Hidden city ticketing is an excellent way to save money on personal travel airfare. In a nutshell, you book two one way tickets for your travel instead of a round-trip. On one or both of the one way tickets, you book a connection to the city you actually want to deplane at, and don’t get on the connecting flight. This can sometimes save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a flight. Here is a quick example. Instead of flying Charlotte – Denver – Charlotte; fly Charlotte – Denver – Charlotte – Cleveland, but don’t take the Charlotte – Cleveland flight:
I use http://matrix.itasoftware.com to search for all my personal and business flights because it offers the best views of the results and also lets you use advanced routing codes which are value for this exercise.
- You want to fly from Charlotte to Denver for a random week next month. You search round-trip Charlotte to Denver. The cheapest non-stop flights are $461.
- Using matrix.itasoftware.com, you now search multi-city. On the outbound, you put in Charlotte to Denver. On the return, you put Denver to any airport within 2000 miles of Lexington Kentucky, and force it to show results that connect in Charlotte. Presumably when you arrive in Charlotte, you get off the plane and don’t take that connecting flight.
- And voila, you have the same exact flights as above, plus the addition of Charlotte to Cleveland. Having this itinerary drops the price to $361. You just saved $100 just for adding a Charlotte to Cleveland flight
- If booked as a separate one-way, you could also do this on the Charlotte – Denver outbound flight to get the price even more. See how much Charlotte – Denver – Boise or other cities out west price out using matrix.itasoftware.com
NOTE: matrix.itasoftware.com only lets you search for the airfare. To book it, you have to use an actual on-line travel agent. One of the ones I use most frequently due to the flexibility of their multi-city search is Orbitz.
Gary at View from the Wing does a great deeper analysis on this practice and the risks. Ben from One Mile at a Time even talked about it on the radio back in 2011. The airlines don’t like this practice, and it is against their contract of carriage. However, it is not illegal. This begs the question, what are the risks of this practice if you get caught? The conventional wisdom that if you do this too often, the airlines will take all your miles and lock out your account. More specifically, Gary notes:
The most that can happen to a passenger is likely that they could theoretically be banned from an airline. Most people don’t care because they aren’t loyal to an airline to begin with. The customer more likely could see consequences to their mileage account. This is something that could happen through repeated and frequent use of the technique, including your mileage number in the reservation. If you consistently buy one-way tickets through Chicago to Milwaukee and get off in Chicago (Milwaukee is often a much cheaper market), and give your United Mileage Plus number each time you do it, United might have a problem with you. United might send you a warning letter. They might threaten your miles. They could even close your account.
It is also worth pointing out that the airlines do have one other path of recourse. In addition to banning you from flying with them, they can also close your frequent flyer account and take away all your points. Depending on how many you have banked that could be pretty painful.
A New, Insightful Data Point on Hidden City Ticketing:
I have just learned an interesting data point about hidden city ticketing from a guy I play basketball with. He works for a large Software firm and is a Chairman with US Airways, US Airways top status. He says that US Airways just did an audit of his account, and removed 30,000 miles from his account. You see, he did hidden city ticketing every week on work tickets! His travel agent would help him book these. He was doing it too often and it caught the attention of US Airways Internal Audit department.
The bad news is he is out 30,000 miles, which US Airways says were the number of miles credited to him during his “hidden city” tickets. I was thinking that with higher status customers they would be reluctant to potentially lose their business by punishing them for this practice. But they punished him.
The good news? The punishment was light. They didn’t freeze his account. They didn’t remove all his miles. He still has hundreds of thousands of US Air miles from other flights with them, which they did not touch.
The overall message: Don’t do this too often, but if you do, here is one data point that suggests the consequences of getting caught by the airline aren’t as dire as conventional wisdom suggests.
Just for kicks, here is my all-time best “hidden city ticket” experience, which happened in 2003. I wanted to go from Atlanta to Chicago for the weekend to meet with friends. The cheapest flights were $300, and I was a college student with limited disposable income. Here is what I did:
- Atlanta to Chicago: There was currently a fare ware for Kalamazoo, Michigan. I booked Atlanta – Chicago – Kalamazoo one-way on United airlines for only $59. I had a United one-way upgrade voucher, which I applied to this flight making it first class. And being 21 I took full advantage of the free screwdrivers on my first time ever in first class. When I got to Chicago, I got off the plane in my inebriated state.
- Chicago to Atlanta: There was also a sale to Ft. Lauderdale. On Air-Tran I booked Chicago – Atlanta – Ft. Lauderdale for $65. When I got to Atlanta I got off the plane and drove home.
But it gets better!
- The Airtran Atlanta – Ft. Lauderdale gate was right next to the gate I arrived at from Chicago. I saw that it was a total zoo at the gate, with people crammed everywhere. I realized that the flight might be oversold, and I should ask if they were looking for volunteers to be bumped from the flight for compensation. The gate said that they were oversold, but as of now not yet looking for volunteers. I then headed out of the Atlanta airport. When I got to the terminal, I decided to check one more time with the check-in folks at AirTran. Sure enough, by the time I made it there, Airtran decided to bump a few passengers from the flight. I volunteered, and was given a free round-trip certificate anywhere Airtran flies, and was rebooked on a flight the next day which I was not intending to take! Wow! Consequently, for $124 I got to fly round-trip from Atlanta to Chicago, with one of the directions in first class. And I got a free voucher for a round-trip ticket on Airtran, which I used to fly out my girlfriend from Atlanta to San Francisco later that year. When you can combine hidden city ticketing, and can even get a bump on the throw-away segment, you are really doing it right.