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Airline Mismanagement

The airlines create these 'loopholes' - shouldn't you be allowed to take advantage of them?

The airlines say it is illegal to follow these three loopholes. But - as far as I am aware - their claim has never been tested in any appellate court.

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Air Fare Loopholes - The Ultimate Airline Bluff?

Back to back, throwaway, and hidden city tickets are loopholes that the airlines have created themselves.

Now they try to bully us - their customers - into pretending they don't exist.

Part 1 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three


If you want to hire a rental car for six days, it is cheaper to pay a full seven day weekly rate than it is to buy six days at the daily rate. And, if you return the car before the full seven days is up, the rental car company thanks you for giving them back their car early. They don't insist you leave it parked on the street for another day!

Amusement parks sells ride tickets at 70c each, or 20 for $12. If you want 18 rides, it is cheaper to buy 20 bulk rides for $12 than 18 single rides for $12.60. But when you leave the amusement park, no-one searches you to make sure you have used up all your ride tickets. They're happy to have sold you 20 tickets, even if you didn't use them all.

The local bus operator sells one month passes that are cheaper than buying a bunch of individual tickets for daily travel. They don't insist you ride the bus every day, or even at all! They're happy to sell you the pass whether you use it or not.

But, buy an airline roundtrip ticket and the airline claims that you must fly every flight on the ticket you purchased, even though it costs them more money than if you only fly some but not all the flights on the ticket.


The Three Classic Loopholes

These are the three classic loopholes in the airlines' current fare rules.  Exploiting one of these may help you to get the cheapest flights and fares.  The are :

1. Back to Back Ticketing

This is primarily a way to avoid the 'stay over a Saturday night' requirement. For example, let's consider the following travel needs :

In three weeks time, you want to fly to Syracuse on Monday, and return back home on Thursday.

Another two weeks later, you want to fly to Syracuse again, traveling there on Tuesday and returning home on Friday.

Because neither itinerary includes a 'stay over a Saturday night', the chances are that none of the discounted fares will apply, and instead of paying $200-400 per roundtrip, you might be paying $600-900.

So, this is how the back-to-back ticketing works.

You buy a ticket that has you traveling from home to Syracuse on the Monday of your first trip, and returning home again from Syracuse on the Friday of the second trip.

You buy a second ticket that has you traveling from Syracuse to the city you live in on the Thursday of your first trip, and then returning back to Syracuse on the Tuesday of your second trip.

What does this mean? You now have two tickets, each of which include a Saturday night stay, and so probably qualify for the lowest fare. And you've saved hundreds of dollars, too.

On the face of it, these are two totally proper tickets - you're flying every sector of every ticket. But the airlines claim that they can control everything you do, even when you're not flying on the tickets that you bought! They want you to pay the highest possible fare, not the lowest possible fare, for your travels.

2. Throwaway Ticketing

This is a slightly darker variation on the back to back ticket example. In this case, let's again suppose that you want to fly to Syracuse, but this time, you only need to travel there once. The price for your 'no Saturday night stay' fare is $650. The price for a regular roundtrip fare with a Saturday night stay is $285.

So, what you do is you buy a ticket to travel to Syracuse on the day you wish to fly there, and with a return flight a couple of weeks later. Then you buy a second ticket for travel from Syracuse back home on the day you want to actually fly home, and book a flight back to Syracuse a couple of weeks further out.

You use the first half of your first ticket and then throw away the other half of it. You use the first half of the second ticket and throw away its second half. You've spent $285x2 = $570, which is a decent saving compared to the $650 full fare.

Throwaway Ticketing - Bonus Hint

You can improve your savings, and make it harder for the airline to realize what you're doing, if you make the second half of each ticket not be a simple return back to the place you started your travel from, but instead, a flight to somewhere else that is in a different location and which costs less to fly to.

That way, your total ticket cost is lower (due to a cheaper throwaway flight) and it is less obvious to an airline computer audit that you're doing throwaway tickets.

As for the airline, its costs have been halved. It no longer needs to pay the costs associated with flying you on the other half of the flights you booked and paid for - you'd think they'd be pleased! Not only does it save the costs associated with your cancelled flights, but it can also sell the same seats a second time to some other passenger - you'd think they'd be delighted.

But, no, the airlines stubbornly insist that 'if you paid for it, you've got to fly it, whether you want to or not'! Their insistence on controlling what you do is only one gentle step removed from coercion and false imprisonment!

3. Hidden City Fares

In this example, let's say that you live on the west coast, and the fare to Syracuse is more expensive than the fare all the way to New York (a very common situation!).

So, you book your itinerary such that your travel includes a stop in Syracuse, and, when the plane arrives in Syracuse, you simply walk off the plane and out of the terminal. Fortunately airport security presently only checks that you have a valid ticket to fly out of airports before letting you enter - they don't (yet?) check that you have a valid ticket to arrive into an airport before letting you leave!

Note that this only works if you do not check luggage - if you check luggage, the airline will of course check it all the way to your official destination. Either carry it on to the plane or use one of the new luggage transportation services such as Luggage Express or Virtual Bellhop that will save you having to check luggage, at a cost of about $50 per piece.

This also only works if you don't want to use all the other flights on your ticket, because as soon as the airline detects an unflown flight, it will cancel all other flights on your itinerary. But if you're using a throwaway ticket, that's not a problem.

Indeed, the only problem is, again, the airline. As recounted in Joe Brancatelli's famous example about Diet Coke, although you're under no obligation to drink all the Diet Coke in the 2 liter bottle, the airlines claim that you must fly every flight on your discount ticket.

Read more in Parts 2 & 3

If you believe what the airlines claim, these three strategies are apparently all 'illegal'. The reality of this is discussed in part two. How to avoid coming to the airlines' attention is discussed in the third part of the series. Until you've read these other two columns, you're probably better advised to hold off using your new found knowledge!

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Originally published 9 August 2002, last update 20 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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Loopholes - The Ultimate Airline Bluff?
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