Is “Throwaway Ticketing” Worth It To Save Money On Airfare?

Throwaway ticketing is a practice that’s gone on for decades. Airlines often charge more money for non-stops than they do for connecting itineraries. So people book a flight with a connection through the city they want to travel to, and just don’t take that second connecting flight. As a result, they can often save money, but there are risks you should know about.

For instance maybe you:

  • Want to fly DC to Chicago, but it’s cheaper to book DC to Chicago to Milwaukee
  • Want to fly DC to Phoenix, but it’s cheaper to fly DC to Phoenix to Tucson

Recently a name for this age-old practice has caught on, “Skiplagging,” after decade old which helps customers find these ‘point beyond’ tickets to save money. And the practice has been receiving a lot of media attention recently as summer travel approaches and post-pandemic airfares remain elevated.

Is It Wrong To Book A Ticket To One City, Fly To Another?

Fundamentally, there are two different views of what you’re buying with a connecting airline ticket. When you buy a ticket from A to B to C,

  • The airline sees that as travel from A to C. They sell travel A-B for one price, A-C for a different price. And if you get off at B, and that’s cheaper, you’re cheating them.

  • Consumers see themselves as buying two flights and it’s nobody else’s business whether they use both that they’ve purchased or not.

An airline’s ‘Contract of Carriage’ – the adhesion contract that nobody reads and that nobody has an opportunity to negotiate – supports their view, naturally. And airlines enforce their rules, because it supports their fare structure – the ability to charge more for a single non-stop flight than for that non-stop plus a second flight, for instance.

The New York Times “Ethicist” endorsed the practice of throwaway ticketing. The late Justice Antonin Scalia engaged in throwaway ticket even when expressly against airline rules.

United Airlines and Orbitz were unsuccessful in their attempts to sue Skiplagged, though Southwest Airlines had better luck since Southwest doesn’t actually distribute its fares through the same public systems.

Certainly it is not illegal to engage in throwaway ticketing. Ethically there are two views:

  1. you ‘agree’ to this contract, with terms you likely do not know about, when you buy the ticket so it’s unethical to break that agreement

  2. adhesion contracts carry little force, and the airline view contradicts commonsense morality (or airlines themselves do not go out of their way to treat the median customer well and so the customer’s obligation to an airline ought to mirror how the airline sees its obligation to the customer).

I tend to see little moral force in most adhesion contracts, so throwaway ticketing doesn’t concern me ethically, but there are practical / consequentialist considerations that may dissuade you from the practice or at least from engaging in it frequently.

Risks To Throwaway Ticketing

Throwaway ticketing may not be illegal, it may save you money, and you may be comfortable doing it. But there are several practice risks and consequences to consider.

  • Re-routing during irregular operations. If your flight is delayed or cancelled, your airline may want to re-route you through a different hub than the city you actually wanted to fly to (and get off in). I’ve never had a problem asking to be kept on my original routing, but it may not be automatic.

  • No checked bags. Airlines don’t generally allow you to ‘short-check’ bags, where they only send your luggage to your connecting city, although there are exceptions. If you book DC to Chicago to Milwaukee, and you get off in Chicago, you don’t want your luggage sent to Milwaukee (and your bags can fly without you).

  • Gate checking bags. If you aren’t among the first to board your flight, overhead bins may be full (or employees might fear that the bins are filling up) and you might be required to gate check your carry on bag instead of bringing it onto the aircraft. Then your carry on will go to your final ticketed destination, not the city you’re flying to. Now, you might talk your way out of it (try having a story ready – like that you are connecting on a separate ticket to another airline, especially one that the carrier doesn’t interline with) or if they’re collecting bags on the jet bridge instead of at the gate you might get away with bringing your bag on anyway but this is a real risk.

  • Can only book one-way. If you book a roundtrip, and throw away a segment on your outbound, the rest of your itinerary will get cancelled by the airline. And sometimes roundtrips are still cheaper, so there are tradeoffs. You might need to book that DC – Chicago – Milwaukee and then a one-way back to DC on the return (potentially with a throwaway segment beyond DC as well).

  • Does the airline catch you? As a one-off there’s historically little risk to this. Doing it a lot could catch an airline’s attention. There have even been stories of airlines meeting passengers at the airport over their ticketing practices. United Airlines threatened to trash the credit of customers who skip flights by sending them to collections. Lufthansa sued a passenger over it.

    An airline could shut down your frequent flyer account or even ban you from flying the airline in the future. It’s something to consider occasionally, not something to do every week. If you’re going to do throwaway ticketing, consider at least crediting miles to a partner airline frequent flyer account, though that may not protect you, but why make it easier for them to track you?

There are times where the same throwaway ticket principles that have long been used with paid tickets – risks and all – apply to mileage tickets, too. For instance,

Naturally the same risks involved in the practice that apply to paid travel apply with award travel as well.

New Government Rules Would Give Airlines The Power To Shut Down Skiplagged

The Biden administration’s proposed airline fee disclosure rules would require any website displaying airline schedules to show specific fee information prominently. They treat airlines as owning that fee information, and allow airlines to choose which sites to work with and provide fee data to. By simply refusing to provide fee data to a website like Skiplagged.

Here’s explicit language from the Department of Transportation’s proposed rule:

Carriers would not be required to distribute ancillary service fee information to any ticket agent to whom the carrier does not choose to distribute its far, schedule, and availability information.

