Hidden City Ticketing: Explanation, examples, and strategies

Las Vegas Strip from aboveLast month the New York Times ran an interesting article that discussed the airfare strategy called Hidden City Ticketing. This little trick has been around for quite some time now, though I’ve never tried it. I wanted to look into it more fully and find out how common these airfare anomalies actually happened and if doing this is actually worth it.

Then I read a follow-up critique to that article, which seemingly pointed out several possible flaws in the Hidden City Ticketing strategy, though none of those are actually very convincing or problematic.

Since the entire focus of this website is the economics of travel I decided I’d spend most of a day researching this phenomenon to see to what degree it exists and how often it is actually a strategy worth considering. There were some surprises, as is usually the case, so check out the findings below.

What is Hidden City Ticketing?

First off, let’s explain what “Hidden City Ticketing” actually is. Those who research enough airfares will discover that it’s often easy to find cheap flights between two cities, with a connection at a major hub airport along the way, but the fare for the first flight in that journey alone is often much higher all by itself.

So the “Hidden City” part of this is where you might book a ticket from Albuquerque to New Orleans for $137, with a connection in Houston, instead of the nonstop from Albuquerque to Houston for $415. Then you get off the plane in Houston and throw away the rest of the ticket, having saved $278.

The airlines evidently don’t appreciate this sort of manipulation by travelers, and of course you won’t be able to check any bags for the flight, or perhaps even receive any frequent flier miles.

The prices mentioned in the above example are real, just researched today, and for the exact same flights. So yes, a seat on one half of a two-part journey could potentially cost you FAR more than booking and using a seat on both portions. But still, how often is this your best option?

Where and why Hidden City Ticketing comes up

This strange situation is far from random. It pretty much always comes up when you are flying between two “secondary” cities and connecting through a hub that is dominated by only one of the major carriers. For the full journey the airline must compete with several other airlines connecting through several other hubs, but when you are flying into one of these dominated hubs you’ll have few or no other choices.

The “pro-consumer” explanation: When airlines have even the slightest opportunity to, they’ll gouge consumers to the greatest degree possible. When fliers have no other choices, they’ll have to pay the outrageous fares.

The economists’ explanation: Airfare pricing is extremely complicated and often an airline has the choice of running certain segments at a loss by discounting seats, or a bigger loss by flying mostly empty with higher fares. They need to get their planes back into the more profitable positions on their route map, so they discount heavily only when they have to, and they’ll balance that with profits on routes that other airlines aren’t bothering with at all.

Dominated hub cities in the United States

Most hub cities actually have two or more major carriers using them, or a wide variety of smaller airlines competing, so this Hidden City thing never comes up. But below are the major hubs where one airline usually has at least 50% of all traffic, and sometimes closer to 80%. If your final destination is one of these cities you might look into the Hidden City Ticket strategy.

The examples listed below the hub cities are for seats on the EXACT SAME FLIGHTS for the first leg, so you can see why this feels like a rip-off.

American Airlines

  • Dallas/Ft. Worth
  • Miami

Example:

  • Albuquerque to New Orleans via Dallas: $139
  • Albuquerque to Dallas: $175

Continental Airlines

  • Cleveland
  • Houston

Example:

  • Albuquerque to New Orleans via Houston: $137
  • Albuquerque to Houston: $415

Delta Airlines

  • Atlanta
  • Cincinatti
  • Minneapolis
  • Salt Lake City

Example:

  • San Francisco to Milwaukee via Minneapolis: US$120
  • San Francisco to Minneapolis: $521

United Airlines

  • Chicago
  • Washington-Dulles

Example:

  • Boise to Newark via Chicago: $235
  • Boise to Chicago: $676

US Airways

  • Charlotte
  • Philadelphia

Example:

  • Nashville to Boston via Charlotte: $172
  • Nashville to Charlotte: $503

So is Hidden City Ticketing worth a try?

Having spent many hours researching fares for all of these routes plus many, many more, I can pretty safely say that Hidden City Ticketing is only sometimes your best strategy. In most cases you can get a similar fare, or sometimes lower, by stopping off at another city along the way on another airline. Nonstop flights are obviously preferable, but usually the only savings are a couple of hours rather than the hundreds of dollars that these examples might otherwise indicate.

