United sues 22-year-old over low fare “hidden city ticketing” secret; secret is exposed

Ever heard of “hidden city” ticketing? Until yesterday, most people hadn’t either – until United Airlines and Orbitz decided to sue the 22-year-old New York City entrepreneur who developed an ingenious site called Skiplagged.com to allow people to easily search for this secret way to save a ton of money on airline tickets.

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It appears his site is no longer producing working results, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck.

First, what is this low fare ‘hidden city’ thing?

Hidden city ticketing is booking a one-way flight with a layover, and not taking the connecting flight because it’s cheaper than just booking the flight directly. This can result in low-cost airfare.

Why would you do this?

As crazy as it sounds, sometimes booking a flight to a smaller city while connecting through a larger city is cheaper than just booking a flight right to the bigger city.

Take, for instance, a last-minute flight from San Francisco to Houston on January 5, 2015. If you just booked the flight, it would set you back $675. Ouch.

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Then, look at one-way flight from San Francisco to Cleveland, stopping in Houston. $497. Still ouch, but that’s $178 less — even though you’re flying farther and you’re on a whole ‘nother flight.

If you get off the plane in Houston and don’t take the connecting flight, you just saved yourself $178. Hidden city low fare secret success!

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Why does this work this way? Airfares are always priced bizarrely, no matter which airline. Often, there’s no rhyme or rule to finding a low fare or lower-fare flight other than “book early,” but even then that doesn’t always ring true.

In this case, Houston and San Francisco are two of United’s hubs, and are often busy – probably giving United in particular a reason to raise the fares for that route. However, they still want to make fares to get to Cleveland reasonable, so they’ll discount one of the legs to make that happen.

I know, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The low fare secret’s downside

Now, there’s nothing illegal about doing the above, which is what the guy was doing automatically. It definitely falls under a gray area, but it’s not illegal. Airline low fare hackers have been doing this manually for years, but it is risky – and United is simply trying to prevent a loss of revenue.

Not only can you not check a bag if you do this (your bag would end up in Cleveland in the instance above), but you run the risk of an airline banning you from flying with them again. Or, if you were to attach your frequent flier account to it, you run the risk of the airline simply canceling it completely and your hard-earned miles…gone. But sometimes you’re in a pinch – especially with last-minute flights – and it can work itself out in the end.

The airlines are not obligated to take your money, and they have entire departments that deal with what they would consider fraud, and I would imagine this falls under that category. That’s not to say that if you do it from time to time you’ll get caught and it’s all over, but I certainly would not advise doing it on a regular basis.

Now, is United right in suing the guy? Who knows. It’s a flaw in the system, and it’s a fact of life. United seems to want to recoup alleged losses as a result of his technology – but in doing so, it’s alerted a lot more people to the fact that low fare hidden city ticketing is alive and well.

Then there’s the bad PR

United’s management team has a fiduciary responsibility to stop massive losses of revenue, and so I can’t blame them for trying to put an end to it. But in the process of doing that, United (with all the legal budget in the world) looks like they’re trying to hurt ‘the little guy’ whose efforts are now showing the world that there’s an inherent flaw in the way airline tickets are priced across the board.

United’s within its rights to try to sue him to protect its revenue from this low cost “hidden city” secret. But maybe instead of suing the guy, they should’ve just offered him a job — and avoided letting even more people know the fact that airfare is priced seemingly without rhyme or reason.