By not distributing the fee information that websites are required by law to display, airlines can shut down services they do not like.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “Certainly it is not illegal to engage in throwaway ticketing. ”

    “Throwaway ticketing may not be legal, …”

    Another failure to proofread completely inverting what you actually meant?

  2. Recently I booked my work colleague One Way from Santiago, Chile to San Jose, Costa Rica via Panama, when he was actually only traveling to Panama. The savings was something like $600 One Way to fly the extra leg ($900 vs. $275 if I remember). He’s a British Citizen who has a right to enter Costa Rica for 6 months without an onward ticket. He had a Return Ticket on miles from Panama to Santiago a week later. The airline refused to board him unless he bought a One Way ticket on Copa or its subsidiary Wingo from San Jose to Panama, claiming that he was skiplagging since he had a return ticket from Panama later. He told the Copa airport staff that he was taking the bus to a tourist area in Panama, which is equidistant between San Jose and Panama City. He also showed the airline staff the Costa Rican law that permitted him to enter without an onward ticket. They said he could go to court later, but if he wanted to board the airplane that he had to buy the One Way Ticket to complete a Roundtrip San Jose – Santiago. I’d guess that Head Office of the airline audits for skiplaggers and directed the airport staff in Santiago to confront my colleague. I think Copa’s actions crossed ethical and legal lines!

  3. For long haul travel, buy a return ticket from a European city through London on BA/AA. However, book the return segment allowing at least a 24 hr stopover in London. Therefore any checked luggage would be tagged to allow this. Then not use the final coupon. This could save considerably on ridiculous UK airport taxes

  4. While skip-lagging is legal, at least for the time being, there are some issues that need to be addressed:

    1.If you book, as you used as an example, DCA ORD MKE on United, the ORD MKE leg is flown by Skywest. In the old days with paper tickets, Skywest would have had to present the ORD MKE ticket to United to get paid. Is this still, somehow, true with e-ticketing? Does the passenger have to board for Skywest to get paid? If not, you have just booked a seat that will never get paid for on a company that has a separate bottom line from the mainline carrier. It’s just as bad as booking a non-stop flight that you do not intend to take. It increases the no-show factor, ultimately causing the effected carrier to increase overbooking and/or raise fares.

    2. On holidays such as this past Memorial Day weekend flights are very full. Booking a flight you are not going to use may deprive someone else from flying at all.. You may also be pushing that flight into charging from the next higher fare bucket, causing someone else to pay more.

    3. Just a request. If you to book a flight you do not intend to take, do not book the best seat. Book a middle in the last row or something else undesireable. You’re not going to use it anyway so why not. Or, if possible, don’t book a seat assigment at all.

    4. Ultimately, however, if too many passengers use this practice it will only cause the carriers to raise fares to make up the difference.

  5. This reminds me of my last *rail* trip where the Amtrak conductor had a small crisis…and never scanned my outgoing ticket.

    Amtrak then canceled my return ticket because I hadn’t used the outgoing. I had to leave a party to explain to them what happened…and was trying to couch it in ways that wouldn’t get the conductor into trouble. If you are on an Amtrak return ticket and the conductor forgets to scan your ticket, chase them down so this doesn’t happen to you.

  6. @Frank

    “2. On holidays such as this past Memorial Day weekend flights are very full. Booking a flight you are not going to use may deprive someone else from flying at all.. You may also be pushing that flight into charging from the next higher fare bucket, causing someone else to pay more.”

    Myself, like I’m sure many others, do similar things with award bookings. I have booked a flight with multiple airlines during the holiday season just in case one fails me.

    With the elimination of change fees, I do it quite a bit actually. Does it take from award inventory and drive up the cost for the next person? Maybe…but I’m not allowed any more opportunity than they are when it comes to doing such.

    Nowadays, it’s about having enough miles stashed in these programs to allow for one to take advantage of such behavior…and thankfully, I do.

  7. I do not engage in skiplagging, however, I see a 3rd viewpoint. Any pax who had paid tickets on the second leg of your ticket, but were going to be bumped because of airline overbooking will rejoice that a seat opened up.
    I occasionally try to be an optimist.

  8. The airlines have cheated the public for years with High bag fees, Ridiculously high, choose your seat fees, no refunds, use or lose your money on basic economy fess, etc, etc. I think we the people should find ways to ‘Cheat the airlines.’

  9. Simply put, I think throwaway ticketing is worth it when the worst case scenario wouldn’t be so inconvenient as to offset the savings. For example, it is relatively fast and easy to get from MKE to chicago, so if you were re-routed or forced to chase after your luggage, this wouldn’t be a crisis. On the other hand, playing with international destinations could be much trickier.

    @jennifer p Truth be told, I’ve never bought r/t Amtrak tickets. I’ve never known their pricing engine to give a discount on a return versus two one-ways.

  10. This practice is just one more reason why airlines overbook their flights. They know we’re doing it and want to sell your empty seat again, even as they pursue you for more money for not using that seat.

  11. We must find ways to “cheat the airlines.” Look at how they cheated us. Higher fares, use it or lose your money Basic Economy fare, high seat fees, change fees, baggage fees. Etc.

  12. Frank
    Does that open seat you left on the next segment result in a standby passenger getting on a flight they otherwise might miss?

  13. @Andy That wasn’t the issue. The issue was they put me in as a no show on the outward leg of a return ticket (the pricing wasn’t different, I was actually doing a round trip) because of their error and I had to waste time getting it fixed., So I’m always trying to remind people to make *sure* their outward leg gets scanned.

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