Travelers are breaking this rule for a cheaper flight. Should you?

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By Christopher Elliott

Would you break a rule for a cheaper airline ticket?

Susan Stevens did when she booked a hacker fare from Vienna to Frankfurt. A round-trip ticket costs hundreds of dollars less than a one-way ticket. So she bought a round-trip fare.

“After I landed, I threw the return ticket away,” recalls Stevens, a retired publicist from Philadelphia. 

What rule did she break? Airlines claim throwaway ticketing is illegal, and they sometimes prosecute customers they catch, confiscating loyalty points, suspending their frequent flier program memberships, or even suing them.

American Airlines is fighting against fare hackers the hardest. Last month, the airline settled a case against, a site with a reputation for offering hacker fares. Last year, it sued the fare-hacking site Skiplagged, alleging it engaged in “deceptive” practices by selling illegal tickets.

“Every ticket issued by Skiplagged is at risk of being invalidated,” it warned.

Having American Airlines accuse anyone of deception is a little ironic, considering a recent study that found 95 percent of American’s fares are comprised of hidden fees. And it’s extra ironic, considering that American recently received a record $4.1 million government fine for violating federal rules.

Still, hacker fares are wrong. The airline has placed restrictions on how to use its product, and you’ve agreed to obey the rules when you buy your ticket. But it is not nearly as wrong as the complicated and convoluted fare rules the airlines have created to squeeze more money from their customers.

What are hacker fares?

Hacker fares are any type of ticket that helps you save money but may violate airline policy. For example:

  • Throwaway tickets. Airlines sometimes price one-way tickets higher because they are used by business travelers, who have more money to spend. You can buy a roundtrip ticket for less and then just throw away the return.
  • Hidden city tickets. Booking a flight with the intention of disembarking at a connection instead of flying to the final destination can also save you money. Airlines may discount the destination but charge more for a flight to your connection city.
  • Back-to-back tickets. Airlines sometimes charge more for midweek round-trip flights than those with a Saturday night stay. By booking two consecutive round-trip flights with overlapping segments, you can get around that rule. 

These ticketing practices can save air travelers lots of money. But they infuriate airlines, which see them as violating their ticket contract and stealing revenue.

Why are hacker fares wrong?

Airlines claim that hacker fares are illegal. That’s not true. They violate the airline’s contract, which customers agree to when they book their tickets, but they don’t violate any laws.

“Most airlines forbid these practices in the contract of carriage, which customers rarely read,” explains John Hooker, a professor of business ethics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. 

Hooker says there’s a moral aspect to hacker fares. Using throwaway ticketing or hidden city ticketing may involve deception, which is causing another party to believe something you know is false.

Some frequent travelers say hacker fares are a red line they won’t cross.

“I don’t think it’s ethical to book a flight that you don’t intend to take,” says Barry Graham, a sales manager based in Washington, D.C. He says hacker fares have other unintended consequences, such as making the seats unavailable to other travelers or possibly raising prices for them.

What’s even worse than breaking a rule? These crazy airfares 

What’s worse than booking a hacker fare? The way airlines have set their ticket terms and prices, although they make occasional mistakes.

“Airlines have created this situation,” says Dan Gellert, chief operating officer for Skiplagged, a site that helps travelers find hacker fares.

Gellert says airlines take advantage of the lack of competition in the industry by raising fares in cities where they have a dominant market share, and overcharging customers. What’s more, airlines practice their own form of deception by overbooking their flights and hoping some passengers don’t show up. 

“The idea that a traveler has an obligation to board the flight when the airline has no official obligation to seat them on a flight is hypocritical,” he adds.

David Kazarian, a pharmacist from Tampa, Fla., says he has used hacker fares in the past with no remorse.

“Did I feel that it was unethical?” he asks. “Well, I felt the airline was unethical — and I was just settling the score.”

Should you break a rule for a cheaper ticket?

So what should you do? If you answered, “I’ll book a hacker fare,” you’re in good company. More than two-thirds of Americans (67%) will also book a hacker fare this summer, according to a recent survey by ValuePenguin.

In a sense, hacker fares are how the market is supposed to work, according to Cathy Mansfield, a law professor and consumer protection expert at Case Western Reserve University.

“Consumers who shop around for the lowest travel fares by any means are actually playing the role economists imagine for them in an unregulated, fully functioning consumer economy,” she says.

Anyone who takes the time to educate themself, find the best flight options and choose the least expensive one is driving prices lower and helping other passengers, she says. (Here’s what to do when your flight has been canceled or delayed.)

Breaking a rule is still not right, but …

The bottom line is that hacker fares — as the name implies — are still not entirely right. You’ve agreed to the terms of your ticket, and you should adhere to those terms.

But the solution isn’t for everyone to become a travel hacker. Instead, airlines should hold themselves to a reasonable standard, when it comes to how they set their fares — and fare rules. 

When a one-way ticket costs more than a roundtrip ticket, when a flight to an intermediate city is more expensive than one to a more distant final destination, then it’s time to bring some reason back to airfares. And if airlines don’t do it voluntarily, well, we can always try to regulate some common sense into them. 

Elliott’s tips for being a fare hacker

You may be able to save a lot of money by hacking your next flight. But be warned: Airlines are coming for you!

In fact, I recently heard from an American Airlines insider who said systems were being put in place to track fare violators based on their names and birthdates.

“We’ve begun tracking people that do this, and under their conditions of carriage, will deny ticket purchase or boarding for those passengers flagged,” the insider said.

But here are a few things you should definitely avoid:

  • Don’t ask your travel advisor to book a hacker fare. Airlines could hit your agent with a debit memo, asking for the fare difference.
  • Don’t give the airline your frequent flier number. If you use a hidden city or back-to-back ticket, you could hear from the airline, and it might ask you for more money.
  • Don’t check luggage. Airlines will transport your luggage to your final destination. If you get off at a stopover, you will lose your bags. And remember, if you’re a no-show for one segment of your flight, airlines will cancel the rest of your flights.
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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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