In an era of high airfares, travelers will often get creative to find cheaper flights—and while that craftiness can be admirable, it’s also a bit risky. Case in point: A strategy known as “skiplagging” has been making headlines after a teenager who was flying with American Airlines last week from Florida to New York, and planned to get off in the connecting city of Charlotte, North Carolina, was prohibited from boarding the original flight and asked to rebook a direct flight to Charlotte.
At the airport in Florida, when Logan Parsons presented his North Carolina driver’s license, an American Airlines agent “kind of got out of him that he was planning to disboard in Charlotte and [was] not going to make the connecting flight,” Hunter Parsons, Logan’s father, told local news agency Queen City News. The agent canceled the ticket and made the family buy a direct flight to Charlotte.
Here’s what travelers should know about skiplagging, including the risks and airlines’ official policies regarding the practice.
What is skiplagging?
Skiplagging is the practice of booking a connecting flight that is lower priced than a nonstop flight and not flying the final leg (or legs) of the flight. It is also known as hidden city ticketing,
“Plain and simply, hidden city ticketing is a way to find a direct flight without the direct flight price tag. Stumbling on a cheaper connecting flight that just so happens to stop in your desired city means you can technically get to where you want to go for considerably less,” explains Katy Nastro, spokesperson and travel expert with flight deals newsletter Going.com.
Nastro offered this example. Say, for example, you wanted to fly from New York to Los Angeles, and the direct flight cost $114, but there is a flight to Dallas from New York with a connection in Los Angeles that costs only $84. “You have just found a hidden city ticket, which means you can turn a connecting flight to Dallas into a direct flight to Los Angeles, hop out at your connection and pay 26 percent less than you would have paid to fly direct.”
How do you find skiplag or hidden city ticket flights?
You can, of course, scour travel booking sites like Google Flights or Kayak in search of skiplag options, but as you can imagine, it’s a bit of challenge because you are actually searching for a destination city that doesn’t match your true destination. So, using Nastro’s example above, you would need to search numerous flights from New York to destinations other than Los Angeles to discover whether there are some cheaper flights that fly through Los Angeles. The more you search, the better you are likely to become at identifying which routes typically have specific layovers.
The main resource for finding these flights more easily is a website called Skiplagged that does the work for you.
Skiplagged was founded in 2013 in an effort to disrupt the airline airfare model by automating the process of finding more affordable hidden city tickets. And it was the website Hunter Parsons used to book the American Airlines flight for his son from Gainesville to New York via Charlotte.
“We’ve used Skiplagged almost exclusively for the last five to eight years,” Hunter Parsons told Queen City News.
What are the airlines’ policies regarding skiplagging?
All of the major U.S. airlines have policies prohibiting the practice of skiplagging—or what they refer to as hidden city ticketing—written into their contract of carriage statements.
According to American Airlines’ conditions of carriage, “Reservations made to exploit or circumvent fare and ticket rules are prohibited,” including “purchasing a ticket without intending to fly all flights to gain lower fares,” or what is known as hidden city ticketing.
American states that “if we find evidence that you or your agent are using a prohibited practice,” the airline reserves the right to cancel any unused part of the ticket; refuse to let the passenger fly; not refund an otherwise refundable ticket; or charge what the ticket would have cost.
Can you be banned from flying?
American Airlines does not say anything about banning passengers for the practice, but United Airlines does.
In United’s contract of carriage document, hidden city ticketing is also listed as a prohibited practice. And when passengers violate its rules, United says that it reserves the right to invalidate the ticket(s); cancel any remaining portion of the passenger’s itinerary; assess a fee for “seat blocking,” delete miles, points, or credits from a passenger’s frequent flier account; and/or “permanently ban or refuse to board the passenger.”
Delta Air Lines, too, prohibits hidden city ticketing but doesn’t get into the long list of possible repercussions that American and United provide. Southwest also has a clearly defined policy against hidden city bookings, and JetBlue remarks in its contract of carriage that “fares apply only between the points named and via the routing as shown in carrier’s current schedule and are not applicable to or from intermediate points.” It doesn’t say anything more on the topic.
What are the risks involved in skiplagging?
“It is not illegal to engage in throwaway ticketing” Gary Leff, founder of the View from the Wing blog, wrote in a post last week about skiplagging, following the American Airlines incident.
While it may not be illegal, there are ample risks associated with skiplagging, beyond any repercussions passengers might encounter for violating the airlines’ rules.
“If your flight is delayed or canceled, your airline may want to reroute you through a different hub than the city you actually wanted to fly to,” writes Leff. “You can’t check bags, because those will go to your final ticketed destination rather than where you’re flying. And if you’re forced to gate check a bag when overhead bins are full, you’re in a bind. Plus, you can only book these one-way because if you throw away anything other than the last flight in your itinerary, the rest of the trip gets canceled.” In other words, if you skiplag on the outbound ticket of a round-trip flight, you risk having the return flight invalidated. This is why Leff mentions that this is best done only for one-way flights.
Even Skiplagged admits on its website that there are several risks to be aware of when booking a hidden city ticket, including the possibility of being rerouted, for instance when airlines are forced to make weather-related itinerary changes.
Additionally, Skiplagged recommends “only bringing a backpack that can fit under the seat in front of you. Anything larger risks getting checked at the gate,” and all checked bags are sent to the passenger’s final destination.
It’s also not a good idea to connect a hidden city ticket to your frequent flier account in case the airline decides to invalidate any miles you’ve accrued with them.
“Some airlines may require proof of a return ticket during check-in. If this happens to you, just buy a refundable return ticket directly from the airline and cancel it ASAP after boarding,” Skiplagged advises. And lastly, “Do not overuse hidden-city itineraries. Do not fly hidden-city on the same route with the same airline dozens of times within a short time frame. . . . You might upset the airline, so don’t do this often.”
Ultimately, says Going.com’s Nastro, “It is definitely a practice not for novice travelers. Once in a while, utilizing this technique may help to score a cheaper flight, especially last-minute, but being aware of the nuances and risks is paramount. For example, the twice-a-year vacationer might not be aware that if you try this on a round-trip ticket, the airline will cancel the rest of your itinerary once you are counted as a no-show. The cost of that mistake would greatly outweigh the savings of purchasing a hidden city ticket to begin with.”