Hidden City Ticketing – Actual Consequences of Getting Caught vs. the Conventional Wisdom

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.

 hid1

  • 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.

hid2

  • 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

hid3

  • 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.

The Wandering Aramean travel blog (an excellent blog I might add), goes further to note the risks, which include:

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.

14 thoughts on “Hidden City Ticketing – Actual Consequences of Getting Caught vs. the Conventional Wisdom

  1. US Airways doesnt care about punishing your friend regardless of his status. They own 90% of the gates in Charlotte, so they know that his alternatives for business air travel are limited.

  2. @JR – Thanks for your response. Yes, US Airways has a monopoly on Charlotte. To me, this says they should have no qualms about removing ALL of his miles as punishment since he will have to fly with them anyhow. What surprised me was that they only took away the ones he earned with hidden city tickets, which was only a small portion of his balance.

  3. Pingback: What happens if you get caught booking hidden city? - Page 6 - FlyerTalk Forums

  4. If I book a flight from Charlotte to Austin, TX with a stop in Atlanta (where I live), it’s a lot cheaper than flying right from Atlanta.

    Is there an issue with me doing this, but simply getting on in Atlanta instead of Charlotte, and then getting off in Atlanta on the way back instead of flying the remaining leg to Charlotte?

    • @John – sadly when you don’t get on the plane on the Charlotte – Atlanta leg the airline will automatically cancel your ticket so you will lose your seat and your boarding pass will be no good for Atlanta – Austin,TX. So this only works in the “reverse”.

  5. Pingback: Request to collect luggage at European point of entry - FlyerTalk Forums

  6. What about not wanting to use the last leg of a multi-city and booking a separate one way reservation to your desired destination — will the multi-city airline know and cancel either of the reservations. I’m flying out of CLT to DUB via JFK and would prefer to fly JFK to PBI and bypass CLT on the return altogether

  7. I plan to fly one-way to San Antonio from Milwaukee, but catch my ride at my layover in Houston. my next flight will be out of Portland,OR after a huge roadtrip. I won’t even be flying the same airline back to Milwaukee. I have been looking online to see if this is illegal. I don’t care about miles, I’m flying United and am hoping they don’t do monetary penalties mostly…they have my credit card number, after all (and that’s pretty much it, I plan to have one small carry-on). Are you SURE this isn’t illegal? Are you SURE I won’t be charged some ‘fine’ from the airline?

    • Also, do I need to cancel anything or tell anyone I’m leaving? Hate to delay another flight. I did see that my connecting flight from Houston San Antonio is full…hoping to get bumped anyway…what happens if I get bumped? Does that mean they say “here’s some vouchers, you’re on your own!”?

    • @Karrie – I nor anyone else can assure you full safety in any situation. However, given my and others experience with hidden city ticketing, it is exceptionally unlikely to have a financial penalty for doing so. Especially if you are feeling sick or choose to get on that 2nd flight for any reason. If you get bumped you may get some vouchers for future use. Your mileage may very, but do some more searching on the subject to get yourself comfortable with the right course of action.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’ve gotten over my hesitations. There’s no reason why I can’t just leave, it probably happens all the time there. I WILL see if I can volunteer to get bumped for freebies and so I feel less naughty about it. I’m not an experienced flyer, so I always feel at the mercy of the airlines/airport and their rules, HAHA!

  8. The only other caveats I would add to this article, which may be common sense, but thought I would point them out are as follows:
    * make absolutely sure you won’t have to check a bag (due to size or because plane is full)! If your bag gets checked (even at the gate) it will go on to the final destination not the one you plan to get off at.
    * check to see if the airline has non-stops to your “fake” destination close in time to yours. If something happens and your flight is cancelled or delayed to the point you’ll miss your connection they may put you on that non-stop flight to “kalamazoo” At that point you won’t be able to get to your real destination without tipping your hand to the gate agent or paying a lot more to re-buy another ticket to your real destination

Leave a Comment