I have to say that I’m incredibly intrigued by NY Times blogger/columnist and statistics guru Nate Silver’s apparent sudden interest in air travel. His last post about which airports are most expensive was certainly a fun read, particularly as I disagree with many of his points. This week he brings up another topic – hidden-city ticketing – and has decided that the rules simply do not matter.
Hidden-city ticketing is pretty simple. So long as you are not checking luggage and don’t care that the rest of your ticket will be canceled, it is often possible to purchase a connecting ticket through a hub that is significantly cheaper than a flight just to that hub. For the most part the pricing anomaly comes from the fact that non-stop flights are often more expensive as there is generally less competition and they are more valuable to the consumer thanks to the shorter overall travel time (something Silver overlooked in his last column). So, given the opportunity to buy a cheaper ticket based on pricing for a market that you have no intention of actually visiting, Silver says you should.
He acknowledges that the rules prohibit the practice, but also notes that you are unlikely to get caught and even if you do there isn’t much the airlines can do about it:
Making a habit of this certainly won’t endear you to the airlines. Most of them — the major exception being free-spirited Southwest Airlines — expressly forbid it in their ticketing rules. But those rules don’t carry the force of law, and most travel lawyers say that their recourse is limited. They could probably preclude you from flying with them in the future, but their case for demanding penalties is weak, and the risk of detection is low if you don’t book these kinds of routes more often than a couple of times per carrier per year.
I’m actually pretty sure that JetBlue also doesn’t frown on the practice but they also generally do not publish fares that would benefit from such an approach. Perhaps my favorite line in the column is this one about what to do should you get caught:
Instead, proudly state that you’re doing your part to help the airlines understand the inefficiencies in their pricing structures, and that you’re bringing exorbitant fares more in line with the free market.
Ummm, yeah. That’ll go over well. Perhaps recognizing that the "free market" means they charge what they want and you have a choice of whether to purchase or not would also be useful. Don’t get me wrong, I have exploited the benefits of hidden-city ticketing on occasion and I’m not violently opposed to the practice. But pretending that doing it is good for the airline is just plain silly.
It is also worth pointing out that the airlines do have one other path of recourse. In addition to banning you from flying with them, they can also close your frequent flyer account and take away all your points. Depending on how many you have banked that could be pretty painful.
It is also worth noting that the Germans have recently come down on the side of consumers in this situation, allowing hidden-city ticketing more openly, though it still may require fighting the airlines in court to get the fare honored. Probably not worth it.
Oh, and if you use a proper travel agent rather than the airlines’ site directly or an OTA like Expedia or Orbitz you also run the risk of them receiving a debit memo and being held liable for the fare difference. That’s never a good surprise.
So, is hidden city ticketing really all that bad? How high is your risk tolerance there?
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