Hidden city ticket opportunities are more common than you think

Patrick Surry - Jan. 31, 2016

Summary:

  • Hidden city tickets, indirect flights in which the passenger disembarks at a connection, offer a less expensive direct flight options for 26% of domestic routes searched by consumers

  • Buyer Beware: most airlines explicitly prohibit exploiting hidden city price disparities in their conditions of carriage.  Airlines might restrict your future travel or frequent flyer status if you are caught using this strategy.

  • The average hidden city ticket saves $33 (about 21%) over simply buying the same direct flight, with some routes discounted almost $200 (nearly 60%)

  • Many of the hidden city tickets are regularly available for a wide variety of dates

  • You’re most likely to find a hidden city discount when you’re flying to a major hub since the hub carrier will often offer significant discounts to fly from your origin via their hub to other airports which they don’t serve directly

  • Almost all airlines use hidden city pricing, but 96% of domestic hidden city discounts are offered by the major hub and spoke carriers: American/US, Delta, United, and Alaska

  Analysis

“Hidden city tickets” have been in the news a lot the last few months, and are a great example of the bewildering state of today’s airfare market. Airlines are often willing to sell a much cheaper ticket with one or more stops on a route where they don’t have a direct flight option, in order to compete with a direct flight offered by another airline.  The “hidden city ticket” occurs when ticket from A to B to C is cheaper than a trip from A to B such as the example in figure 1.

The figure shows that Virgin America is offering a non-stop one-way from Washington, DC to San Francisco on June 4 for $213, but is willing to sell a ticket from DC to Dallas that connects on exactly the same flight through SFO for $127. That is, they’re willing to fly you more than 1,200 miles further for $86 less!  In this case you can get to San Francisco for $127 instead of $213 if you dare to buy a hidden ticket.

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Figure 1: Virgin America hidden city example

However, just because the tickets exist, doesn’t mean that you are allowed to purchase and use them.  When you buy a ticket, you implicitly agree to the airline’s “conditions of carriage” which include all sorts of restrictions on what you can do with the ticket:  you might think you’re just buying a seat on a plane, but actually you’re buying a complex derivative that gives you certain limited rights to use that seat. These rules include the right to invalidate your ticket if the airline “... determines that the ticket has been purchased or used in a manner designed to circumvent applicable fare rules.” For example, about 6,500 words into American Airlines’ 8,500-word conditions of carriage you find that they “... specifically prohibit ...” practices such as “back to back ticketing," “throwaway [roundtrip] ticketing,”“hidden city/point beyond ticketing,” along with several others.

If the conditions of carriage don’t scare you off… Buyer beware: The airline will cancel your remaining itinerary as soon as you miss a connection.  Checked baggage normally won’t be delivered at your intermediate stop.  If your flight gets cancelled you could be rescheduled on a flight that doesn’t stop at your desired intermediate airport.  Airlines might also restrict your future travel or frequent flyer status if you use this strategy.

At Hopper, we wanted to know how common “hidden city ticket” deals actually are.  Based on four weeks of airfare search data for flights shopped at least two weeks in advance, we compared the “good deal” price of non-stop domestic flights to the cheapest one-stop flights from the same origin connecting through the destination en route to a hidden city somewhere beyond.

Overall we looked at over 4,500 domestic routes where nonstop flights are available.  We found hidden city deals for 948 of those routes (about 21%), representing about 26% of search demand.  When there was a deal to be had, the hidden city option averaged 21% cheaper than a normal direct flight, a discount of $33 off the one-way price.  The ten best discounts we found are shown in table 1.

Origin Destination Direct One-Way Hidden One-Way Hidden City Destination Hidden City Airline % Saving Amount Saved
PHL JFK $215 $82 BOS DL 62% $133
IAD LAX $138 $57 DAL VX 59% $82
SDF ATL $198 $82 ORD DL 58% $116
PWM ORD $284 $118 CAK UA 58% $166
CHO LGA $196 $84 BOS DL 57% $112
EUG SFO $212 $92 LAX UA 57% $120
DAL LAX $130 $57 IAD VX 56% $73
GRR DFW $235 $103 TPA AA 56% $132
PBI DTW $153 $68 IAD DL 55% $85
MEM DFW $161 $74 ORD AA 54% $87

** Table 1**: Examples of the largest discounts we saw. For example, direct one-way flights from Philadelphia (PHL) to New York (JFK) bought at least two weeks in advance typically sell for about $215.  But Delta will sell a ticket from Philadelphia to Boston via JFK for $82, which includes the nonstop PHL-JFK leg at a 62% or $133 discount over the best direct flight.

