How would you like to get home from your trip and receive a bill for $2,300—plus interest—for an $840 plane trip that you’ve already paid for? That’s the amount Lufthansa recently sued a passenger for, after the customer skipped (“skiplagged,” in industry parlance) the last leg of his flight itinerary. It’s a story that has other hack-oriented travelers wondering: Is skiplagging legal?
Lufthansa’s aggressive response is the latest in a series of occasional airline attempts to stop travelers from using a well-known ticketing gimmick to cut trip costs. The trick, also called hidden-city ticketing, is booking a cheaper itinerary with a layover—when the layover is actually your destination.
In 2018, United threatened a skiplagged passenger with reporting him to a collection agency and canceling his frequent flyer status unless he paid the $3,000 fare difference. Other airlines have done the same in the past, too.
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What Is Hidden-City Ticketing?
The hidden-city airfare gimmick has various nicknames—skiplagged flights, point-beyond booking, and throwaway ticketing. There’s even an airfare search engine site dedicated to finding these types of fares, called Skiplagged. The basic idea is simple: Sometimes the nonstop airfare to a particular destination is much higher than a fare to a separate city that includes a stopover in your final destination. In that case, a traveler heading to the first city can buy the connecting fare to the second city and skip the journey’s final leg.
For example, let’s say I want to fly from my small home airport in Oregon to San Francisco, a distance of 329 air miles. United flies the only nonstops on this route, and no other airlines fly from here to any other Bay Area airports. United charges $166 for a one-way nonstop San Francisco ticket, but just $67 for a San Francisco-connecting Seattle ticket, a total of 1,008 miles. So if I buy the ticket to Seattle and don’t show up for the connecting San Francisco-Seattle ticket, I can fly nonstop to San Francisco for $99 less than the price of a nonstop ticket—and collect more miles. The Lufthansa traveler, for his part, bought a ticket from Seattle to Oslo via Frankfurt, but didn’t take the final Frankfurt-to-Oslo flight, opting to remain in Frankfurt instead.
Airlines price tickets this way because they can. When one airline has a monopoly route—or a dominant schedule on a route—it can charge high fares. This fare pattern typically applies to and from many “fortress hubs,” an airport where one airline dominates the bulk of the flights (like United at San Francisco). But airlines also typically match competitors’ prices on connecting routes. In the case of my Delta flight from Oregon, the airline probably knows that Alaska charges only $67 for the Seattle nonstop route—United matches this fare via San Francisco, but not the San Francisco-ending fares.
Is Skiplagged Legal?
When it comes to outlawing hidden-city ticketing, the airlines claim they’re on legal high ground because hidden-city ticketing and sites like Skiplagged raise the overall cost of airfares for everyone. Most airline contracts of carriage do specifically forbid hidden-city ticketing, so when it comes to skiplagged lawsuits, the airlines claim they’re just enforcing the fine print.
Consumers, on the other hand, argue that they’re not obligated to consume 100 percent of anything they buy: If they buy a meal at McDonald’s and don’t eat all the fries, McDonald’s can’t charge them the difference between the bundled and separate-item price total. If they buy a gallon of paint but use only three-quarters of it, the paint store can’t legally demand that they pay for three quarts at the quart price.
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Legally, courts seem to be on the travelers’ side. A lower court denied Lufthansa’s initial filing against the customer who took advantage of hidden-city ticketing, and United lost a 2015 lawsuit against Skiplagged, the website that searches for hidden-city airfare opportunities in a well-known case that has become known in the travel industry as the “Skiplagged lawsuit.” A court in Spain even specifically ruled that Skiplagged and hidden-city ticketing is legal. In the New York Times’ “Ethicist” column, the noted statistician Nate Silver also defends Skiplagged and the practice of hidden-city ticketing, for whatever that’s worth.
Historically, reports indicate that if airlines want to enforce the nitty-gritty of their contracts, all of which include restrictions against hidden-city ticketing, they typically target travelers they view as frequent offenders. And they also go after travel agents who sell the tickets, as well as websites like Skiplagged.
To the best of my knowledge, no airline has ever won a lawsuit against an individual traveler demanding payment for revenues lost through hidden-city ticketing—yet. But airlines do use intimidation and threats, and it would be hard to find information about how often travelers cave into those threats, or how many travelers caught using Skiplagged and hidden-city ticketing methods have lost frequent-flyer credits and status.
Regardless of the law and ethics, if you’re considering hidden-city ticketing, you need to know the pitfalls:
- You can’t use it for most round-trip travel. As soon as you miss a connecting flight on the outbound leg of your trip, the airline cancels the rest of your ticket, including all return flights. The only round-trip on which it works is one where you miss the last connection on your return trip.
- You can’t check baggage. In most cases, airlines will not check bags to a connecting airport.
- When you plan hidden-city ticketing, you run a minor risk of being rerouted. In my Oregon to San Francisco example, I could theoretically show up at the airport for my first connecting flight to San Francisco, only to have the agent tell me, “Great news: Your San Francisco flight is canceled, but we got you on a nonstop to Seattle on Delta,” or even, “We’ve rerouted you through Denver.”
- Some bloggers recommend that if you’re using Skiplagged or hidden-city ticketing, that you not use your frequent flyer number, as hiding that information may help avoid detection—but that’s a suggestion I’ve never seen validated.
Until the courts settle Lufthansa’s hidden-city lawsuit, it’s ultimately your call as to whether skiplagged booking technicalities are too much, or whether the rewards will justify the risks.
Have you taken advantage of Skiplagged or hidden-city ticketing in the past? Comment below.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.