Updated: 2019-02-12.

All around the world, the economy is foremost on almost everyone’s minds. An unfortunate yet understandable cost-reducing measure to make up for smaller operating budgets and a dwindling population of travelers has been for airlines to raise costs. From increased fees on services such as checked baggage to raising the threshold for award travel redemption, these costly new expenses for us travelers have been touted as necessary by the airline industry to stay in business.

But savvy fliers have been fighting these costs for some time using what’s called travel hacking or fare hacking. So, now let me introduce you to a tried and true method of hacking airline ticket costs. It’s called:

Hidden City Ticketing

You don’t have to be an expert to understand this, since hidden city ticketing is a relatively simple tactic to grasp. It works best for last-minute travelers who are interested primarily in getting from one place to another, without so much worry on the return trip. Basically, it goes like this: To travel from Point A to Point B, it may be cheaper booking a ticket from Point A to Point C, with Point B as the layover city. Then, the remaining ticket(s) (from Point B to Point C) is/are discarded, as Point B was the traveler’s original intended destination.

(*Please note, I am writing this on May 1, 2013, though it will be posted later.)

For example, let’s say that we need a flight from New York City to San Francisco, to make an emergency appearance; remember, this fare hacking tactic works best for last-minute, one-way fares. So, I looked up flights leaving on May 2. If I look up one way flights from the Big Apple to San Francisco, here are my cheapest options:

Hidden City Ticketing Example

As you can see, the cheapest options are with Sun Country Airlines, though not so feasible, as they each have a 27- and 17-hour layover in MSP, respectively. The $314 option with US Airways is decent, but still with a 4-hour layover. If we wanted a nonstop flight from NYC to San Fran, here is the cheapest:

Hidden City Ticketing Example 2

Nonstop, so much better on time, but look at that price! A small fortune, I’m sure you’d agree. Now, keeping these fares in mind, let’s see what we can come up with using the hidden city tactic. Point A is New York, Point B is San Francisco, but let’s book a ticket from New York to a Point C, with a layover in San Francisco. I found that many flights booked from NYC to Burbank, California (BUR/Bob Hope Airport, our “Point C”) have a layover in our intended Point B, San Francisco. So, here’s what I found:

Hidden City flights

$221 for a flight from NYC to Burbank, with a layover in SFO. Essentially, this is $221 for a nonstop flight from New York to San Francisco, since you will discard of the second portion of the ticket that continues on from SFO to BUR. Not only is this “nonstop” cheaper than a regular nonstop without the hidden city ticketing tactic (which was $505), it is even significantly cheaper than a one way ticket to SFO with a layover (which was $292).

Is this legal?

The short answer is yes. However, most airlines prohibit this practice and similar ones in their “Conditions of Carriage.” For example, here are American Airlines’ C of C:

Where a ticket is invalidated as the result of the passenger’s non-compliance with any term or condition of sale, American has the right in its sole discretion to:

  1. Cancel any remaining portion of the passenger’s itinerary,
  2. Confiscate unused flight coupons,
  3. Refuse to board the passenger or check the passenger’s luggage,
  4. Refuse to refund an otherwise refundable ticket, or
  5. Assess the passenger for the reasonable remaining value of the ticket, which shall be no less than the difference between the fare actually paid and the lowest fare applicable to the passenger’s actual itinerary

So, you see, you can face some retaliatory action if you try this, though #5, charging you extra, would almost never hold up in any court. In addition to these actions, airlines may cancel membership in the flier’s frequent flier program, if one is associated, so if you try this more than once with the same airline, DO NOT associate the flight with a frequent flier program.

Why are fares set up like this?

It seems counterintuitive that a fare from Point A to Point C via Point B could possibly be cheaper than a simple fare from Point A to Point B; the trip stands to be significantly shorter. While this is true, fares are set by airlines due to a variety of ever-changing formulas.

In my last example, since New York to San Francisco is a route that never eases on the amount of demand, due to business travelers and such, it might be marketed as higher than a NYC to Burbank trip, which probably doesn’t see as much business traffic on that route. The primary factor is competition/monopolies on routes.

Why can’t I use this on a round trip ticket?

The reason that this hidden city ticketing method of airfare hacking cannot be used on a round trip booking is that almost all airlines will void any subsequent tickets if segment is missed. In our example above, if we were to book New York to Burbank as a round trip ticket, with San Fran as the layover, and not use the San Fran to Burbank portion of the first half (Point B to Point C), the airline would void every one after that, leaving you stranded on the return, or having to pay a fee.

And why not on an advance purchase fare?

Well, this is not a hard and fast rule; by all means, check it out. Hidden City ticketing may work on tickets booked months in advance. However, it just always seems to come up with the starkest differences in fares days before the intended departure date, making it a good option for emergency one way travel.

Things to Consider

1. The most important thing to do is to avoid associating a frequent flier account with hidden city ticketing. Perhaps if you use this tactic once, you could get away with it with plausible deniability, but better safe than sorry; you’re already saving money, don’t get greedy.

And, like I mentioned earlier, if you try this more than once with the same airline, DO NOT associate the flight with a frequent flier program. If an airline assumes you are using the Hidden City Ticketing method, they may cancel your membership in their frequent flier program, and you will forfeit any accumulated points with them. Don’t even give them a frequent flier number.

2. Another rule to remember, just as important as the first, is to never check baggage! Most likely, your luggage will continue on to Point C, and you will get off at Point B. A potential nightmare. Make sure all your items will fit into an overhead compartment.

And an International Hidden City Ticketing Example

I’ll leave you with another example scenario, this time in an international setting. Using the same dates as before, let’s go from London to Bahrain, in the Middle East. The basic Point A to Point B search turns up these results:

Hidden City Ticketing Search

As you can see, a ticket from London Heathrow nonstop to Bahrain is £428, and that happens to be the cheapest fare anyway. Now let’s try going from London to another city with a flight that uses Bahrain as a layover. It took some time to find it, but here it is:

Hidden City International Ticketing

I looked for a flight from London to Cairo instead. The cheapest result is irrelevant to us, since it is not going through Bahrain, but the one immediately after stops in Bahrain, and for only £400. That’s £28 less, and it just so happens that it is the exact same flight anyway, leaving London at 10:05 pm. So there you have it!

For more information, David Mack has set up a website that explains further about Hidden City Ticketing and also includes a tool that easily finds the Point C for your hidden city ticket. However, currently this is a domestic U.S. tool, so it won’t help in finding flights outside of the U.S. Check out his website, AirfareIQ.com. Also, be sure to check out Skiplagged.

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