What’s the one thing that everyone hates about travel? The fact that you often have to part ways with significant amounts of money in order to do it, of course. Here on Prince of Travel, we’re typically focused on redeeming Miles & Points for heavily discounted travel, but there’s a world of tips and tricks out there relating to booking tickets the “normal” way (i.e., paying with cash) that I haven’t given much attention to.
In this mini-series I’ll be going over a few ploys and strategies that may lead to significant savings when buying flights. In addition to saving you money, learning how these strategies work helps you develop a stronger understanding of airline ticketing systems, fare rules, and the commercial aviation industry in general, which can help you apply much better judgment when booking travel in the future and therefore should be essential knowledge for anyone who’s serious about travelling the world in the long run.
Even if you primarily travel on award tickets, there often comes a time when it might make more sense to pay cash for a trip and save your points balances for a more valuable use (such as my recent trip to Portland, for example). And as you’ll see, these tricks may have their origins in paying cash for flights, but there are plenty of occasions when they can be applied when redeeming miles as well.
The “secrets” we’ll cover will range from the easily applicable to the hopelessly byzantine, but all are pretty interesting to think about. We’ll begin with one that many people might be familiar with, or at least have heard of: Hidden City Ticketing.
How Does It Work?
The way that airlines set prices for flights can be quite unintuitive. How many times have you heard someone complain that “it was $600 to fly direct to San Francisco, but it was only $450 to carry on to Los Angeles even though I’d be flying on the same plane and then some more!”
To understand why that can happen, you have to think about the airline’s product in the market not as an individual flight itself, but rather an overall ticket from Point A to, say, Point C. That ticket might be a direct flight between A and C, or it may involve one or more connections – say, A to B to C.
Now here’s the important part. Imagine that Point B is one of the airline’s main hubs, from which they operate most of their flights to secondary cities that they serve. Imagine that A and C are examples of said secondary cities. Since B is the airline’s hub, it dominates most markets out of B, meaning that it faces relatively little competition on selling tickets between A and B only, and can charge a relatively high price on this particular product.
Conversely, when selling tickets between A and C, the airline might face significant competition from other airlines, in which case it’d be pressured to charge a relatively lower price for travel between the two cities. This would be particularly true if our airline only offers connecting flights between A and C while other airlines offer non-stops, because only lower prices can incentivize customers to take the connection when there’s a direct flight available.
And since B is our airline’s hub, the ticket from A to C would likely route via B, thus fully replicating the more expensive product of A to B described above.
This is where savvy travellers can get a discount on their A–B ticket by booking the ticket that goes A–B–C, getting off the plane at B, and skipping the last flight. C is the “hidden city” on this ticket.
There are many more examples of ways in which hidden city ticketing might occur, but that’s the basic gist of it. While it may seem that an airline’s product is the flights that it operates, that’s not actually the case. Instead, the ticket – an agreement to exchange cash for travel – is the product, with the individual flights themselves merely being the channels through which the product is fulfilled, thus opening the door to savvy travellers to take advantage.
(The above is true for large airlines with the traditional hub-and-spoke model; budget carriers like Southwest in the US or Ryanair in Europe wouldn’t have such weaknesses to exploit.)
Now there are plenty of precautions you should take when booking a hidden city ticket, which I’ll go over later. For now, the most important ones are:
One-way bookings only. In general, hidden city ticketing only works on one-way bookings, because most airlines will cancel the rest of your itinerary if you fail to show up for a flight. So if you booked A–B–C from our example as a roundtrip and skipped the B–C segment, then your return flights would be voided and you wouldn’t have a flight home.
Checked bags. Don’t check any bags on hidden city tickets, since they are typically checked all the way through to your final destination, and “short-checking” them to the layover city is not always possible. Carry-on works fine, since you can bring it with you when you get off the plane at the intermediate point.
IRROPS, aka flight delays and cancellations. If you book A–B–C with the intention of getting off at B, the airline is only obligated to get you from A to C. It doesn’t have to take you via B; if, for example, the A–B flight gets cancelled for whatever reason, it might rebook you on an alternative routing or even a partner airline’s direct flight to C, in which case your plans would be in tatters. You might be able to convince the ticketing agent that the middle stop in B is somehow important to you (say, you need to meet a contact for a quick delivery), but there’s no guarantee. This is a risk you take in exchange for the cheaper pricing you get by engaging in hidden city ticketing.
Visa requirements. If you’re doing hidden city ticketing internationally, make sure you have the documents necessary to enter the country in which C is located. Otherwise, you won’t even be allowed to board the initial A–B flight, since the airline thinks you’re continuing onto C.
An Illustrated Example
Let’s look at a simple real-life example that Canadian travellers might be able to employ – roundtrips between the East and West. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if a good chunk of you were already doing this!
