American Airlines Boeing 737

The last few trips on American Airlines, I haven’t been able to check in online. The most recent trips were simple and domestic, which eliminated any logical suspicion around the airline needing to confirm covid-19 testing or visa restrictions before allowing me to check in.

Based on a few extra factors, it’s lead me to believe that I might be flagged for hidden city ticketing, a term more commonly known these days as skiplagging. The short catch up is that it’s a risky, but often rewarding game where people try to save money on a flight, sometimes even getting a better cabin for less than coach.

How could American possibly flag me? Probably because I’ve done it. I don’t mind admitting it, in large part because American has no miles they can take away from me and it’s been years. It’s hardly been in a widly abusive way, and I didn’t create the rules for airline pricing, or the prices. I just buy tickets which serve my needs.

There’s no one at my coffee shop saying “you must finish every one of those croissants, or we’re going to charge you more”, so why American thinks they can make people fly every segment they buy is a topic of discussion.

Flagged For Hidden City Ticketing?

I recently had a simple flight from a New York airport to the Miami area. I wasn’t able to check in online, yet again, which I found odd. The last few times I wasn’t able to, I was traveling with my wife and infant, so I thought it could be something to do with the our little one. Flying solo before then, I just assumed erroneous issues.

But this time it was just me, a frequent flyer hoping to get my mobile boarding pass ahead of time, so I could zip through the airport and directly to the TSA PreCheck line without speaking to a soul. I love contactless flying.

Instead, as a Oneworld Emerald member with another airline, I went through Flagship checkin, where I presented my ID and made the usual small talk. I said I was surprised I wasn’t able to check in online, and it seemed to be happening more frequently. It was just a statement, perhaps angling for insight.

This is when I saw the nice check in person look at their colleague with a furrowed brow, point to the screen, and say “oh, that’s why”. I sensed a change in warmth, but didn’t prod further. American has been known to curb online check-in for suspected skiplaggers, since it gives agents an opportunity to look for anything “suspicious”.

The trip was a simple point to point without any intrigue or connections, so I received no further questioning and the team couldn’t have been any nicer. A boarding pass was issued, and I was on my way. I found it odd, and within minutes, my brain recalled “why”.

I mentally jogged back to being directly accused of skiplagging by an American Airlines lounge agent, back in 2019. At the time, I wasn’t even!

My Skiplagging Backstory

Again, I didn’t create airline pricing matrixes, leisure fares or any of the things which dictate a price. I just book tickets, utilizing the savvy I’ve picked up over the decades. An airline sets the price we pay, not us, sadly. Sometimes, their complex pricing systems work in their favor and other times, they can be seen as a liability.

I was once a frequent flyer between New York and Los Angeles, and American, for what I’m sure was a decent reason, used to price business class between Los Angeles and Puerto Rico — via New York — much cheaper than Los Angeles to New York alone.

I’d buy the one way business class tickets from LA to Puerto Rico and hop off in New York after enjoying a flat bed across the continent, at prices similar to coach. Since I’ve never used American Airlines AAdvantage as my primary loyalty program, it never raised any flags. Ultimately, I was a customer – just not a wildly profitable one.

Business travel eliminated most of my gamesmanship, and I took flights as booked for many years thereafter, often on incredibly expensive tickets paid for by clients. Read as: American profited greatly from me over the years, just maybe not as much as they could have.

But during a unique promotional trip in the USA, I had some very complex itineraries, which seem to play a part, even today. An American plane filling with smoke at the gate meant that I needed to change my multi-city trip plans on the fly, and during rebooking, an agent examining my ticket at the lounge outwardly accused me of skiplagging.

It was around the same time American apparently gave agents all the kool-aid to go after any people they even remotely suspected of circumventing their draconian ticket rules.

American Airlines Boeing 737

After the plane filled with smoke and was disembarked, I had to cancel a promotional event in one city, since I’d be delayed arriving until past midnight, missing the event. I had to be in the next city for a stop by 1PM the next day, and had an onward flight with American the next morning.

The AA agent refused to help and seemed to press some buttons, perhaps sending flares to a few channels. They refused to help change my ticket and said to take it up with central customer service. I did, and finally got in touch with someone able to help, who was happy to accommodate, but I (now) think the damage had been done.

After all those years, I think I finally got flagged, while flying on a legit ticket. I think the agent pressed the “I’ve got one(!)” button and it lives on with me to this day. The irony is not lost on me.

It’s the only logical way to explain a series of furrowed brows at check in, and the complete inability to check in online for my AA flights. Oh well. I’ve got zero American Airlines miles, I’ve got top tier elite status with other airlines and there are many other options.

If anything, not being able to check in online will just cause American to lose more money from me, since I’ll fly with a competitor to avoid the hassles of manual check in.

Hidden City Ticketing Risks

The only way American could ever prove that I engaged in skiplagging as a deliberate act would be the previous sentences in this piece. Anything – truly anything – from a change of heart, to a dodgy stomach or rescheduled meeting is a valid excuse for not getting on a flight.

