How Throwaway Tickets and Hidden Cities Can Save You Big Money on Airfare

It’s been awhile since I explained how to use hidden city and throwaway ticketing to save big money on airfare, and it’s such an integral part of an arsenal to save money on airline tickets that it’s worth repeating.

Airlines often price tickets from one city to another through a hub cheaper than flights that terminate at the hub.

    Flying United New York to Milwaukee through Chicago is often much cheaper than just flying New York to Chicago.

If you get off the plane in Chicago and don’t board your connection to Milwaukee, you’ve potentially saved yourself a lot of money. This is called hidden city ticketing.

Most people think they’ve purchased two flights, New York to Chicago and Chicago to Milwaukee. They only take one, but the airlines still got paid for both.

The airlines don’t like it. And instead of seeing themselves as selling you a ticket from New York to Chicago to Milwaukee with you having purchased both flights, they see themselves as selling a ticket from New York to Milwaukee — and you’re using that fare to improperly fly New York to Chicago instead.

No great secrets being let out of the bag here by the way, this was written up by Nate Silver in the New York Times.

It isn’t illegal to buy a ticket and not fly all of the segments (although Silver recommends not actually lying about what you’re doing if caught since that could technically introduce a fraud element).

As I explained two years ago,

The practice violates the contract of carriage of most airlines (not Southwest, and up until a few years ago tossing the return portion of a trip and flying only one way wasn’t a violation of United’s but that’s been updated). And a travel agent who consistently sells tickets where final segments are unflown can get a debit memo and owe money, which they need to pay in order to continue selling tickets on the airline (and indeed not to jeopardize their access to the computer reservation system itself). But that’s a contractual and ongoing business issue between airline, reservation system, and agent.

The most that can happen to a passenger is likely that they could theoretically be banned from an airline. Most people don’t care because they aren’t loyal to an airline to begin with. The customer more likely could see consequences to their mileage account. This is something that could happen through repeated and frequent use of the technique, including your mileage number in the reservation. If you consistently buy one-way tickets through Chicago to Milwaukee and get off in Chicago (Milwaukee is often a much cheaper market), and give your United Mileage Plus number each time you do it, United might have a problem with you. United might send you a warning letter. They might threaten your miles. They could even close your account.

On the other hand, they’ll have a more difficult time penalizing your miles if you credit to partner airline programs. It will even be harder, though not impossible, to track. I don’t advise doing this every week. But I’ve never personally known anyone that’s done it only a few times a year per airline to have problems.

If you’re not breaking the law, and the airline can’t reasonably ‘go after you’ for doing this especially for doing it infrequently, what are the real risks involved?

  • Do this only as the last segment of a reservation. Only throw away the final leg of a roundtrip. Or book two one-ways if you want to do a throwaway in each direction. Because when you miss a flight, the airline is likely to cancel the rest of your itinerary.

  • Don’t check luggage. Most airlines used to let you ‘short check’ baggage, or check it to an intermediate stop and not your final destination. This isn’t usually allowed any longer. United certainly stopped permitting the practice. If you check bags, your bags will go to the final city on your ticket, you will not. So this only works with carryons (except for international flights arriving in the U.S. and a few other countries where you have to pick up your bags on arrival and walk them through customs and then drop them back off. If you’re checked to a domestic destination other than the one you arrive at in the U.S., you usually just won’t drop your bags back off.)
  • Don’t let yourself gate check luggage. For the same reason you don’t want to check a bag, you don’t want to board the plane and find no overhead space and a flight attendant telling you they’ll check your bag to your final destination. That’s not okay, since you aren’t going to your final destination. So these tickets work best if you have status or an upgrade, or at least can board in the middle of the pack and not be the last to board. But if you are last to board, there’s no overhead space, and they won’t let you hunt and peck for space, then you need an excuse why you either need to get the carryon on the plane or you need them only to check it to your intermediate destination. In the former case, tell them you’re connecting on a separate ticket to a carrier they’ve never heard of. In the latter, just tell them your final destination is where the aircraft is landing. And they’re more likely to check it to your planned arrival city rather than your reservation’s final destination.
  • There’s still a risk of irregular operations. If your flight cancels, the airline might offer to send you to your ‘final destination’ via some other connecting city. That obviously won’t work for you. I’d suggest saying that the connecting city is important, you’re meeting folks in the airline’s club lounge there. Add some color, maybe you’re having an affair there (and only need a 45 minute connection in one of the conference rooms?). Agents are usually pretty accommodating during irregular operations and will give you an itinerary that works for you if anything is available that suits you. But you’ll need to be proactive about the rebooking.

So how do you go about finding the savings with this technique?

I search one-way using ITA Software Matrix, although novice users may prefer Hipmunk.

I specifying my real starting city, and then I let the system find fares to a variety of cities that I know to be generally cheap, and might connect through the city I actually want to go to. And I may tell the website to search for other airports within 300 miles of the one I’ve specified too, why not?

And I’ll even limit the search by specifying my connecting point as the city I want to go to.

Cheap cities on the East Coast might be Providence, Atlanta (as a connection, not on Delta), Orlando, Jacksonville (Florida), Charlotte, Raleigh, New York (various airports). In the Midwest Milwaukee is a good one. On the West Coast one often finds good fares to Tucson, Las Vegas, and Orange County.

The cities you’ll try depend on whet’s in the same general region of the country as where you’re actually going (and sometimes connecting through the Northeast to Florida works great, actually).

Here’s the example I gave last time:

Flying DC to Phoenix, non-stop on US Airways without a Saturday night stay, $1574!

But searching for DC through Phoenix to Long Beach, Orange County, Tucson, Oakland, San Jose, and Las Vegas I stumble upon the DC-Phoenix flight I want (combined with a Tucson flight I don’t) for $159.