The biggest discounts are found when you’re flying to an airline’s hub city.  In those cases, the airline typically charges a premium to fly direct to their hub, since few or no other carriers will serve that route non-stop.  But that same airline is normally willing to heavily discount flights to other destinations via their hub in order to compete with other airline’s non stop flights.  Table 2 shows some great examples flying from Hawaii to Dallas (American Airlines hub), Atlanta (Delta Air Lines hub) and Denver (United Air Lines hub).

Origin Destination Direct One-Way Hidden One-Way Hidden City Destination HiddenCity Airline % Saving Amount Saved
HNL DFW $472 $283 LGA US 40% $189
HNL ATL $494 $309 PIT DL 37% $185

HNL DEN $360 $219 FCA UA 39% $141

Table 2: Examples of discounts from Honolulu to major hub cities. Hidden city discounts of up to 40% are often available as the airline controlling the hub prices the direct flight at a premium but is willing to discount connections via the hub to compete with other airlines.

Tables 3 and 4 respectively summarize the hidden city discounts we’ve seen by origin and destination.  Hidden city discounts are highly concentrated on the major hub destinations spread across many origins:  47% of all hidden city  routes fly to one of the top 10 destinations, but only 13% of discounted routes depart from one of the top 10 origins.

 

Popularity Origin City Discounted Routes Amount Saved % Saving
1 JFK New York 12 $37 26%
2 EWR Newark 11 $44 28%
3 SEA Seattle 17 $34 21%
4 BOS Boston 13 $38 25%
5 BWI Baltimore 14 $36 24%
6 FLL Ft. Lauderdale 10 $23 18%
7 DCA Washington 15 $39 26%
8 MCO Orlando 15 $19 15%
9 LAX Los Angeles 9 $36 20%
10 IAD Washington 8 $30 22%

Table 3: Top 10 origins by combined market share of routes with hidden city deals.  Deals are spread out across many origins, and concentrated on the top hub airport destinations (see next table).

 

PopularityDestCityDiscounted routesAmount saved% savings
1LAXLos Angeles37$3119%
2EWRNewark53$3624%
3ATLAtlanta78$4629%
4MIAMiami26$2114%
5JFKNew York23$2819%
6PHXPhoenix35$3722%
7SFOSan Francisco34$4523%
8LGANew York35$3321%
9DFWDallas-Fort Worth65$5126%
10CLTCharlotte63$6237%

Table 4: Top 10 destinations by combined market share of routes with hidden city deals.  Most hidden city discounts are found when flying to a major hub airport.

Finally, Table 5 shows the distribution of the hidden city deals we found broken out by airline.  The major hub-and-spoke legacy carriers are where most of the deals are found.

AirlineCodeRoutesAverage discountAverage saving
Delta Air LinesDL28226%$44
United AirlinesUA27524%$44
US AirwaysUS18730%$50
American AirlinesAA12921%$38
Alaska AirlinesAS4113%$21
JetBlue AirwaysB6137%$8
Virgin AmericaVX727%$40
Spirit AirlinesNK619%$21
Silver Airways3M421%$29
Hawaiian AirlinesHA22%$3
Cape Air9K150%$67
Frontier AirlinesF915%$5

** Table 5**: Hidden city deals broken down by discounting airline, showing number and average size of deals. 96% of hidden city deals are offered by the major hub-and-spoke carriers (DL, UA, US/AA, AS).  

Data & Methodology:

For this study, we looked at almost two billion domestic single-carrier flight itineraries collected from consumer airfare search results during a single week.  For every nonstop domestic route, we compared the price of good deal nonstop flights on that route to the price of good deal flights with an intermediate stop at the same destination.   We focus on consumer leisure airfare by defining “good deals” as flights bought at least two weeks in advance, with the price calculated as the tenth percentile of quoted prices from airfare search.  This means that 90% of quoted prices were higher, which excludes many expensive last minute and flexible tickets targeted at business travelers.

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