Frequent Liars

Will these airline booking strategies fly?
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the February 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Ask any veteran business traveler how to track down a cheap ticket, and you may get an earful about hidden cities and back-to-back tickets.

For years, travel agents helped road warriors use these tricks to save money. But recently, airlines have begun charging retailers the difference between regular fares and the amount saved. The carriers are going after travelers, too, using sophisticated software to track travel patterns through frequent-flier accounts.

What exactly are these tricks of the trade? A hidden city is your final destination-but it's also the stopover city between two airports. For example, you buy a round-trip ticket from Baltimore to Miami but only go as far as Philadelphia, the stopover city.

Top 20 Business Travel Cities
. . . for the first nine months of 2000, according to
1. New York City
2. London
3. Hong Kong
4. Tokyo
5. Los Angeles
6. Paris
7. Mexico City
8. San Francisco
9. Brussels, Belgium
10. Singapore
11. Chicago
12. São Paulo, Brazil
13. Beijing
14. Buenos Aires
15. Osaka, Japan
16. Shanghai, China
17. Boston
18. Jakarta, Indonesia
19. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
20. Amsterdam, Netherlands

A back-to-back itinerary lets you get two overlapping tickets but only use half of each one, which costs less than booking one less-restricted ticket. For instance, you buy two sets of round-trip tickets from Dallas to Seattle but only use the outbound segment of the first itinerary and the inbound segment of the second one.

Back-to-backs circumvent airlines' Saturday-night stayover requirements. And traveling via hidden cities takes advantage of a pricing loophole for tickets that could mean paying less for a longer flight than you would for a shorter one.

Not surprisingly, the airline industry believes these tricks are wrong and discourages them. "There are moral issues involved," notes Richard Eastman, a technology consultant and former airline manager. "The passenger bought a ticket from Point A to B, not Point A to X. The airline must hold up its side of the contract; what gives a passenger the right to abrogate his side?" But the airlines are struggling in their attempt to fight back. Last year, a Cincinnati judge issued an injunction against Delta Air Lines, which had frozen a frequent flier's SkyMiles account and ordered him to repay the $9,000 he'd saved by using hidden cities on trips originating in Cincinnati.

Consider the following tactics before deciding to use these ticketing tricks:

Don't involve your travel agent. Airlines have more leverage over the retailers and can penalize them for breaking rules.

If you try to book a hidden city itinerary, know that it can only be used one way and you can't check in any luggage.

Be careful about trying to collect frequent-flier miles. Carriers track your mileage account-their ability to dock your frequent-flier points if you're caught is in litigation.

Fellow road warriors know what they can and can't get away with, so stay current with what they're doing. It's the best way to be sure you remain on good terms with the airline.

Christopher Elliott is a writer in Annapolis, Maryland. Contact him at

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