Airlines changed the pricing of multi-city tickets — here’s how to avoid paying more.

The next time you try to buy an airline ticket with one stopover or more, you could pay twice as much as you expected.

Three airlines — American, Delta and United — quietly changed how they price multi-city tickets online recently, often displaying dramatically higher fares than they used to. Airlines say they’ve just closed a loophole that allowed passengers in the know to save a few bucks, but advocates claim the airlines are making yet another concerted money grab.

Here’s how it used to work: Say you wanted to fly from Newark to Los Angeles for vacation and then continue your trip to San Francisco. Those flights used to cost about $592 when you booked them through an airline website as a single ticket. Now, the same itinerary will cost you about $1,311.

What’s going on? Think of multi-city tickets as a puzzle, where you can combine a series of cities to form a complete fare. The airlines have changed the game. You used to be able to combine the pieces into a single fare with no extra cost; now when you combine them, you get a more expensive ticket. The only way to get that $592 fare on the Newark-Los Angeles-San Francisco route would be to book them as separate tickets — but the airlines’ websites don’t let you know you have that option.

“All of the three major carriers’ multi-segment itineraries are pricing significantly higher when booked online as one ticket, versus if each segment was sold separately,” says Peter Vlitas, senior vice president of airline relations for Travel Leaders Group, one of the nation’s largest travel-agency companies.

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“The three major U.S. airlines may have just provided the traveling public with the best argument for using travel agents in decades,” he adds.

To some observers, the changes are warning signs that a once-competitive industry has resorted to collusion to raise its profits. Although the airline industry denies it is doing anything improper, there are calls for an investigation.

Caught in the middle, as always, are passengers such as Matt Carter, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin who has long suspected that airlines use their technology to swindle him out of more of his hard-earned money. “I have the constant feeling there are methods in place to rip off the consumer,” he says.

Airlines describe the move as nothing more than a routine system change dictated by a competitive marketplace. “Airline customers benefit immensely from the intense competition in the airline industry,” says Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America, an airline trade group. “As with any consumer product, it’s the marketplace that ultimately determines the price and service offerings.”

But not everyone agrees with that assessment. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) last week called the airlines’ actions “unfair and deceptive” and urged the Department of Transportation to investigate.

Unfortunately, there is unlikely to be a public outcry over the increased fares. Pricier multi-city tickets are more likely to affect business travelers, many of whom are on expense accounts, than leisure travelers. Also, complaints about too-high airfares are fairly rare, at least from this consumer advocate’s perspective.

That’s because passengers generally don’t have anything to compare their ticket prices to. In the case of the multi-city fare, the airlines’ websites offer consumers no hint that there’s a separate-ticket option that would save them money.

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But there’s a bigger problem: How could the three remaining legacy airlines, who together hold a commanding market share, happen to do this at almost exactly the same time?

“American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines may have coordinated on a complicated and comprehensive scheme to change airfare rules,” says Kevin Mitchell, founder of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents business travelers.

It wouldn’t be the first time major airlines stood accused of working together in violation of the law. Last summer, the Department of Justice confirmed it was investigating possible collusion among major airlines to limit available seats, effectively propping up airfares. A department spokesman confirmed that that investigation remains active.

Mitchell says it’s highly unlikely that the market forces Jennings spoke of led to the latest changes. In order for that to have happened, airlines would have had to look deep into the fare databases in a “complex and far-reaching way” and probably would have needed considerable time to analyze the data and decide what to do. This change happened too quietly and too quickly for that.

Although this relatively obscure pricing change isn’t likely to affect your next vacation, the next change — or even the previous one — could. And the fact that critics are accusing the domestic airline industry of collusion yet again suggests that the industry, which is down to just three major airlines plus Southwest, may not be as competitive as it claims to be.

Meanwhile, Namrata Kolachalam, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman, confirmed that the department received Menendez’s request for an investigation. “The department is reviewing it and will respond back directly,” she said.

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It should be an interesting summer for air travel.

Should the government more carefully regulate airline fare displays?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Alan Gore

    Most multi-city trips are in “I need an agent” territory anyway. She will be able to book the segments on different airlines to evade the extra charge. In the example given, the LAX-SFO segment can be flown on Southwest, which would give you flexibility should plans change in Los Angeles.

  • pmcw

    This does smell like collusion, and the last I checked, there are already laws against collusion between market participants.

