Unless you’re a travel industry insider, you’ve probably never heard of a “hidden city” or “back-to-back” itinerary. But these two ticket booking tricks can save you big money on your next vacation-sometimes more than 50 percent off the published fare.
Which may be one reason you’ve never heard of them. Airlines claim that both hidden cities and back-to-back (or b2b) tickets are illegal because they’re a violation of their tariff rules. They say travelers who take advantage of these loopholes are breaking their contract, and they’ve gone to great lengths to keep people like you from finding out about them.
Case in point: a few weeks ago, when I appeared as a guest on the National Public Radio show “To The Point,” I mentioned that travelers could save lots of money with hidden cities and b2bs. To which one of the other guests, who had formerly run a major airline, tersely suggested that carriers would hunt ticketing offenders to the ends of the earth and that they were waging a “losing battle” to save money.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t given an opportunity to tell listeners how to circumvent the airline’s Byzantine ticketing rules. Or to assure them that in most cases, an airline can’t chase down passengers traveling on a questionable itinerary, particularly if they don’t collect frequent flier miles.
So what’s got the carrier’s feathers ruffled? And should you worry about going to jail if you engage in this booking practice?
When you book a hidden city ticket, you simply add an extra leg to your itinerary. Because airlines use sophisticated but logic-defying computers to price their tickets, it often costs less to travel longer. Hidden cities passengers get off the plane early, at a stopover, and then “miss” their connecting flight on purpose.
On a b2b, you’re getting around an airline’s Saturday-night stayover requirement by buying two separate round-trip tickets but only using half of each. Because carriers typically more than triple their fares if you don’t stay over a Saturday night, buying four tickets is less expensive than buying two.
Confused yet? Don’t worry. Just remember that hidden cities work best when you plan to get off the plane in a hub city like Atlanta, Chicago or Toronto. And a b2b can save you big bucks when you need to get away for a few days that don’t allow for a Saturday night stay. Ask your travel agent for advice, but whatever you do, don’t impose on him or her to book the ticket. Airlines frown on agents that book these tickets and they can easily get into trouble.
But can you? Until now, the answer seemed to be a clear-cut “yes.” In one high-profile example, Northwest Airlines pursued frequent traveler Bob Cowen for using a hidden-city itinerary on flights between Boston and Detroit. The airline threatened to terminate his frequent flier account and bill him the difference between the cheaper ticket and the more expensive one that he should have been traveling on.
It’s this commonly-held belief that’s kept journalists like us from telling you about this relatively simple way to save lots of money. But Thomas Dickerson, a Westchester County, N.Y., judge and author of the book “Travel Law,” believes the conventional wisdom is flawed. There are no laws that dictate how an airline ticket may be used, he says. Although the courts have typically enforced an airline’s rules in court, Dickerson says the carriers are incorrect when they term b2bs and hidden cities “illegal.” They may bend the rules of a contract, but they don’t break the law.
Given the option of buying a “legal” but more expensive fare and cheaper one that the airlines don’t like, travelers like Tim King say the choice is easy. “Airlines routinely lie to me about maintenance, schedules, and reasons for delays-everything short of the true color of the sky,” he says. “Why should I suddenly play fair with them?”