What it is
Travelers are always looking for strategies and tricks to save money when booking airline tickets. One of the best known techniques is hidden city ticketing, which involves buying buying a multi-trip airline ticket to any destination that includes a stopover in the city we want to visit, the real destination of the trip, and stopping there.
This strategy allows the passenger to take advantage of the modern flight management system, which gathers air traffic on a large airport, called a hub, and from here flights leave for the final destinations, called spokes. In the hub and spoke organizational model, a flight to a hub airport is generally more expensive than a flight to a spoke airport but with a stopover at a hub.
Let’s take an example to understand how it works. Let’s assume that we want to visit Barcelona and that a direct flight from Rome costs 200 euros while a flight to Lisbon with a stopover in Barcelona costs 150 euros. The strategy suggests to buy the ticket for the flight to Lisbon and then get off in Barcelona saving 50 euros.
Why a flight with a stopover is sometimes cheaper than a direct flight
Contrary to what we may think, the price of an airline ticket is not determined by the cost of operating the individual flight. If this were the case, we would have fixed prices all year round, whereas anyone who has tried to find a flight will have noticed that the price of the airline ticket changes daily, even several times during the day. The basic reason is that the price is determined by the law of supply and demand, and airlines adopt strategies that aim to maximise both the cost of the ticket and at the same time the percentage of seats occupied on each individual flight, the load factor.
If the delicate balance between seats sold and ticket price determines economic sustainability, it is understandable that airlines try to prevent hidden city ticketing, the ability to exploit the distortions of a model that sets the price not on the basis of flight length but on policies to maximise the fill rate of an aircraft.
The phenomenon of hidden city ticketing has seen exponential growth in recent years thanks to online flight search and booking systems.
Problems to know
This strategy, although seemingly advantageous, hides some drawbacks that would be good to know.
When deciding to adopt this strategy it is good to keep in mind that
We will have to travel exclusively with hand luggage, since the suitcases loaded in the hold will only be delivered at the baggage claim of the airport of final destination. This might not be a problem if we are planning a short vacation of a couple of days, but for a longer stay, the lack of clean clothes might not be pleasant.
One aspect to consider is that we are not always allowed to carry luggage in the cabin and finding out at boarding that our luggage is not coming with us, will not be pleasant news at all. In this case, we will have to retrieve our luggage and the cost of shipping could exceed the savings made on the ticket price, in addition to the cost of a new suitcase and clothes.
Another inconvenience may arise when an airline reschedules its routes. It shouldn’t happen if the departure is very close, but if the purchase is made a little in advance and the stopover airport is changed… we’ll be in trouble.
What are the risks if I book a return flight?
While it is not difficult to understand why airlines try to counteract the adoption of this strategy, the tools for doing so are very limited. The solution used is to try to create difficulties for the passenger who decides to stop over at the intermediate stop by stipulating, for example, that the airline may cancel the booking of subsequent flights. In this case, difficulties will only arise if we have booked a return flight, as the return ticket will be cancelled.
Problems for all travellers
Sometimes we do not realise that our choices, seemingly without consequences, can cause harm to others.
The staff in charge of boarding procedures, being provided with the list of passengers expected on a flight, may decide to wait for our arrival causing a delay in departure, while our seat, which will be empty, could have been used by another person who actually needed to reach the final destination of the flight.
Another negative consequence, although not immediately perceptible, is reflected in the price dynamics of that route which, constantly monitored, could lead the airline to decide to increase the price, harming other users who will be forced to pay a higher price.
Legal issues of Hidden City Ticketing
One of the most controversial issues concerns the legal aspect. Many airlines consider the behavior illegal as a violation of the contract signed, but although they have preferred not to take action against passengers who use this strategy to save on ticket prices, the repeated adoption of hidden city ticketing could expose travelers to the risk of legal action, as well as immediately being expelled from loyalty programs.
Recently, Lufthansa launched a legal action against a passenger who had purchased a flight from Seattle to Oslo with a stopover in Frankfurt, contesting the fact that he had stopped in the German city. The request was rejected by a court, but an appeal was made requesting payment of the fare difference, plus interest, as a breach of the transport contract.
Adopting the strategy of booking a flight via a stopover can help to save money, sometimes quite a lot of money, when we buy an airline ticket. However, we must be aware of the criticalities involved and the damage we can cause to other travellers.