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A Sneaky Way to Save Plenty on Airfares: Should You Do It?

Nearly six in 10 Americans say they plan on taking a summer vacation, a 16 percent jump from last year. But if you're planning to fly your way to some much-needed down time, it is going to cost you a whole lot more this summer. Orbitz says the average price of an airline ticket to the 10 most popular summer vacation destinations is between 8 percent (for Las Vegas and Boston) and 20 percent (San Francisco) higher than a year ago.

A Tricky Way to Save on Airfare
If you've yet to book your flights and you aren't a card-carrying Boy Scout or Girl Scout, you might want to check out an interesting fare-saving strategy laid out in The New York Times Magazine. (The Boy Scout/Girl Scout ref will become clear in a minute, I promise.)

In his Acts of Mild Subversion column for the Sunday magazine, numbers geek Nate Silver shows how to save money by booking flights that make your final destination the layover stop in an itinerary, and then simply getting off at the layover and not finishing the trip. The savings comes from finding a competitive route to some destination you don't intend to travel to, but that uses your actual desired destination as the layover. I'll let Silver explain:

A nonstop one-way ticket from Des Moines to Dallas/Fort Worth is $375 on American Airlines, for example -- more than the $335 Delta will charge you to fly from Miami to Anchorage. But what happens when you're interested in flying American from Des Moines to Los Angeles, which hosts a more competitive airport? That flight is only about half the price ($186), despite its being more than double the distance. Now, here's the trick: American flights from Des Moines to L.A. have a layover in Dallas. If you want to travel to Dallas, the best way to get a reasonable fare is to book the flight to Los Angeles instead, and simply get off the plane at Dallas.

Apparently this is an old trick called the "hidden-city" stratagem. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts here's your warning: Most airlines, save for Southwest Airlines, explicitly forbid the practice. Yet airline rules aren't bona fide law, so Silver's stance is if your conscience isn't troubled by breaking rules -- and the lawyers who might want to come after you for breaking said rules -- head on over to and start fiddling around with itineraries that have cost-effective layovers. (By the way, you did notice my mention that this Times column is called Acts of Mild Subversion, right?)

Even if you're not ethically challenged on this, I have to say the hidden fee strategy seems to have a very narrow appeal. Its drawbacks:

  • You can't check any bags. You can get off at the layover stop, but checked luggage will keep on flying to the final destination. Maybe that's not a problem if you're in sync with CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg who always ships his luggage ahead for the simple pleasure of avoiding baggage claim and lost luggage. But if you're planning on tossing a weekend bag in the overhead, you might run into trouble. Let's say you're flying Southwest or another airline that uses "Zone" boarding based on when you check in and you get stuck in a late-boarding zone. By the time you're marking time in the aisle trying to get to your seat, all the overheads are full. The ever-helpful flight attendant cheerfully takes your bag and has it sent down below with all the other checked baggage -- that will be continuing onto the final destination you're skipping.
  • The small matter of returning home. The hidden city strategy only works if you book each trip as a one-way flight; if you book a round-trip itinerary and you miss any leg of it, the rest of the trip may be canceled by the airline. So you need to run the travel-site algorithms and see what the total cost will be to book two one-way trips versus a single round trip. In Silver's Des Moines-Dallas example, the math worked out conclusively, but if you run the numbers for your itinerary and the savings aren't all that great, is it really worth the strain on your conscience? Comments are open below.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Bob Lockwood

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