And searching for Phoenix through DC to Charlotte, Raleigh, Orlando, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Providence, Boston, and New York LaGuardia I stumble upon the Phoenix – DC non-stop flight that I want (combined with a connecting flight to Providence or New York LaGuardia that I don’t) for $186.

We see that the $1574 itinerary can be purchased for $345.

My favorite version of this, sadly, doesn’t exist anymore. United used to have bus service from San Jose to San Francisco. Back then a cross country flight in and out of San Francisco without a Saturday stay was usually over $2000. But that same cross country flight through San Francisco to and from San Jose was about $600. The bus segment required a paper ticket, you yanked out the San Jose bus segments and checked in in San Francisco with no worries. (You would grab your bags from the bus and re-check in anyway, so you could have checked bags with this strategy even.) What’s more, you’d even earn the miles for the bus segment…

Throwaway ticketing is most commonly buying a roundtrip ticket instead of a one-way and ‘throwing away’ the return. It’s very rarely the case in the U.S. anymore that a roundtrip is cheaper than a one-way. but it’s still quite common in Europe — where one-ways will only price as full fare, with the major airlines you’ll often find it advantageous to book a roundtrip instead. Here the caveats about checked luggage don’t apply.

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. Any insight into the SWA companion pass using this trick? I would like to get from Tulsa to Houston with a stop in Dallas. My wife’s final destination is Dallas and mine would be Houston…I am the companion.

  2. About 6 months ago Southwest Airlines began to penalize hidden city flyers by eliminating any frequent flyer credit whatsoever and by ending the earlier policy of refunding the taxes for the unflown segment. You can still use hidden city tickets on Southwest, but you won’t get any Rapid Rewards points at all. On a refundable ticket the loss is likely to exceed the gain, which was probably the point.

  3. ps, Booking both of us to Houston and of course she would not fly the Dallas to Houston route.

  4. “Hidden cities” doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention these days, which suggests to me that it isn’t a huge problem for the airlines. I use the trick occasionally, but would use it more if I “had to.” Are there any recent reports of airlines “bothering” their customers for using the trick? Like I’m wondering if they track no shows by ff number, and “do something” when they catch you — and how many no-shows it takes for anyone at an airline to care.

  5. Excellent article as usual Gary. Matrix and ITA are great resources, but there’s one that’s even better — It basically automates the whole process for you so you don’t have to mess around with different city pairs. It basically reduced what would likely be a 10-30 minute endeavor down to exactly 3 seconds. Try it the manual way with ITA/Hipmunk and compare results with Skiplagged and I guarantee you’ll never use any other site for this sort of search.

  6. Could you tell me when you are doing this trick using an award ticket can you ‘short check’ luggage on an international trip? I found that if I fly SFO-PEK-PVG and then add on NRT it drops the ticket 2.5k with United. I would put PVG as a 23 hour layover. Just want to know if United/Air China will allow me to get my bag in PVG instead of holding it for ~23 hours for a flight I will not go on.

  7. the airlines did this to themselves. if they were making honest living this would never be the case… their idiotic pricing policies are backfiring against them.

  8. @Brent — Yes I did exactly this on an OGG-LAX-JFK-SJU trip where I hopped off at JFK. There was like a 15 hour layover at JFK, and I was going to tell the agent that I needed my bags checked to JFK since I was overnighting there, but I forgot. By the time I realized, the AA agent had already checked me in, and the bag tags said JFK anyway. If the layover is more than X hours and/or overnight (I don’t know the exact rules), then you can check only to the airport where you have the long layover. It’s highly unlikely to work where there is a layover of only a few hours (this is what others have told me when I asked). You might get lucky with a helpful agent, but you’re kinda screwed if you don’t. 🙂

  9. BA has penalized people for this, with freezing FF accounts. BA flights ex AMS are significantly cheaper

  10. @Andy – Yes, this is exactly why you should not put your FF# on a hidden city ticket. Additionally if you have a bazillion miles on the airline it might not be that advisable even if you don’t. It’s not right for everyone every time but in right situation it can be a big money saver.

  11. Wanted to throw it out to the View from the Wingers if anyone had a Biz Class LAX to LHR “suggested routing” using this trick? The SFO-PEK-PVG-(NRT) info was super interesting too, thanks for that Brent!

  12. @gussomer, You should book that on a single flight number (stop but no change) if possible. Otherwise I think Southwest will pull you off the second flight before it leaves and ask you to buy a full fare ticket.

    Any hidden city trip on Southwest should be booked using points since you won’t be earning any points for the trip.

  13. An airline recently sold me a ticket from Hawaii to SFO, overnight layover, then SFO-LAX-SJC. much cheaper than the non stop from Hawaii to SFO. Why would I take those second 2 flights. It’s their own fault.

  14. “I let the system find fares to a variety of cities that I know to be generally cheap”

    Is there a way to search multiple cities at once? Or are you doing multiple single-destination searches?

  15. Even on Southwest, the difference can be large. BDL-SFO with 3 day advance purchase, changing planes in LAS, is a $195 or 9600 point WGA fare. If you buy the same flight from BDL-LAS, it’s an Anytime $532 or 48,000 RR points

  16. @Marcus with ITA Software you can enter multiple cities at once, I type them in “RDU, CLT, JAX, MCO, BOS, PVD” .. you can also use the option to include nearby airports.

  17. the sample cheap cities are very useful. I wish there is more of such information on international flights. Does FlyerTalk has a section/thread for this issue? Thanks.

  18. Gary price to HNL are fixed high out of LAX but the majors match AK’s cheap SAN-HNL fares by routing pax via LAX. So what do you think is the chance AA be watching for me to throw away my last segment LAX-SAN and possibly dun my miles for the rt? Thx.

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