The Travel Website Shaking Up The Airline Industry
For my recent trip back home for break, I made the usual rounds on Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz in search of the best deal. Frustrated by their steep prices, I decided to visit a website called “Skiplagged,” a flight search engine that displays routes that include stopovers matching your intended destination. Surprisingly, in many cases, the prices for these flights were considerably cheaper than on those sites that display only the traditional options. For instance, Expedia’s lowest priced fare to Minneapolis was $240 while Skiplagged’s ticket to Denver with a stopover in Minneapolis was almost $100 less. In theory, Skiplagged is a great option for fliers looking for the best deals, however there are some concerns with this form of travel.
While the concept of “hidden-city ticketing” has been around for a while, it wasn’t until 2014 that 22-year-old computer programmer Aktarer Zaman decided to create the website now known as Skiplagged. Interestingly, Zaman didn’t create the website as a business idea, but rather to help others get the very best possible deal. But Skiplagged popularity began to surge. A CNN article from 2015 reported that Skiplagged’s monthly viewership had gone from averaging 250,000 a month in 2014 to over 1 million a month in 2015, leading Zaman to pursue the venture full time and hire two full-time engineers.
However, because of the financial implications involved, airlines were strongly opposed to Skiplagged. Hidden city ticketing, which was originally limited to the savvy flying elite, had now become available to all passengers. United Airlines and Orbitz Travel sued Zaman, claiming that Skiplagged promoted “strictly prohibited travel” that broke the “contract of carriage” and demanding that Zaman pay $75,000 in lost revenue. To an airline with over $37.7 billion in revenues in 2017, losses of $75,000 may seem inconsequential. United, however, was concerned about the future losses that Skiplagged would cause.
Zaman, in turn, claimed that since Skiplagged didn’t actually book the flights but just displayed various options for fliers, they hadn’t violated the airline’s policies. Luckily for Zaman, the lawsuit was filed in Chicago and a judge threw out the case because Skiplagged was based in New York, outside of United’s jurisdiction. Skiplagged proudly boasts about this quasi-victory on the home page of its website, writing, “Our prices are so cheap that United sued us, but we won.” But for fliers themselves, is this form of travel actually legal?
According to a Business Insider article from 2018, hidden city travel, while not inherently illegal and therefore not punishable by U.S. Law, is, in fact, a violation of the terms and agreement between the passenger and the airline. If the airline were aware that a passenger pursued this form of travel, the airline would reserve the right to prevent him from flying or otherwise demand that he pay the full fare. Further repercussions could also include the airline stripping passengers of frequent flier miles. For a full list of penalties, see Rule 6 Article K in United's contract of carriage.
While passengers may be getting a better a deal with Skiplagged, there are some limitations with this form of travel. In the event a passenger is rerouted through a different layover city, he would have to suffer the loss and be forced to rebook. Additionally, because travelers’ booked destination isn’t actually their intended destination, travelers should not check baggage as their luggage could end up hundreds of miles away from them. Similarly, travelers should refrain from bringing large carry-ons that don’t fit into the overheads as flight attendants could demand that these bags be checked to the unintended final destination.
Currently, passengers are benefiting from Skiplagged’s fares, however because airlines are suffering not only the lost revenues from passengers paying less for their intended destination, but also the potential losses from being unable to sell the seats on the second leg of the trip. Some believe that airlines could one day impose a standard rate for both destinations, which would make flying more expensive for everyone. So far, no airlines have taken these steps. Instead, airlines have been cracking down on seasoned hidden-city passengers and imposing the penalties set forth in their contract of carriage.
As you book your next ticket back home and are struck by overpriced tickets, developments in technology have opened up an alternative and potentially cheaper way of flying. While this form of traveling comes with some restraints and requires a passenger’s own moral discretion, it could save you a pretty significant amount of money. Just remember not to pack too much.