Plane Insider: why “hidden city” ticketing isn’t as good a deal as you might think

Everyone wants cheaper airfares, particularly on popular routes at popular times. As an aviation journalist, I get asked a lot whether a particular trick, gimmick or website is legit.

How to cut costs when you fly. Image by Image Source/Getty Images

Recently, a lot of people have been asking me about what’s known as “hidden city” ticketing— not least because it might look like it can save you a pile of money! Here’s how the idea works…and be warned, it’s a little complicated! Let’s say you want to travel from A to B. So, you look up nonstop flights, and they’re quite expensive. You then either have a savvy friend who suggests — or you use one of the websites that does it for you —that you look at flights from A to C via B. It seems weird to think that flying farther would be cheaper, but it makes some sense if you’re an airline. Demand for seats at higher fares isn’t always the same, especially to smaller cities.

The ‘hidden cities’ trick isn’t really the way to go. Image by PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura/Getty Images

Let’s use the example of an imaginary Paris­-based airline called, oh, France Air, and let’s say that it has two routes: Paris to London and Rome. France Air wants to fill its planes as full as possible with as high fares as possible. But on a Monday morning, more people want to fly from London to Paris than from Rome. That means that France Air can charge more to people flying London-­Paris. But it still has that Rome flight to fill, so it discounts connections from London to Rome via Paris.(In the real world, there are thousands of possible connections and considerations here, not just one.) So, France Air sells one-­way tickets London-­Paris for £500 but London­-Paris­-Rome for £300.

Why wouldn’t you just buy the London-­Paris-­Rome ticket and not take the Rome flight, pocketing that £200? Short answer: because it’s against the rules. Long answer: when we fly, we agree to airlines’ Conditions of Carriage, or similarly named small print. These prohibit buying connecting tickets with the intention to only use half of them.(Remember the days when, flying long-haul, it was sometimes cheaper to buy a cheap return than a one-­way fare? Yep, that’s banned too.)

Check out flying from different cities to make savings. Image by DuKai photographer/Getty Images

It’s possible that France Air might rumble your scheme when you don’t get on that Paris­-Rome flight. If they do, they’re legally entitled to come after you for that extra £200 for London­-Paris. If you’re a France Air “Les Bonus Miles Club” member, you won’t get any miles. You might even have your account penalised or closed as a punishment. And, of course, you can’t check bags to Paris, since when you hand them over at the desk in London the bag tag will say “Rome” on it.

So, how can you get cheaper flights? The best way I find is to consider heading to and from from airports slightly further away. Birmingham can be just as convenient as Heathrow for some parts of London, say. Lots of flight search engines let you put in multiple departure airport options now, and with new smaller planes there are a lot of new options springing up that you’ve never heard of. Also, take advantage of the fact that connections are cheaper. Is flying Amsterdam­-London-­New York cheaper than flying direct to JFK from Heathrow? Hop on the new Eurostar train or grab a cheap low­ cost flight a couple of days early and add a couple of days in the Netherlands before and after your trip.

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Plane Insider: why “hidden city” ticketing isn’t as good a deal as you might think
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