For years now, a rather industrious strain of traveler has been gaming the airfare biz and circumventing higher fares online in a particular way. Need to purchase a ticket to San Francisco, but the fare to Seattle with a connection though SF gets you a better deal? Just hop off the plane in San Fran and be on your merry way. This is a ‘hidden city airfare’.
Last week, the internet blew up with reports of United and Orbitz suing a young start-up genius, the 22-year-old Aktarer Zaman, who takes the hidden city hack and brings it to the masses with his website skiplagged. In their complaint, United and Orbitz define hidden city ticketing in this way: “a passenger purchases a ticket from city A to city B to city C but does not travel beyond city B.” The crafty entrepreneur has vowed to fight the good fight, but the Goliath-sized challenge he’s up against should not be underestimated. And while the monetary savings can make hidden tickets seem a fantastic deal, the risks should not be glossed over. We love a steal, but this practice is rife with problems for consumers. The short list of problems:
1. One-way is the only way
You can’t utilize hidden city fares on round-trip tickets. Airlines have long been hip to the practice and you tacitly agree to their rules in the contract of carriage (the fine print on every ticket they sell you). So don’t even think about trying it when you’re flying round-trip. The airline will cancel your unused ticket portion once they see you have not continued on to your final destination and they are notoriously difficult at making exceptions to that rule. Creating family emergencies on–the-fly or trying to escalate a complaint up the chain of command should not be relied upon. Like we said – the airlines know what you’re up to and they are not happy about it.
2. Checking a bag? Check your head
Obviously, you can’t check a bag if you’re planning to deplane before you get to the flight’s final destination. Old hands at the hidden city fare game are usually skilled at flying carry-on only. But before you get too comfortable, think about this: How many times have you planned to fly sans checked bags only to have a full flight derail that option? And the flight crew can always demand you check your bag at the gate. Yup. It’s at their discretion. Your bag is going to get checked straight through and you’re going to wind up without your stuff. And you can bet that the airlines will take their sweet time getting them to you when they know they’ve been played. Not fun.
3. Scheduling and re-routing are not your friends
Airline flight schedules are a highly choreographed, complicated and (most alarmingly for hidden city ticket aficionados) changeable animal these days. This complex system is one of the reasons the airlines despise the hidden airfare brigade. It monkeys with their logistics. But back to why changeable is a problem. What does this mean to you? In the abstract, probably not that much. But ponder this scenario. Say you and your significant other plan a vacation to Portland to meet some friends a few months in advance. You find that by purchasing two hidden tickets to Anchorage (whereby you deplane in Portland) you can save $300 a ticket. You feel ecstatic with your ingenuity chops. Then, on your travel day, you arrive at the airport to find that there has been a re-routing of the flight and you are now no longer connecting in Portland, but instead Colorado Springs! You’re in the position of either abandoning your plans altogether or changing two tickets on the day of travel. Option two will set you back more than $600 a ticket. Ouch!
4. Frequent-flyers get slapped
Maybe you’re a frequent-flyer. If you are and you love your perks, you probably want to hang onto them, right? Airlines routinely suspend and sometimes even cancel frequent flyer privileges for hidden fare fans. Again, this is simply an airline’s prerogative. Your ‘contract of carriage’ with the airlines explicitly forbids the procurement and usage of hidden fares. Don’t risk damaging your relationship with an airline. It’s just not worth it.
It will be a bummer for you and other travelers long-term
They say there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Perhaps there should be a third – that airlines will always make a profit. So, yes, there’s a lot of truth to the idea that airlines do not have your best interests at heart. They primarily need this pricing infrastructure in place so they can continue to make noteworthy profits. But there are other reasons as well. If a statistically significant portion of regular travelers started taking advantage of hidden city airfares, it would monkey with day-to-day operations in a way that will delay flights, falsely inflate pricing for certain markets, and ultimately cause the airlines to pass their headaches on to you and I in the form of even higher fares. In the long run, it’s going to be tantamount to the traveling public shooting itself in the collective foot.
So while we love a great deal here at CheapAir, we like to keep the overall value of any ticket in mind. It is not always the lowest priced ticket that provides the best value. In the case of hidden airfares, we just don’t see how the benefit outweighs the risk and therefore we can’t recommend purchasing them. Just say no. You’ll be thanking us in the long run.
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