What is skiplagging? The cheap travel hack that has airlines cracking down

The post-pandemic travel boom has people everywhere looking to jet-set to some far-away destinations, but it’s not always easy or cheap. It seems there are always new travel hacks popping up online, like how to secure an entire row of airplane seats to yourself or how to get extra legroom on a cramped flight. But no cost-effective travel hack has airlines up in arms more than the strategy known as “skiplagging”.

Skiplagging, also referred to as “hidden-city” or “throwaway” ticketing, is the practice of booking a less-expensive flight option with a layover city without planning to fly the entire route. Instead, the stopover is the traveller’s intended destination.

The reason so many people use this controversial hack is because it’s cheaper to book a layover flight than a direct flight.

For example, a flight from New York to Orlando might be $250 nonstop, but a similar flight from New York to Dallas with a layover in Orlando might be $130. If a passenger wanted to fly to Orlando using the “skiplagging” strategy, they would get off the plane at the layover destination in Orlando rather than flying all the way to Dallas.

In fact, there’s an entire travel service dedicated to this practice called Skiplagged.com, which alerts customers to hidden-city deals and “exposes loopholes in airfare pricing to save you money.”

Skiplagged works by giving travellers the option to search for a route with a hidden-city destination, but the website notes that hidden-city flights are only available on certain routes. If these options are available, they will appear in the flight search results with the final legs of the journey crossed off and the price marked as “skiplagged rate”.

However, airlines are not happy with this cost-saving strategy.

In July 2023, a teenager, Logan Parsons, was detained at an airport in Gainesville, Florida for employing the skiplagging strategy. He was visiting Gainesville, Florida, with his father and planned to fly back alone. On the return trip, his father booked him a flight that began in Gainesville and ended in New York. Though, Logan planned to exit the plane during its layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, and forgo the final leg of his journey.

“We’ve used Skip Lagged almost exclusively for the last five to eight years,” Mr Parsons told Queen City News. “Booked a flight from Gainesville regional to JFK via Charlotte.”

His father, Hunter Parsons, reportedly dropped Logan off at the airport in Florida when a gate agent noted the teenager’s ID cards were issued in Gainsville — the same city where his flight was scheduled to stop for a layover. The agent became suspicious and reported him to airport officials, who detained and questioned the teen.

“Interrogated a little bit, ultimately taken to a security room,” Mr Parsons said. “They kind of got out of him that he was planning to disboard in Charlotte and not going to make the connecting flight.”

After American Airlines learned that Logan was planning to skiplag, officials at the time reportedly called his parents and forced them to buy a new direct flight from Gainsville to Charlotte.

The airline said in a statement: “Purchasing a ticket without intending to fly all flights to gain lower fares (hidden city ticketing) is a violation of American Airlines terms and conditions and is outlined in our Conditions of Carriage online. Our Customer Relations team has been in touch with the customer to learn more about their experience.”

In 2014, United Airlines teamed up with travel website Orbitz to sue Skiplagged CEO Aktarer Zaman. The airline claimed the practice of hidden-city ticketing was “unfair” and “strictly prohibited,” saying that the New Yorker’s website cost the companies $75,000 in lost revenue. However, the case was thrown out because it was filed in Illinois where the court did not have jurisdiction, as Zaman worked and resided in New York City. Zaman also maintained that the practice was “perfectly legal”.

Five years later, Lufthansa sued a passenger who did not take the last leg of their ticketed journey. Using throwaway ticketing, the traveller bought a business-class return ticket from Oslo via Frankfurt to Seattle for around £600. He flew Oslo-Frankfurt-Seattle-Frankfurt but failed to board the final leg back to the Norwegian capital.

The German airline claimed the trip should have cost the customer £2,769, and asked him to pay the difference between that price and his paid fare. However, an initial court case ruled in the passenger’s favour.

American Airlines then sent a memo to travel agents in January 2021 warning of the practice. The airline reportedly said it planned to begin monitoring skiplagging and that identification of such behaviors could result in “an unfavorable outcome”.

While skiplagging seems like a cost-effective way to travel, it comes with many risks as airlines have cracked down on the practice in recent years. NerdWallet reported that skiplagged travellers could be faced with consequences from airlines, such as having loyalty miles taken away or being billed for the final leg of their journey.

Plus, skiplagging only works when passengers don’t check their bags – as checked bags will end up at the ticketed final destination rather than the layover city.

Booking a hidden-city ticket using the “skiplagging” strategy is a popular way to save money on expensive flights. But there are some risks involved with throwaway tickets, and passengers who break an airline’s rules may end up paying far more than they intended.

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