    The problem is those laws, like most laws in this country, are
    selectively enforced, and when they are, the result is usually a fine
    that penalizes shareholders versus the people that break the laws. This
    is more similar to a local merchant buying “fire insurance” from a
    group of organized criminals than it is enforcement of the rule of law.
    Welcome to “crony-capitalism” – not to be confused with free market

    If there was even and regular enforcement of law that included criminal
    charges against those that break laws (what I like to call, “bunking
    with Bubba,” we wouldn’t see the blatant and widespread abuse we see

    Bottom Line: Unless there is collusion between market participants, the
    free market takes care of pricing problems with far better efficiency than
    regulations. Since there are already laws and regulations prohibiting
    collusion, we most certainly don’t need or want more regulations – that
    would only enhance the power of the crony-capitalism state we suffer
    with now.

  • Carchar

    Funny. I just yesterday bought one-way tickets from Newark to Portland and Los Angeles back to Newark.

  • ChelseaGirl

    I was under the impression that you can no longer book a true multicity ticket because long stopovers are not allowed anymore. So if you want to spend a whole day or more in a city before continuing on, you can’t do it on one ticket anyway. when I have tried to do it, the system limits the stopover to a certain number of hours.

  • Mel65

    You mention business travelers on expense accounts often. As one who travels fairly regularly for business, that stereotype is inaccurate. Yes I claim my expenses, including tickets, but there are rules about what fares I can purchase. Number one is I must select the “lowest logical fare,”oh and business class? Only authorized for Senior VP or partner staff, at least in our company and the last 7 I’ve worked for.

  • JewelEyed

    I get what you’re saying, but a sample size of 1 also does not disprove anything.

  • Randy Culpepper

    Ditto this. I travel regularly for work (a Fortune 100 financial services organization), and while I technically have an “expense account” (corporate credit card), it certainly isn’t all high airfares and steak dinners. In fact, it *never* is.

  • pauletteb

    Same for the tickets I book for my company.

  • Éamon deValera

    Just use an agent if it is not from A to B on a direct flight (and then I’d still use an agent).

  • Mel65

    I would say the multiple companies I’ve worked for, the last I one having 25k and the current one having 188k employees add up to a lot more than “1”…..

  • KanExplore

    I compare it sometimes to plumbing. I know very little about plumbing, and if it’s anything beyond the most trivial issue, I’m getting help. In the end, it would cost me a lot more to try to do it myself. I could learn, but the need is infrequent and my knowledge would always slip and/or be out of date. On the other hand, travel is my passion. I organize many trips for myself and for family and groups of friends. I keep up with developments. I can do well booking my own travel. But for those who travel only occasionally, or who have any complexity in their plans, paying a little extra for an agent is good advice. It will probably save money.

  • BMG4ME

    I’ve never seen a cheaper price when booking multiple segments in the same reservation unless you’re talking about gaps of days between segments.

  • Lindabator

    Collusion is a silly claim in this case — the MINUTE one airline logs the pricing structure with the FAA, all the airlines get the same information – I can watch it happen in my system – Delta will have a specific price loaded, and is the only one with it – give it an hour or so, and all the others fall in line

  • Lindabator

    We have MULTIPLE corporate clients – and we always have to assign “reasonable” pricing for tickets – which is why they are somethimes on connections, sometimes on Southwest, and SOMETIMES – in to another city, as the rental car option is a better price option

  • Lindabator

    That refers to connections — these refer to multiple destinations. Say, Detroit to Denver — then from Denver to LA – then back home from LA. And unfortunately, a lot of agents do NOT do airfare, as they are not on an airline system, so not an option for them. Which is why my clients LOVE the fact that I can book their business AND leisure options. For air only reservations, we do charge a service fee, but that means you have a 24 hour advocate who takes care of those schedule changes, misconnects, etc. I have a client who SWEARS by it — they actually had a misconnect while enroute – when they landed, she already had the text of the new flight info sent to her, so did NOT need to queue up for assistance. :)

  • Michael__K

    What on earth does this have to do with these FAA days? The mandatory sharing requirements formerly found in 14 CFR 255.10 were eliminated as of 2004.

    Airlines generally publish their fares to the same GDS’s like Travelport, Amadeus, Sabre (all private companies), and of course they can monitor each other’s prices and fare rules on these private systems.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    That’s the double edged sword of the public airline search system: The customers know the pricing as well as the players.

    I was watching an old John Mitchell film where he played a store clerk at a fancy department store who reported false buyers: competitive stores that sent out agents to buy a product, check the price, and then return the items so the opposition store could charge more, or less, than their competitor (as it suited them.)

    I also recall a story from a colleague about 20 year back whose friend went to a big box electronics store and was writing down prices simply to compare for his own sake. The store security told him that wasn’t allowed. “Collusion?” How can that be done if the prices are kept confidential?

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