can save with a hidden-ticket trip: The easy way
It’s not that easy to find good opportunities to save money with hidden city ticketing. You'll need to check flights to many different destinations that might route through your desired city and narrow those down to the ones that actually connect where you want. But there are some shortcuts.
Skipplagged is a website which was specifically designed to uncover good hidden ticketing opportunities. You just enter your travel details, like you would for any other travel site and they will try to find hidden city routes that offer lower prices than the normal flights.
In this example, for flights between Seattle and Salt Lake City, they found a flight that continues on to San Jose for a total of $102, much better than the $148 it would cost to book the normal ticket to Salt Lake.
The more exhaustive way to search
Skiplagged doesn’t always uncover the lowest-cost hidden city options.
A better, but more complicated, approach is to search for flights yourself, using ITA Matrix.
The Dan’s Deals website helped us understand how to do this efficiently. The trick is to add as many different destination airport codes as you can into the “Destination” box, click on the “advanced routing codes” button, and enter the airport code for your desired destination into the “Outbound routing codes” box. To make this easier, Dan’s Deals has published sets of destination codes that you can copy and paste into ITA Matrix.
When you run this search, you’ll usually find many more alternatives than you will through Skiplagged, some of which may be better options for your trip.
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