This is a somewhat lesser known travel hack that many travelers either aren’t aware of or have never used. I’ve only done this once, a couple of years ago, and as I’ll explain later, it was because I had some miles to burn and I happened upon it by accident.
Hidden City Ticketing is best illustrated through example. Let’s say you need to book a last minute trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, but a one-way ticket is $350. But, you see there’s a one-way ticket to Washington DC with a layover in Charlotte that is only $225. You would book the ticket to DC, but ditch the second leg of your trip. You end up with a ticket that is $125 cheaper, which is a substantial savings.
That’s the gist. Obviously, there’s some “fine print” to keep in mind.
This hack does not work for round-trip tickets, because for all airlines, if you miss one leg of your trip, the rest of your reservation is automatically cancelled. So, understand that you’ll have to buy two one-ways or use miles to book the return leg if that’s what you need (which is what I did the only time I’ve ever done this.) You also cannot check a bag, since your checked bag will be sent through to the final destination, not where you’re skipping off. Also, there’s always the slim chance that your flight could get re-routed through a different destination, though in all my years of flying, such a thing has only ever happened to me once and it was a change from Chicago Midway to O’Hare, so it wouldn’t have made any difference if you were planning on ditching the second half of your flight.
I suppose you could try to do the same hidden city hack for your return trip, but airlines can absolutely catch onto this, and they really don’t like it. It violates most airlines’ ticketing policies. For that reason, don’t include your frequent flyer number when booking; I’ve read stories about airlines revoking passengers’ miles for abusing the practice. Legally, it’s a bit of a grey area. Airline ticketing rules don’t exactly have the force of law, so while the airline could ding you by revoking miles or possibly not allowing you to fly with them anymore, their penalties are pretty limited in scope. I read recently about British Airways cracking down on this, too. So this is a “Do at your own risk” kind of thing.
Finding these kinds of flights is not for those who are uncomfortable doing a lot of research and using advanced search methods on the internet. I happened across my hack by accident because I had seen something on Twitter advertising one-stop flights that happened to have a layover at my destination for a very cheap price.
But if you want to actually search a hidden-city ticket yourself, the best way to do it is by using this flight matrix. A quick how-to (here is a list of airport codes, which you’ll need for this hack):
- Click on “One-way” then put in your originating airport.
- Right under “Destination” click on “Advanced Routing Codes” which will open up another search space.
- In the “Destination” space, put a few airports that might logically have layovers at your intended destination (you wouldn’t put SFO if you’re trying to go to New York from Texas, for example), and are otherwise major hubs (think LAX, ATL, SFO, and the like).
- Then, in the “Enter outbound routing code” space, put x:[airport code of your actual destination].
- Fill in your departure date and run the search; it will bring up all the flights to your listed destinations that have stops in your desired destination.
There is also a site called Skiplagged that can run these kinds of searches for you, though I’ve never used it myself so I’m not sure how easy or user friendly it is. United Airlines actually sued Skiplagged for this and lost, so round 1 goes to us cheapskate travelers!
I just did a search using the flight matrix and put in Charlotte as my actual destination, with flights to LaGuardia, Newark, JFK, Washington Reagan, and Philadelphia as my “intended destination”. It turned up a $117 one way ticket to Washington Reagan. A one way flight to Charlotte on Kayak was a $162 ticket, and a round trip ticket to Charlotte beginning on the same date and coming back a week later was $256. Assuming you had miles for the return ticket or your return date had cheaper one way ticket prices than the ticket out there, it might be a worthwhile savings. If you were to do something similar over holiday weekend or during a busy flying time, you might get even larger savings.
Again, this is a lot of research and it doesn’t always yield flights that are cheaper enough to warrant doing it. So use other flight search methods before going this route. I think this method probably only comes in handy if you are extremely strapped for cash, where a $50 or so difference really matters, or if you are booking a very last-minute flight to a major hub city, since ticket prices to these destinations do fluctuate regularly and a last minute ticket could be extremely expensive. Ticket prices to smaller airports tend to have less fluctuation in ticket price, so the savings might not be as great if you’re trying to go to one of these smaller airports.
*Shout out to my BFF Melanie Donahue, who is the pinchiest of the penny pinchers, and inspires me to attempt budget hacks on the regular.