It’s also worth pointing out that this Hidden City Ticketing option only really seems plausible for one-way flights. When I tried these same city pairs for round-trip flights the fares were all very normal looking. I’d guess that when you buy round-trips you balance their load out to where they are better off giving you a good deal for the whole thing.

The other thing about round-trip flights is that if you don’t use the second segment of your outbound journey then the entire inbound part becomes void as well, at least until you contact the airline with some explanation. So if you are indeed going round-trip you’ll usually get a better deal all at once rather than trying the Hidden City thing in both directions.

Let’s go back and look at each case

  • Albuquerque to New Orleans via Dallas: $139
  • Albuquerque to Dallas: $175

In this case the $175 is actually the cheapest fare from Albuquerque to Dallas, so if you don’t have any luggage to check and you are a bit of a risk-taker then you could actually save $36 by doing it. But honestly, that’s not much of a saving in the overall scheme of things.

Verdict: Worth it only for only some people

  • Albuquerque to New Orleans via Houston: $137
  • Albuquerque to Houston: $415

The savings on this Continental flight do look substantial, but I found that you can fly for $138, changing planes in Denver. It does add about 2.5 hours to the journey, but it only adds one dollar to the price.

Verdict: Worth it only for those in a big hurry

  • San Francisco to Milwaukee via Minneapolis: US$120
  • San Francisco to Minneapolis: $521

On this Delta route you could instead fly US Air for $198 with a short stop in Phoenix along the way. Since the only other nonstop available for this route is $258 on Sun Country Air, it’s definitely worth considering for the $78 savings and the nonstop flight.

Verdict: Probably worth a try

  • Boise to Newark via Chicago: $235
  • Boise to Chicago: $676

The lowest fare from Boise to Chicago on our test day is actually $209 on Delta with a long layover in Salt Lake City, but for $221 you could do a short stop in Phoenix on US Air. So as dramatic as the Hidden City difference is, other fares are actually lower anyway.

Verdict: Only worth it for those in a big hurry

  • Nashville to Boston via Charlotte: $172
  • Nashville to Charlotte: $503

The US Air Hidden City option is bizarre because this is only a 75-minute flight, but fortunately Delta has flights with a short stop in Memphis for only $178, adding only two hours to the journey.

Verdict: Probably only worth it for those who hate the Memphis airport.

Is Hidden City Ticketing a risk?

I believe the risk is very slight for actually throwing away the second part of a ticket as long as you are fine with carry-on luggage only. The chances of being noticed and somehow reprimanded for doing this are very low, mostly because there’s little for them to gain by spending time on this problem, unless someone did it chronically.

Those who are carrying their luggage on anyway could do nicely with this strategy, as long as they don’t try it many times per year on the same airline. It’s probably a bit riskier in areas where weather may be a problem at the hub city, as things can get unpredictable when flights are being canceled all over the place.

Looking for the cheapest fares?

By now everyone knows that you need to check at least 2 or 3 airfare sites in order to feel confident that you are getting the best deal. You can do that with the fewest number of clicks on our cheap flights tool, so give it a try.



One Response to “Hidden City Ticketing: Explanation, examples, and strategies”

Deb Stillwagner says:

U.S. Airways WILL cancel the remainder of your itinerary, and will not allow you to reinstate. This just happened to my parents, although they had no plans on skipping out of the final leg of the first half of their round trip. There was an unexpected death in the family, so they purchased tickets from Orlanda FL to Allentown PA by way of Philadelphia PA. When they arrived in Philadelphia, they received a phone call from my dad’s brother. He stated that since their layover was 3 hours, and he was just an hour from the Philadelphia airport, he would be happy to pick them up in order for them to be able to reach the family quicker. They agreed, thinking nothing of it. A few days later, when my mom went online to check in and print their boarding passes for the return flight, she was unable to do so. She called U.S. Airways, and after 3 hours on the phone was informed that the remainder of their itinerary had been cancelled. She was offered no explanation, and was told that the only way to get a return flight would be to purchase a new set of tickets and take it up with the insurance company after the fact for reimbursement. As it turns out, all U.S. based airlines’ policy allows them to do just that…cancel the remainder of your itinerary if you fail to use any part. The ticket insurance has nothing to do with it. And U.S. Airways, thus far, is refusing to take into consideration my parents’ situation and reimburse them for the second set of tickets. If other airlines are following suit, I do not recommend attempting to pay less. You may end up paying double.

 

Leave a Comment

    Name (required)
    Mail (will not be published) (required)
    Website