United and Orbitz Sue Site Focusing on Hidden City Ticketing

Dec 30, 2014

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Making the news rounds today is a story about United Airlines and Orbitz suing a tech entrepreneur who started a site (Skiplagged.com) to help people save money on airfare by exploiting “hidden city ticketing”.  If you’re not familiar with that term, hidden city ticketing is when you book a flight with a connection, but never take the connecting flight. For example, NY to Atlanta is a very business heavy route, and flying one-way last-minute can cost a fortune. Consider Monday, January 5, when lots of business travelers are back on the road. JFK- ATL on the 6:05 am Delta flight is $540.

JFK-ATL on January 5

However, JFK to Atlanta to Orlando, taking that same 6:05 am flight to ATL and then connecting on an hour later to Orlando is only $399. You save $141 by adding another flight, but you could always land in Atlanta and then go on your merry way as long as you don’t have checked bags. This “trick” doesn’t work if you have checked bags, unless you’re connecting leg is the next day or from a different airport and you only check them to the transfer point.

JFK-ATL-MCO is less expensive.

I use Delta as an example because it shows that this is not simply a United or Delta issue- you can usually take advantage of hidden city ticketing with most carriers, especially legacy carriers with complicated fare rules.

My Take
I tried to test-drive Skiplagged today and it was extremely clunky. I tried to see if they could come up with a better hidden city ticketing for my example above and the site kept giving me errors. I felt like I was getting Jetlagged using Skiplagged, and never got any better results. I know this story has gone viral, so maybe it’s their systems being overloaded, but I hardly had a good experience using the site.

I got a bunch of errors trying to use the site so I can't speak from experience
I got a bunch of errors trying to use the site, so I can’t speak from experience.

In general, I think the more information consumers have about fare pricing, the better. I’d highly caution anyone making a habit of this that you may have your frequent flyer miles taken away and account shut down if you’re caught. You could even get blacklisted from an airline, which would be pretty embarrassing to explain to your boss.

While these are extreme examples and likely won’t happen if you do this a couple of times, I think this lawsuit clearly shows that the airlines are making a priority of squashing these grey area fare explorations, and I know they now have more technology and teams working to police this behavior. If you want to stay above-board and in the clear, I’d recommend educating yourself on how to search for the best flights using Google Flights or the ITA Matrix, and then maximizing how you purchase flights and accrue as many miles as possible through the best credit cards and frequent flyer programs.

In general, I don’t recommend hidden city ticketing, especially if you have elite status and a lot of miles. The money you save on airfare may pale in comparison to the value lost if your account gets shut down, though you have to decide for yourself whether that’s a risk worth taking.

See also: The 10 Best Sites for Saving on Airfare

So, whose side am I on?
I generally take a pro-consumer stance when it comes to stuff like this. I think that airlines who are making billions in profit should invest in systems to deter this type of behavior, and catch and punish people appropriately outside of the court room. I’m especially cynical toward United, which I believe has among the worst customer service in the airline industry. I still have never received any communication from my insane experience in 2012, when I was denied boarding from a United award flight on Swiss Airlines. I even brought the situation up with United senior management at an airline event, and followed up numerous times with their customer service and social teams to no avail. I eventually just wrote it off and promised to never give them business, and for the most part I’ve followed through.

So for me personally, I don’t feel bad for poor United getting “taken ” by savvy consumers. If there are flaws in their fare construction, maybe the company should pay people who run sites like Skiplagged to fix their broken system.

To learn more about “airline ploys” check out this Wikipedia post. The one that I’ve used in the past is throwaway ticketing, especially when booking one-way flights internationally. These tickets are almost always cheaper to book as a round-trip, so I book a return knowing I’ll probably never end up using it, and sometimes there are even schedule changes that allow me to recoup or change the flight to something I actually want! It’s definitely an ethical grey area, but usually not illegal (at least not in the US), and I doubt that United and Orbitz will actually succeed in shutting the site down on a legal basis. I think the plan is to bully Skiplagged to close down because lawsuits are expensive. The airlines have cash to burn—United posted a record Q3 profit of over a billion dollars—but Skiplagged doesn’t.

If you want to help support Skiplagged, you can donate to their legal fund. So far they’ve raised over $18,000 of their $20,000 goal (but my gut tells me those bills could increase dramatically if the case actually goes to court.

What is your experience with hidden city ticketing? Has anyone actually used Skiplagged to save money on a flight? Has anyone been busted for exploiting these “rules”?

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