Last week I scored a $550 round trip fare between Bradley and Istanbul via Amsterdam, which left me wondering how much it would cost if I only went as far as Amsterdam. The best price I could find was $595.
That’s right. If I change planes in Amsterdam and go on to Istanbul, it costs $550. If I get on the same flight at Bradley, skip the Istanbul flight and stay in Amsterdam, it’s $45 more. The extra three and a half hours of flying for nearly 1,400 miles actually reduces the price.
That’s just what happens sometimes in the chaotic world of air fare supply and demand. You might think you could take advantage of this. You might think you could buy the fare to Istanbul and just get off in Amsterdam.
You could, but you’d probably regret it. Most airlines specifically forbid that kind of maneuver which is called hidden-city ticketing. The Northwest Airlines contract of carriage puts it this way:
FARES APPLY FOR TRAVEL ONLY BETWEEN THE POINTS FOR WHICH THEY ARE PUBLISHED. TICKETS MAY NOT BE ISSUED AT FARE(S) PUBLISHED TO AND/OR FROM A MORE DISTANT POINT(S) THAN THE POINTS BEING TRAVELED, EVEN WHEN ISSUANCE OF SUCH TICKETS WOULD PRODUCE A LOWER FARE.
(Some day I’ll find out why airline contracts of carriage are so often written in capital letters.)
But, anyway, so what? What could the airline do about it if you decided to play hooky on your connecting flight? Well, rather a lot.
If I were to skip the Istanbul part of the flight and just stay in Amsterdam, Northwest could find this out from its automated reservation and boarding records. And when I tried to get back on the plane in Amsterdam for my return flight, Northwest could charge me the difference in the fare. (Note to Northwest: I’m not planning to do this. I really want to go to Istanbul.)
Furthermore, airlines that want to punish a passenger for hidden-city ticketing can deny boarding altogether, cancel the remainder of the reservation, kick the passenger out of frequent flier programs and confiscate any accumulated miles.
There have been attempts in the past to force the airlines to allow hidden-city ticketing and a related strategy, back-to-back ticketing, which involves buying two round-trip fares and using only half of each. (This can cost less than a single round-trip fare in some cases when a passenger does not want to meet a restriction for staying over on a Saturday night.)
The whole thing feels a bit absurd. From the consumer’s point of view, it’s ridiculous to restrict hidden-city or back-to-back ticketing. It’s as if a restaurant sold you three hamburgers for the price of one, and then charged you extra if you didn’t eat them all.
From the airlines’ perspective, it’s perfectly legitimate to price each destination based on what the market will bear. It’s as if a clothing store decided to put some $50 shirts on sale for $20 because they weren’t selling fast enough, and customers switched the price tags because the $30 shirts weren’t on sale, too.
At least one airline, however, specifically permits hidden-city and back-to-back ticketing. Southwest explains in its Customer Service Commitment:
With respect to all of our fares, Southwest Airlines does not prohibit or penalize what is commonly known as “hidden city” ticketing, nor does it prohibit or penalize what is commonly known as “back to back” ticketing. “Hidden city” and “back to back” reservations and tickets are authorized for travel on Southwest Airlines. It is important to note that your luggage will be checked to the final destination as shown in your reservation record. Should you choose to deplane at a stopover or connection point, you will be responsible for making arrangements to have your luggage delivered to you. Southwest will not entertain a lost or delayed baggage claim or interim expenses in this circumstance.
It is, on reflection, not surprising that Southwest is lenient about hidden-city ticketing. Southwest is, for the most part, a point-to-point airline that avoids hubs where passengers change planes. And it’s at the hubs where passengers are most likely to benefit from hidden-city ticketing.
An airline’s hub airport is its dominant destination, the place where it faces the least competition. Very generally speaking, it’s where the airline can keep fares relatively high. If passengers can buy a ticket to a farther, but more competitive and less expensive destination, they can get off at the hub avoid the higher fare.
And that’s what it’s all about.