People inadvertently do things which may look like skiplagging constantly, so it creates a very high bar for American, or any airline, to prove it as such. If you have miles, elite status perks or upgrade certificates though, getting flagged can put those at risk.

Naturally, it’s only when American feels they have lost money that they care. If you buy a more expensive flight via another city than the one you end up in, I really don’t think American blinks an eye. It’s certainly not flagged!

For example, if I buy a ticket from Lexington, Kentucky to London via JFK, for $1000, and get sick and can’t continue, I don’t think American will accuse me of hidden city ticketing. The Lexington flight to JFK would’ve probably been around $300. They’re thrilled that a seat opened on the London flight, and they got $1000 for nothing.

If, however, I buy a Los Angeles to Puerto Rico ticket just to go to New York, and it’s hundreds less than Los Angeles to New York, it’s all against policy. Ok, then.

Business travelers will often book a few dummy flights, just to have locked in options for changing plans. A multi leg sales trip might end early, no longer requiring the last few cities, so they ditch the rest. A person may suffer from food poisoning en route, and abandon the trip.

All these things happen. All are legit.

There are a variety of risks and rewards to skiplagging, but these are largely mitigated when you aren’t easy to track. Being a frequent American Airlines flyer, who skips a flight every time they fly with American, is going to make someone an easy target. That was never me.

I guess that’s why I find it kinda funny that after all those years of actually doing it, being an actual skiplagger, a 100% legitimate trip is likely the one that got me flagged – I assume I am – and why I can’t check in online anymore.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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39 Comments

  1. I find it very amusing you gave the folks leveraging PPK crap for finding ways to profit from rules we didn’t make and yet here you are doing the exact same sort of thing….

      1. Agree with many that the blog has turned to crap over recent months, which is a shame because it was really good.
        Even the comments field has turned into a bloodbath with the owner not shy about dishing it out too, maybe time to take a break Gil?

        Like others I’m leaving, enjoy your site and the self absorbed mentality of recent posts.

        1. Like any business owner, I’ll always stand by my product. This is a blog millions of people read for free. I’m not in the customer service business. I asked someone to share which articles were sub standard. No reply was given. And how is one person “many”?

          As to self absorbed, where in the recent list of articles is there any insertion of self, let alone self absorbed?
          https://www.godsavethepoints.com/

  2. I would imagine after all the flights you have taken with them, overall you have been extremely profitable to them. So it seems rather stupid to risk losing you as a customer with such pretty minded nastiness.

  3. I would call up customer service and challenge them on why I couldn’t use a service they offer to others. I’d be respectful but insistent on the matter until it got resolved. Also, as an aside, I would have done this at the terminal while I was waiting for my new flight. If the AA agent with a bad attitude wants to play stupid games he can win stupid prizes from his boss.

  4. If the American Airlines checkin desk digital data is available from the UK I guess you could make a GDPR subject access request for all the data American Airlines have on you and find out. It would be interesting to see what other titbits of information they hold.

  5. Gilbert – I won’t get into a discussion on whether airlines rules and pricing are “fair” or even rational at times. However, I find your tone of justifying what you did because it fit your needs to be very self centered. You may not like the rule (and I don’t either) but airlines have consistently stated that hidden city fares are against their rules. Again like it or not those are the rules. They have sued people to recoup fares that should have been paid (and courts generally rule for the airline, have shut down FF accounts (you have no miles so apparently this isn’t a concern for you) and also can put you on a black list as being unable to fly the airline in the future. Like any other business, as long as they don’t discriminate per the government categories (age, sex, race, gender, etc.) they can prohibit anyone from using their services.

    Maybe you shouldn’t be so cavalier about this when you are promoting (or at least rationalizing) a policy you know full well is against airline rules and that some take very seriously.

    Oh yeah – 40 years in IT and I can tell you that with AI and machine learning it is very easy to determine if you did this or not. You may think there are many reasons you wouldn’t take a connecting flight but they can look at routing, travel patterns, fare differential, etc to flag people – not that hard.

    1. I would disagree with how easily this could be perceived, on all counts excluding how often its done.
      I would also disagree with your assessment re: courts. In fact, in much of the world, the courts have ruled with passengers.
      See Germany: https://www.godsavethepoints.com/skiplagging-hidden-city-legal-battle/
      See Spain: https://www.godsavethepoints.com/iberia-spain-supreme-court-ruling-skiplagging/
      See Italy: https://www.godsavethepoints.com/european-airline-ticket-loophole-skiplagging-no-show/

      1. This is America Gilbert, not those socialist countries. You should and will lose in the American courts. Your attitude is atrocious and your cavalier way of trying to game the system is disgusting. And yes, this is INCREDIBLY easy to identify and to prove.

