Since the advent of online booking, travelers have worked long and hard to determine the best way to find the cheapest travel possible. From using points and miles to reduce costs, to using timing schemes and planning tools to find the best prices, frequent flyers will seemingly do anything to get a deal.
Another trend has emerged which requires flyers book one-way fares through a connecting city. Instead of traveling to the final destination, the traveler departs at their midway point, letting their seat go unfilled for the final leg of the trip. This is known as a “hacker fare,” or “hidden city ticketing,” which (when applied correctly) can save individual travelers hundreds of dollars at the expense of an unfilled seat for the airline.
Is it entirely safe to travel on a hacker fare to save money? Are there any inherent risks for the traveler on flying aboard a “hidden city ticket?” As with every travel situation, there are pros and cons that come with making any travel decision. Before booking a hacker fare, consider the following points prior to departure.
How Hacker Fares Work
For years, hacker fares were a well-kept secret among frequent flyers. These tickets made their way into the spotlight in 2014 with the launch of websites dedicated to finding these fares, including Skiplagged.com. With these tools at hand, travelers had a new and simpler way to find hacker fares, without the difficulty of putting them together alone.
The hacker fare, also known as the "hidden city ticket," works when a traveler selects an origin and destination. With these two in mind, the passenger looks for a lower hacker fare by purchasing a ticket that connects through their destination and forwards to another city. Instead of connecting through to the final city, the traveler departs the airport in the connecting city—the original intended destination—and leaves their seat unfilled for the final leg of the journey.
While hacker fares can offer a discount for travelers, they can also create problems. Travelers who take the risk on hacker fares could be subject to severe penalties if they are caught.
The Downsides of Hacker Fares
Although hacker fares can provide an upfront discount, flying with an empty seat that cannot be resold comes at a significant cost to the airlines. As a result, carriers have taken several steps towards preventing passengers from boarding on a hidden city fare.
First, many airlines’ contract of carriage allows for the cancellation of an itinerary if a passenger abandons prior to completion. If a traveler were to book a hacker fare on a round trip itinerary, not reporting for at least one of those flights could result in the remainder of their tickets – including return flights – being canceled. In addition, if the traveler were to use their frequent flyer number to earn points, all the miles from the hacker fare could be revoked.
Lost frequent flyer points could be the last thing travelers need to worry about when it comes to hacker fares. If a passenger is caught trying to exploit a hidden city ticket, they could also be forced to pay the full retail price of the flight, automatically charged to their credit card. In extreme cases, travelers who continually exploit hacker fares can be banned from flying aboard their carrier of choice. All of these situations are allowed under the airline's contract of carriage, meaning travel insurance will not help a traveler who experiences any of these situations from flying on a hacker far.
The Pros of Traveling on a Hacker Fare
While hidden city tickets come with a number of risks, they can also come with some advantages as well. The biggest advantage of traveling on a hacker fare is the ability to travel at a significant discount compared to other cities.
Flyers through Cincinnati understand this concept very well, as the city was once considered the most expensive city to fly through. To beat the high fares of flying home, many passengers would book a hacker fare to connect through Cincinnati and continuing to another city. By departing in Cincinnati instead of continuing on to their final destination, travelers were able to save a significant amount of money on their airfare. Hacker fare website Skiplagged claims some travelers can save 80 percent off the published fare when taking a "hidden city" ticket or another type of "hacker" fare.
Is it Safe?
Although there is no law against utilizing a hacker fare to get to a city, they do come with a balance of risk and reward. By flying on a hidden city ticket, travelers can save significant amounts of money on their trips. On the converse, if those travelers are caught breaking airline rules through hacker fares, the penalties are severe and may come without warning.
Before booking a hacker fare, be careful to count all the costs and weigh the pros and cons. Those who wish to travel on a hacker fare should not use their frequent flyer number or check luggage and be careful to only book one-way tickets.
For those travelers who do not want to inherit the risk, travelers should consider other options to travel for cheap. These options include purchasing tickets using points and miles or using automated tools to find the best price on all their trips.
Safer Hacker Fares
Companies such as Kayak, have a different take on the hacker fare and it's a bit safer. Kayak finds two one-way tickets that together make a round-trip. With this arrangement, you might take a different airline home than the one you took to your destination. Or, it might be the same airline, but they have you in the system as two one-way trips. Once you select "Hacker Fare" on Kayak, you can view the deal and decide if you want to use it or not.