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 Skiplagged.com 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:
- 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
- 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?
A lot of risks with using @Skiplagged. Story via @GioBenitez @GMA. @hharteveldt: "If they catch you doing this, they do reserve the right to go after you for more money, they could cancel your frequent flier account…" https://t.co/cpTxSqLctB pic.twitter.com/jFyRh2fkmj
— Ross Feinstein (@RossFeinstein) May 31, 2023
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,
- With loyalty programs that add fuel surcharges to awards, those are usually charged based on the destination you’re flying to, so throwaway ticketing can reduce surcharges in some cases.
- Some of the best award rates come from ANA’s Mileage Club, but they only allow roundtrip awards. You may want to fly one-way, and you can book a throwaway return that’s cheaper and in a lower cabin in order to make that price in a way that’s feasible.
- And of course Delta hasn’t ramped up pricing in all of their regions, so people have been saving miles on awards by connecting back though the United States to somewhere else.
- Finally, with U.S. airlines pricing their awards differently based on origin and destination (Sydney – Los Angeles might be more than, say, Sydney – Los Angeles – Albuquerque) that’s created a new arbitrage opportunity as well.
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.