        1. Hah tell us how you really feel. Do you take any questionable tax exemptions? Do 5 mph above the speed limit? If hidden city ticketing was any of the things you claim, people would be dragged in front of the courts all the time. Instead, there’s been about 5 (five!) documented cases of people being formally notified of complaints against them, none of which have really gone to court. I’m an American, so not sure what your flex is, but I appreciate you using “fgilbert@gmail.com” as your formal email address. Putting the arse in class!

          1. How would you know that? I’m pretty sure you don’t have access to my ad dashboard, or our strategy on placement, direct sales or any of the more determining factors than one dude with a keyboard. And even if you have ad blockers, you’re creating priceless fodder for others who don’t, to read. Thank you. You make my day, almost daily this week.

        2. The “This is America and it’s our god given right to be price gouged” is my favorite comment here.

          Well played, America.

      2. You’re in the USA. Courts rule differently in different countries in a plethora of different areas. Also, you should have asked the agent and their co-worker, they would have said why, no skin of their teeth. It’s easier to just tell the customer, no big deal. Also, that kind of stuff is generated through corporate security and nothing the agent can do to override it. I agree with nearly every other response, you are complaining when you get called out for knowingly breaking the rules. Shameful.

    2. I’ve never liked marketeers who give a promotion to a new customer and make a loyal one pay. This is exactly what airlines do: you live in a hub city?oh you’ll pay double-max price; you live in a market we’d like to expand to? please take this discount and we’ll pass it on to the suckers who deserve it. Why would anyone care about AA, DAL, UAL ‘policies’…if they want our money, take it and shut up.

  6. Hey Gilbert,

    I have also used skiplagging in the past and would do again.

    The only question I have – when the check in agent said ‘oh that’s why’….did you ask ‘oh, what is the problem’? I guess then you would have known for sure (or not) if there was a skiplagging code on your reservations.

  7. The reason they’re making you manually check-in is to inspect your carry-on luggage. If it’s too big, they’ll force you to check — at which point you’ll walk away or actually continue to the final (unwanted) destination. Well played on American’s part.

  8. Flying is a bit like pro-cycling. You not only have to follow the letter of the written rules but you are also expected to follow the letter of the undocumented rules. The thing is that you can get a dozen different versions of the undocumented rules, depending on who you speak to … and they may or may not actually exist, depending on who you speak to. If they make the rules and the rules and the law allow you to work the rules to your benefit, what the merry hell is their problem? It really isn’t rocket science – if they don’t like how people work the rules, change them rather than turning it into a customer service disaster.

  9. I’ve never really understood why the airlines would make prices to encourage skiplagging. They should make the hidden city the same price as the end city then there is no reason to skiplag.

  10. If you don’t like this blog, simply just don’t come at all?
    Honestly, I’m sick of people complaining about every tiny things, everything is offensive to them. Then don’t waste your time?? Just move on.
    I’m guessing those are usually unemployed
    With unlimited free time to spare.
    Keep your negativeness to elsewhere.
    I also assume that those who come here to complain every tiny shits know that Gilbert will respond to them. That gives them a joy.
    So sad and seek your attention at somewhere else.

    I am on the other hand, love traveling and enjoy this blog so much and I appreciate those deals I find here.

  11. Hey Gilbert, back when you were booking hidden-city-tickets more frequently, roughly how many times per year were you doing so? And what was the mix of “legit” tickets vs hidden city tickets in a given year?

  12. Very interesting topic. Like you say it works well for 1 way bookings just cannot keep doing it on the same airline. Probably will get flagged.

  13. Back in the 70s/80s when studying for my British Airways exams, their was such things as ‘H.I.F’…higher intermediate fares. If a passenger requested a fare for a certain itinerary – which could be complex or not – a fare was calculated, and then checked for a ‘Hif.’ A simple example LHR-CDG-NCE where the CDG-NCE was a higher fare than the full trip cost – thus passenger would be charged the higher intermediate fare.
    Back then their were other oddities not seen these days like cabotage fares!

  14. I’ll just tell you that any passenger we suspect of hidden city flying, we queue to headquarters. Yes! You are flagged and inhibited from checking in. There are comments in your PNR about it. What the company does is up to them. We never hear anything about it. This is not only AA. My friends at DL, UA and WN say the same thing.

    We do catch passengers doing this on their originating flight when we have to check their bags. I’ve seen passengers denied boarding when they refuse to check their bags and I’ve seen passengers being made to buy new tickets at today’s prices. It’s a chance you take for violating the contract of carriage.

  15. Tom McGuinness, you seem to take pleasure in being an enforcer. While I have never done it, kudos to Gilbert. Airlines are trying to maximize revenue from every passenger. As a passenger, I’m trying to minimize what I pay. It’s the American way. Why else does dynamic pricing exist except to gouge and extract more money from customers. Why did the airlines beg for taxpayer money after years of making billions in profits? And why won’t the airlines keep those taxpayers who bailed them out safe by mandating proof of vaccination? Tom McGuinness, stop being a sanctimonious employee. I would bet that you don’t play by all of the rules in your non-airline life.

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