This trick to save time and money on air travel is risky, illegal and may get you banned

Just about everything is more expensive these days, and air travel is no exception: in fact, the price of a plane ticket is outpacing other cost increases.

That may leave some travelers scrambling for new ways to save on the cost of air fare — but there’s one money-saving hack that comes with steep risks for flyers.

Let’s say you’re booking a one-way flight from New York to Charlotte.

When you check the price online, it’s more expensive than you expected. Then you notice: there’s a ticket from New York to Greenville, S.C., that’s cheaper than your flight home — and it connects through Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

You can just book that ticket instead and get off in Charlotte… right?

This hypothetical situation spells out the practice known as “hidden city ticketing” or “skiplagging.” Some travelers have used it to save time and money on flight tickets, leading to frustration (and sometimes serious retribution) from airlines.

It may be tempting in Charlotte, which operates as a major East Coast hub for American Airlines. But it can come with consequences.

“It’s technically illegal,” said Zach Griff, senior reporter at The Points Guy, a travel website owned by Fort Mill, S.C.,-based Red Ventures. “If you go about it and enter into the contract knowing you’re doing this (when you buy your ticket), you should be wary of the consequences.”

if I book a cheaper flight that connects through CLT instead of flying direct, can I leave the airport in Charlotte? Airlines say no.
if I book a cheaper flight that connects through CLT instead of flying direct, can I leave the airport in Charlotte? Airlines say no.

How does hidden city ticketing exist?

Hidden city ticketing originated when travelers realized they could sometimes find cheaper fares for connecting through their desired airport rather than flying there directly.

The practice grew more common with the development of websites or other digital tools that allowed flyers to search for these kinds of tickets online.

But why are some plane tickets for longer distances cheaper? It’s because flight pricing is dynamic, Griff said, based on supply, demand and the inter-airline competition for specific routes.

For example, if American Airlines dominates the market for a particular route — say, a nonstop flight from Charlotte to Miami — it can price that ticket higher.

But if there was more competition or less demand for a particular route — in our hypothetical case, the flight from New York to Greenville — the airline might price the whole trip lower.

Trips with a connection are also less desirable for flyers, Griff said, another factor that can bring a ticket price down.

What can happen if you do it?

Skiplagging is impossible if you’re checking a bag, Griff said, and can make things more difficult if you’re taking a round trip flight.

“There’s even the risk that you have to gate check your carry-on bag, because all those bags are tagged to their final destination,” he said.

And though hidden city ticketing may seem like a savvy way to save a few bucks, the practice is against the law. That’s because it breaches the contract you agree to when you purchase a flight ticket, Griff said.

For example, in its conditions of carriage, American Airlines explicitly prohibits hidden city ticketing, described as “purchasing a ticket without intending to fly all flights to gain lower fares.”

If the airline finds evidence of hidden city ticketing or any other prohibited booking practices, the contract states that American has the right to cancel any unused part of a ticket, refuse to let you fly or deny a refund of an otherwise refundable ticket.

The airline also has the right to charge you for what the ticket would’ve cost if you hadn’t booked it fraudulently, the contract states.

You may not get caught skiplagging, Griff said, but if you do, the consequences can be severe. Some airlines have gone so far as eliminating frequent flyer miles or banning customers.

“The airlines have the upper hand here,” he said. “You’re running the risk of things that you probably don’t want to have happen — especially if you’re based in Charlotte and could never fly American again.”

What are your other options to save money?

Though skiplagging is a risky way to save money on flight tickets, there are other ways to hunt for the most affordable price, Griff said.

“If you are flexible, there are still deals to be had,” he said.

Thrifty travelers can look for mid-week flights, he said, when prices are lower, or search for flights offered by alternative airlines at their home airport. In Charlotte, that could mean checking Delta or United prices for deals, he said.

Griff also said he’s seen many travelers switch out would-be vacation spots for cheaper, closer trips: postponing an international trip to London or Paris, for example, and opting for a spot in the Caribbean or Central America.

But Charlotte flyers can find solace in the fact that when it comes to higher ticket prices, they’re not alone. The cost of travel has increased for everyone, Griff said, on everything from air fare to hotel stays.

“It’s not going to be fixed overnight,” he said. “This is the new reality.”