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United is a unique airline…

We don’t need to walk down memory aisle with United, they’ll drag you anyway. The airline has managed to make more headlines than most, not for encouraging passengers to fly with them, but for actually discouraging passengers who take advantage of their best fare opportunities.

The next time you’re standing at the check in counter and the agent begins to ask you about your travel plans, don’t mistake it for polite conversation or friendly customer service – per an internal document uncovered by Skift, it may be a ploy to sniff out passengers who take advantage of hidden city ticketing. This is all ironic, because it’s the airline that sets prices, not the passengers.

So what’s hidden city ticketing, you may ask? It’s where you don’t make it to your final destination, because the place you actually want to go was cheaper if you booked it as a connection, rather than a final destination. It can legitimately save thousands, and ironically airlines are the ones that created this highly complicated pricing mess.

a white airplane flying in the skyHidden city ticketing only works on one way tickets, or on the last segment of an international ticket and generally doesn’t work if you check a bag. For example, let’s say you live in Los Angeles and are flying to New York. These tickets are often expensive, but a ticket from Los Angeles to Puerto Rico via New York may be half the price. In fact, the ticket to Puerto Rico via New York may be cheaper in business class than the economy ticket just from Los Angeles to New York. In this case, you’d go carry on only and simply “jump off” in New York.

Here’s a lot more on all that, but back to the matter at hand…

One of the most important elements of successfully saving on tickets and using the airlines own pricing strategies against them is to never ever tell the airline what you’re planning to do, and that’s precisely why United is employing this new strategy, which you can read up more on here via Brian Sumers excellent article on Skift.

polaris united seatIt’s the kind of question like “And what are your plans in Puerto Rico” which are designed to have you go “huh, Puerto Rico, but I’m going to New York”. According to United’s internal memo, any employee who suspects hidden city ticketing is instructed to remain calm and then report the passenger to the airlines corporate security department, because that’s gone so well in the past.

“Our priority is to safely get our customers and their baggage to their final destinations, so always try to understand the customer’s situation and avoid confrontation when handling hidden city ticketing instances. Corporate security is better positioned to follow up on the situation and taking appropriate action to ensure customers are following contract of carriage rules and United policies.”

That’s right, the same airline which tried to threaten damaging a fliers credit profile after suspecting the frequent flyer of using this tactic is now telling agents to ring the silent alarm. In other words, you may be on a completely legitimate itinerary, but if you’re not particularly talkative or confident in your plans, you may be profiled by the big scary team at United Corporate Security.

So is this the end of hidden city ticketing? Absolutely not. Why didn’t you take your last flight? Any answer is fine, and anything other than an admission of your intention to skip the last flight would satisfy any reasonable inquiry. Perhaps you didn’t feel well, perhaps a meeting cancelled and you could get home sooner – there’s no wrong answer. Just don’t let United drag one out of you…

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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  1. Sounds like you should play with employees, get reported and get harassed and then sue.

    United has such low reputation that you might win.

    Enough people did this and created false signals united may stop its employees from being spies.

  2. I never been on a united plane and i don’t ever plan to be on a united plane, that is a scrapyard airline,

  3. Alternatively, since you’re taking carry on only, check in online, get a mobile boarding pass, and most likely never need to speak to anyone as long as your flight goes smoothly…

    …Of course here in lies one issue with “hidden city” ticketing. If the flight is cancelled the airline can reroute you to your final destination (in this example Puerto Rico) via whichever city gets you there, they have no obligation to route you via (NYC in this example), then you’re screwed

    1. Lol. I have fun with those types all the time so I’m sure they ignore any secret police reports on me, because I have so many.

      Any time some chatty stranger asks me something personal I either tell them to f*ck off or if I’m in a creative mood I’ll give them a fantasy they’ll blush while typing up the message to herr stasi’s inbox.

      If they don’t want to describe indecent liberties with aquatic mammals then they shouldn’t ask…

  4. Great article. Has united learned anything? Ever?

    I extremely dislike the so called legacy airlines. Actually, I despise them.

  5. So the airlines wanted and got taxpayer funded bail-outs…. Since then they have tried every possible way to screw us over. Fees for seats, fees for bags, fees for oxygen….. (almost)…Time to change the rules of carriage like Europe.

    1. They never got the bailouts…. the money was set aside but Uniteds bid to get the money was turned down that’s why my dad who was a United Captain lost his pension a year before he was forced to retire by the government

  6. Justifications:
    1. I had an intense unexpected craving to taste many different New York City pizza slices.
    2. The landlord of my NYC rent controlled apartment said if I didn’t show up he would report me for rental fraud since I would have been gone for more than 183 days of the year.
    3. My friends called and said they desperately needed me to join the march for more housing and against new construction of buildings taller than 65 feet in New York City.

  7. Flew United Airlines only once and will never fly again for any price. Horrible experience ! Late departure,misplaced luggage. Never again !!

  8. Sounds like people are content with screwing others out of flights. When you book a flight that has a connection and don’t intend on making the connection to your final destination, you’re screwing another person who wanted to book that flight. Although United is looking to increase profit by preventing passengers from booking flight they never intend to board therefore allowing other potential customers to book those flights (it is a business after all), it’ll also help you next time you book a flight. Think about it like this: you want to book one of your “Hidden City” flights for a family reunion or vacation or whatever so you look for flights with United. You discover that all the flights there are booked. Let’s say that 20 of the seats went to people who are never going to board the flight to get there. Now, because of those inconsiderate people, you have to book a flight with a real connection that will get you there even later or you might even have to book a light for a later date.

    1. I’d argue the opposite. People on standby will get on a flight. United overbooks flights anyway, hidden ticketing aside, because they assume people will miss flights for legitimate reasons. It’s one of the more frowned upon things they do.

      1. Brian has a point. You can’t justify by the possibility that standby passengers will get on that flight, especially if some of them are already booked on another flight. This just shifts the unused seat from one flight to another. Every seat not occupied on a flight puts a dent in profit and taking advantage of hidden city ticketing forces airlines to use practices like overbooking.

  9. I have flown with United twice a week for 5 years and have always been treated fairly. Yes, there have been flights cancelled or postponed due to inclement weather. They booked a seat for me on a competitor’s flight to get me to my destination. I got stuck in Newark for 6 hours due to an ice storm but made it home safely. My philosophy is treat others as you want to be treated and you will have a better travel experience. BTW I also travel all over the world and have never had a bad experience with staff of any airline…Swiss Air, Lufthansa, British Airways, American, Delta, etc. Maybe there is something behind my philosophy!

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