It’s logical that travelers would be looking to shave a few dollars off their airfare. Consumers went into the summer facing high ticket prices and fewer deals than pre-pandemic days (that trend is finally subsiding). One way to save, a travel hack called skiplagging or hidden city ticketing, is gaining traction. But it’s also drawn the ire of airlines for decades.
How it works
Skiplagging is when travelers book an itinerary with the intent of using a layover city as their final destination. For example, a passenger wants to go from Boston to Paris, but booking a flight from Boston to Lisbon with a layover in Paris is less expensive. Our hypothetical traveler books the trip, gets off the plane in Paris, and ditches the final leg of the journey. Depending on the route, the airline, and the dates, hidden city ticketing can save hundreds of dollars.
“The simplest explanation for this phenomenon is that many airports operate on a hub-and-spoke model,” said Dan Gellert, COO of Skiplagged.com, a website that helps travelers find hidden city ticketing deals. “Whether it’s American Airlines in Charlotte or Dallas, or Delta in Atlanta, they control 80 to 90 percent of the flights leaving in and out of their hub airport. So, as a result, they largely can control what prices they charge for travelers going to and from that airport.”
Earlier this week, we searched Skiplagged.com for a flight from Boston to Los Angeles. It was $100 cheaper to book a flight from Boston to Portland, Ore., and get off at the layover in Los Angeles than to book nonstop from Boston to Los Angeles. This all depends on the airline, time of year, and time of day. Sometimes there’s no benefit to the trick, but there are instances when the technique offers significant savings. Gellert said on average, passengers can save around 50 percent when using hidden city ticketing from Boston to Atlanta or Boston to San Francisco.
Where it gets risky
Hidden city ticketing is not illegal, but it can get you in trouble with the airlines. Earlier this month, a teenager from North Carolina booked a flight from Gainesville, Fla., to New York City with a stopover in Charlotte, N.C., a hub for American Airlines. The teen had no intention of taking the second leg of his flight, instead making Charlotte his final destination. The flight to New York was less expensive than a direct flight to Charlotte.
The teen’s father, Hunter Parsons, told local media that gate agents became suspicious of his son after seeing his North Carolina license. Airline personnel then pulled the teen aside for questioning, his ticket was canceled, and the family had to purchase a new one. Perhaps more distressing for the family: The teen has been banned from flying American for three years.
American took the drastic step of banning the teen because skiplagging violates the airline’s contract of carriage; those are the rules you agree to when you buy a ticket. According to Katy Nastro, a spokesperson for the travel website Going, getting caught can also result in losing airline miles or status.
“I think for many regular travelers, the risks outweigh the benefits,” she said. “I’m not saying anyone should do this, but it’s probably better for someone who doesn’t travel often.”
Is the savings worth the inconvenience?
To ensure an airline doesn’t figure out that you’re skiplagging, there are conveniences you’ll need to forgo. You can’t make a reservation with your frequent flyer number. Therefore, you’ll miss out on miles. You also can’t bring checked luggage. The luggage will take the full route, even if you don’t. Skiplagging pros even recommend not bringing carry-on bags in case they are gate-checked. That leaves you with a backpack to store your clothes. They also recommend you try it with an airline you don’t usually use.
You also shouldn’t book a round-trip flight while skiplagging. There’s a chance the airline will cancel your flight home if you’re a no-show on the last leg of your outbound flight.
Why airlines don’t like it
“I think airlines are being extremely aggressive in combating skiplagging right now simply because demand is so high, capacity is still somewhat limited, and they don’t want a seat to go to waste,” said aviation expert Henry Harteveldt. “It’s definitely about the bottom line, but it’s also about trying to accommodate all the legitimate passengers who want to go from point A to point B. When you book a hidden city ticket, you are taking away a seat from someone who might legitimately want a seat on that flight.”
Airlines have gone after Skiplagged.com in court. United Airlines and Orbitz sued Skiplagged founder Aktarer Zaman in 2014. The judge threw out the case. In 2021, Southwest Airlines sued Skiplagged. The case was settled out of court.
“There’s absolutely nothing illegal about it,” Gellert said. “Our business was founded on a decades-old travel hack. We wanted everyday people to learn about skiplagging. The people who need it most. Every other travel site exists to help airlines sell tickets. We exist to help travelers save money.”
Should you do it?
This is not a hack for the faint-of-heart, anxious traveler, or risk-averse tourists. If you have status and miles built up with an airline, getting caught could mean losing all of it. Saving a few hundred dollars may not be worth the hassle. But if you’re an infrequent flier who is OK with the consequences and inconveniences, there are some great deals to be found.