Friday, March 11, 2016

FRIDAY FRUMP: Hack may save on airfare, but beware.

When I read the news release announcing that a company had “found an airfare hack that can save passengers 20% or more on flights (in our case 29%)”, I was dubious. As it turns out, my Spidey Sense was spot on and I had good reason to be wary.

The company said travelers can often save money by booking a ticket to a destination beyond their preferred destination but which makes a connecting stop at the traveler’s actual destination city. When the traveler gets off the plane, supposedly to connect to another flight, they simply collect their bags and leave without boarding the connecting flight.

There’s a maxim that came to mind when I read this: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” That is indeed the case with this risky bit of “advice.”

Schemes like this have been around for years, and they have their roots in the complicated pricing algorithms the airlines use. Those algorithms take into account dozens of variables to update pricing on a daily basis, and sometimes result in quirky mismatches including situations where one-way fares from City A to City B are far more than a round trip fare between the two cities. When that is the case, it makes sense to buy a round-trip ticket and simply leave the return flight unused.

There are also cases where, because of high ticket change fees, it is cheaper simply to buy a new ticket than to change an existing booking. I’ve had that exact experience and, while it was irritating to know the airline was going to keep the fare I’d paid for the return leg of my first ticket without providing any value in return, it still saved me money to essentially throw away the unused portion of that ticket.

The competition in the airline business also dictates some pricing scenarios that otherwise appear to defy logic. For example, as the representative of a major Asian airline explained it in a phone conversation with TheTravelPro, fares to the major hubs are often lower than flying to the smaller cities which may be closer to the passenger’s point of departure because airlines have to work harder to win those passengers headed for the hubs. In other words, because lots of people want to fly to Hong Kong, there’s a lot of competition. However, fewer people fly to Taipei (TPE), so carriers may charge a higher fare because there is less demand and less competition for flights to TPE.

That exact scenario is what the company was promoting: travelers wanting to go to Taipei should buy a ticket to Hong Kong that connects through Taipei, then get off at TPE.

There are several problems with that plan. First, it violates the tariffs of most airlines – the rules passengers agree to abide by when they purchase their tickets. Sure, most of us spend about as much time reading those rules as we spend reading the terms and conditions of that new software we’re about to install or that website we’re about to join, but the rules are there and travelers violate them at their peril.

Second, the company’s news release advised travelers to, “[M]ake sure to tell the check-in attendant to check-in the luggage until Taipei – otherwise the luggage will end up in Hong Kong!” That is called “short-checking” in the airline industry and it is a major red flag to the airlines. In most cases, the airline representative said, the airlines simply won’t do it. If a passenger is only traveling with a carry-on, the plan might work but there are more restrictive weight limits on carry-ons when traveling internationally, so the bag could end up in the belly of the aircraft anyway.

Another problem is that an unused leg on a round-trip ticket would also signal the airline that something was amiss, and they could cancel the return trip completely, meaning the traveler would have to buy a new ticket home, negating any savings they might have otherwise realized.

The company promoting this scheme clearly knew this, as it referred to buying “one-way flights” but didn’t emphasize that, for the scheme to have any chance of working, a traveler would have to buy two one-way tickets: one for the outbound journey and another for the return flight.

In practical terms, does it work?

In the example proffered, the company picked a trip from Los Angeles International (LAX) to TPE on Dec. 1, 2015. The cheapest flight listed on Google Flights was $561. Redoing the original search and replacing the destination airport with different airport hubs returned a low fare of $398 to fly from LAX to TPE, then on to Hong Kong (HKG). “That's 29% cheaper. Huge savings!!” the news release reported breathlessly.

However, the traveler still has to get home. And I made an interesting discovery when trying this for myself: a round-trip ticket, even to the less-visited TPE, was far less than two one-way tickets, even getting these dubious discounts.

I used the same sample city pairs, but with a flight departing LAX on Sept. 16 and returning on Sept. 20. As advertised, a one-way ticket to HGK with a stop in TPE was indeed $100 cheaper than a one-way to TPE: $467 compared to $567 for a non-stop LAX-TPE ticket. However, the cheapest return flights were $664, for a total round trip of $1,131. Even selecting a smaller U.S. city and connecting through LAX didn’t reduce the return fare; in fact, it increased it.

The cost of a straight-up, by-the-book round-trip ticket from LAX to TPE? $855 on EVA Air, a savings of $276 over the cheapest pair of one-way tickets. More important, the round-trip ticket carries with it far less risk that bags will end up in some far-flung city where the traveler is not, almost zero risk that the ticket will be cancelled because the flier violated the airline’s rules, and includes a level of certainty that there will be a seat home when it comes time to return.

Please understand: I am as frustrated as anyone by the complexities of airline ticket pricing.

I also like saving money as much anyone and am willing to jump through a certain number of hoops to do it when necessary. For example, as I noted in a previous post, Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) offers round-trip flights from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) in October for as low as $1,346. However, the carrier also offers round-trip flights out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International (JFK) to CDG for less than $800. If a traveler purchased a $336 round-trip ticket from SEA-JFK and a second round-trip ticket from JFK-CDG, they could save more than $200 over the $1,346 nonstop fare from SEA to CDG.

Legitimately.

While there would be a connection, the flight from JFK to CDG would be shorter than flight from SEA-CDG. And fans of The Big Apple might enjoy spending a night or two there before heading across the pond.

In the end, it is a matter of risk vs. reward and each of us must make our own decision. In this case, unless you’re an adrenaline junkie who just has to push the envelope or take risks to have an enjoyable experience, I do not believe it is worth the time, effort and potential hassle to save a few dollars.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

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