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'Hidden City' Travel Saves You Money, But Upsets Airlines

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Ed Ronco/KPLU
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Skiplagged.com has caused controversy -- and is the subject of a lawsuit -- because of the way it finds cheaper airfares.

The website Skiplagged.com seems to offer a sure-fire way to find cheap airfare. But it’s also the target of a lawsuit, with claims that it creates unfair competition for airlines and other travel websites.

How It Works

One of Skiplagged’s functions – the one that’s causing the strife – is to find what’s called a “hidden city” itinerary.

Let’s say you want to go to Washington, D.C., in mid-March. A direct one-way flight will run you around $370. But if you buy a ticket to Orlando, with a stop in D.C., it costs about $150.

“We saved about 60 percent on one fare,” Brumley said.

Of course, the latter option means you simply don’t catch the second leg of your flight.

“And you need to make sure you didn’t check your bag,” Brumley says, “because if you do, it’s going to Orlando and you’re getting off in D.C.”

Why It’s A Problem

United Airlines and Orbitz have filed a federal lawsuit against the creator of Skiplagged. They say the site creates unfair competition.

There are other reasons the airlines don’t like it, too. For starters, it disrupts the complex system airlines use to determine how flights will be booked, and how tickets will be priced.

“If massive amounts of people did this, it could really mess things up,” he said.

If the second leg of a flight looks like it’s filling up, the price of the flight could go up. Imagine an itinerary from Seattle, to Dallas, to Santa Fe. You get off in Dallas.

“Those people who are just going from Dallas to Santa Fe, who are no part of your scheme, are now going to be paying more,” Brumley said.

Airfarewatchdog.com lays out some of the other arguments.

And, worth noting: the fine print that comes with the purchase of an airline ticket often prohibits the practice.

Brumley’s Take

“Hidden city” travel is something that insiders have been doing for years.

Brumley says it’s hard to feel sympathetic to those who oppose the practice.

“When I flew from Miami to Seattle, and had to purchase peanuts, it makes you feel like you’re being taken advantage of,” Brumley said.

But it’s not really about peanuts. He says it’s about the myriad ways airlines find to charge customers for services. Brumley says finding ways to spend less money is a perfectly reasonable thing for a traveler to do.

“There are two sides to this story, and I’d need to sit down with an airline executive to hash this out,” he said. “But at this point in time, it feels and seems legitimate, if you just want to find the best fare. Isn’t that supposedly what it’s all about?”

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Going Places is KPLU's travel segment, covering everything about getting from Point A to Point B. Each week, travel expert and Earthbound Expeditions founder Matthew Brumley takes listeners through great destinations and insider tips. What do you think of "hidden city" travel? Ethical? Has it saved you money? Has it messed with your plans? Let us know in the comments.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.