A roundtrip from Vancouver to Toronto on an arbitrary date in the next few weeks comes up with $751 as the lowest for direct flights in both directions.
Now we’re going to use hidden city ticketing to get ourselves between Vancouver and Toronto for significantly less. To do that, we need to book two one-way trips instead of a roundtrip, and leverage the principles of hidden city ticketing for both one-ways.
For the outbound, we’ll fly Vancouver to Toronto on WestJet, but then book an onward connection to Los Angeles which we don’t intend to take. This one-way costs $172 (yep, this is a weird one, since you’re routing between two West Coast cities via Toronto):
For the return, we’ll fly Toronto to Vancouver as desired, but then book an onward connection to Las Vegas which we’ll treat as a throwaway. This one-way costs $221:
In total, we’ll have paid $393 for the two hidden city bookings, instead of $751 for booking the roundtrip the normal way, which represents a staggering savings of $358, or about 50%!
That’s just one example – there will often be times when you can strike even higher savings, just as there will be times when the regular direct airfare is relatively cheap and hidden city ticketing won’t beget any savings at all.
A good way to find potential options for hidden city ticketing is by leveraging the Multi-City Search on your flight search engine of choice, since not all possible connections will show up if you only use One-Way Search.
For example, WestJet loyalists will take note of the many hidden city ticketing options through the airline’s hub city of Calgary. Compare this one-way journey from Toronto to Calgary…
…with this itinerary that has an extraneous segment tacked on at the end:
Another easy way to search for potential hidden city solutions is by using Skiplagged, a flight search service that’s specifically designed to hunt down the cheapest fares using hidden city ticketing. It’s extremely easy to use and very powerful as well, so it’s a great idea to jump onto Skiplagged to do a quick check whenever you need to make new bookings.
The Award Angle
Can you employ hidden city ticketing when redeeming miles for travel? The answer is, unsurprisingly, yes! Things get arguably even more interesting on the award redemption side, because hidden city ticketing allows you to take advantage of each program’s sweet spots (the equivalent of cheap pricing when booking with cash) even if you’re travelling somewhere else.
The classic example is with Egypt. Suppose you’re looking to redeem Aeroplan miles to Cairo. Business class from North America to Middle East & North Africa costs 82,500 miles one-way.
However, if you were to tack on a segment to Istanbul at the end, you’d only pay 57,500 miles, a savings of 25,000 miles! That’s because Turkey is part of Europe 2, which is much cheaper on the Aeroplan Reward Chart, even though the cities themselves are geographically close to each other. You can simply get off the plane in Cairo and never look back, saving yourself a good chunk of mileage.
You can also employ hidden city ticketing for other purposes. For example, it can help you save massively on carrier-imposed surcharges if you route to a final destination that has judicial regulations on such surcharges, as I did back in February when I booked a ticket to Hong Kong and got off in Beijing.
There’s also the possibility of using hidden city ticketing to circumvent the maximum permitted mileage (MPM) rules on an Aeroplan redemption, as I described in my article on 9 Useful Aeroplan Tricks.
No matter where you’re travelling and whether you’re using points or cash, hidden city ticketing is a great tactic to keep up your sleeve in case it comes in handy.
Words of Caution
Hidden city ticketing is a practice that’s forbidden by the airline’s contract of carriage, which is what you agree to when you purchase a ticket. Indeed, if we examine Air Canada’s document, we see the following wording:
In reality, the airlines have much bigger issues to worry about than the occasional traveller causing them to lose out on revenue because of a savvy booking ploy, so you’re not really at risk of being “caught” by the airline unless you use the tactic on a weekly basis (or, you’re the founder of Skiplagged and enabled thousands of consumers to book hidden city tickets in one fell swoop – thanks Zaman!)
The more salient costs and risks with hidden city ticketing are the ones I highlighted above – essentially, in exchange for discounted travel, you must put up with the inconvenience of booking one-ways only and forgoing checked baggage, as well as the potential risk of being re-routed to a place you never intended to go during IRROPS.
Nevertheless, if you are going to make use of hidden city ticketing more than a few times, it’s generally recommended to avoid entering associating your booking with your frequent flyer number, or at the very least credit the miles to a partner frequent flyer program instead.
Airlines do have recourse to ban people from their frequent flyer programs for repeated behaviour like this (and they have done so in the past), so this is way you’re taking some measure to protect yourself just in case the airline does get trigger-happy.
Most travellers are in the habit of booking flights at whatever price Google Flights spits out at them, but it’s never that easy if you’re looking to minimize your costs to the greatest extent possible. By essentially using airlines’ complex pricing strategies against them, hidden city ticketing can help you lower your out-of-pocket spending – sometimes drastically – when you find yourself booking flights with cash rather than using points. Stay tuned for the next few installments on Airline Secrets, in which we’ll go over more ways that you can creatively book trips in order to attain optimal outcomes.