Only in airline math is three less than one. Ask anyone who's ever saved $150 by flying from Seattle to San Diego through Boise and Portland. Sure, you'd THINK the fuel, taxes, and other associated costs of putting a person on three flights would make that ticket more expensive than a nonstop. But then you'd vastly underestimate the chimpanzees who apparently handpick airfares.
You might as well put this wackadoodle logic to work for you. A website called Skiplagged specializes in finding what it calls "hidden city flights," wherein you book a ticket to a place you have no intention of ever going, because it connects through the city you actually want to visit. You basically ghost halfway through a trip. It pisses airlines off to no end. Yet it saves you beaucoup bucks. Win-win, right? Here's how to run this game.
How it works
As you would with any search engine, enter your beginning and end cities and travel dates on Skiplagged. It sifts through the routes to your destination city and the routes that connect through it.
So say you're trying to fly from Cleveland to New York. It'll bring up all the flight itineraries from CLE to JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. Then it goes a step further by also listing all the "hidden city routes," where a flight from Cleveland to, say, Baltimore, has a connection through Newark. Showing all the results in a handy matrix organized by price, duration, or number of legs.
You can't book the flight through Skiplagged, but you're more than welcome to go to the airline's website, book that Cleveland-to-Baltimore flight, then when you get to Newark, just walk your happy ass right out of the terminal and save a fat $107. You, one. Chimpanzees, zero.
Who this works for
People who live in smaller cities looking to fly to big markets. For example, we found a flight from Boise to San Francisco that, if booked nonstop, would cost $356. That price dropped to $92 for a ticket from Boise to Orange County with a connection in SFO.
It works for markets bigger than Boise, as well. For example, one nonstop Delta flight from Sacramento to Atlanta cost $326. But book a trip to Indianapolis with an Atlanta connection and you're only spending $153.
It's also useful for smaller cities within a region to larger ones. For example, one nonstop flight from Nashville to Atlanta: $324 on Delta. Yet several connections THROUGH Atlanta cost less than $120, the cheapest being a flight from Nashville to Cleveland through ATL for only $81, literally a quarter of the price for the same service.
Finally, it's a perfect fit if your local airport is crazy expensive, and you often have to drive to a larger, more unpleasant airport to save money. The prime example: Orange County. Nonstops from LAX to New York aren’t too bad, but if you live in Orange County and want a nonstop from John Wayne to NYC, it'll run you a staggering $740. However, book a flight from Orange County to Richmond, VA and connect through Newark, and your flight's only $202.
Who it doesn't work for
Because airlines love to make your life difficult, it won't really work for round-trip tickets: if you skip your connection on the way there, and never get on another flight, your whole itinerary is canceled. Airlines are real peaches like that. To take full advantage, you'll need to buy one-way tickets.
Also, if you live in a big hub city (Chicago, Dallas, Houston, everywhere else you see people sleeping on airport floors) and have regular nonstops everywhere, you're not finding many deals flying out. Though you might find some good ones coming home.
Likewise, if you're looking to fly a highly popular route, like New York to Miami or LA to San Francisco, airlines already have cheap nonstops on those routes. There just isn't much to save. Also true if you're going BETWEEN hub cities, so Chicago to Dallas won't have much in the way of bargains.
What's the catch?
Obviously, you can't check a bag. Even using the old "check it at the gate" trick won't work because gate agents will only check it to your "final" destination. You also probably won't be able to get any frequent flyer miles, as airlines invalidate your flight as soon as you miss the connection. So perks junkies, be warned.
The savings aren't nearly as huge if you're willing to make connections. For example, the aforementioned Orange County-to-Newark flight is the same $202 with a Dallas connection. That, of course, doesn't count the drinks you have to buy when your flight is inevitably delayed at DFW.
Also, airlines don't exactly love that people do this. It's completely legal, but United Airlines has even gone so far as to sue Skiplagged, even though the site doesn't even sell flights. And if the airlines catch on to what you're doing, they may require you to show proof of a return ticket. You can get around that by purchasing a refundable ticket for the return.
So if you're willing to carry your bags on, and risk the ire of the airlines, you can save some serious cash with hidden city flying. You'll save money, the guy next to you on the connection you don't take will have some extra armrest space, and the only people who lose out are the airlines and their illogical pricing.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.