The Business Traveler’s Complete Guide to Hacker Fares

By Jessica Sillers

Airlines aren’t exactly known for their transparency in setting ticket prices. Every so often, travel enthusiasts share their tips for how to outsmart the system, whether that’s buying tickets on a specific day that they claim fares drop in price, or getting creative with an á la carte approach to booking.

Hacker fares have been one popular option for trying to save money on flights. But is this more work than it’s worth for business travelers?

What Is a Hacker Fare?

A hacker fare is a set of one-way tickets that cost less together than a round-trip ticket to the same destination. A traveler might find the cheapest deal by booking each one-way flight on different airlines, or may compare numbers and find that the same airline offers one-way flight options that add up to less than the round-trip tickets available.

Hacker fares tend to work best for domestic U.S. flights. Some online booking sites are even offering services helping travelers identify hacker fare options.

Are Hacker Fares Legal?

For some people, “hacker” conjures an image of a malicious cybercriminal, but booking a hacker fare is perfectly legal. Still, that doesn’t mean hacker fares never come without complications. Here are two to watch out for:

Hacker Fares for International Travel

If travelers book a one-way ticket to a foreign destination, it’s smart to plan for extra questions at customs. Border officials need to distinguish between tourists and authorized (or illegal) immigration, so you might need to provide proof of a return ticket to your own country. If you’re hopping between cities or countries, you may need to be ready to show tickets for several legs of your journey to satisfy officials.

Hidden City Tickets (or Skipplagging)

Another kind of hacker fare, sometimes called a “hidden city” ticket or “skiplagging,” is when a traveler books a flight with a layover in the city they want to visit, and intentionally skips the second leg of the flight. A German airline, Lufthansa, sued a passenger for violating terms and conditions by using a hidden city itinerary. The lawsuit was dismissed in December 2018, but the airline appealed. Whether Lufthansa wins the appeal or not, it’s clear that some airlines are willing to put travelers (and potentially the companies they work for, in business travel cases) through an expensive and time-consuming court process over a travel hack.

Benefits of Flying With a Hacker Fare

Potential Savings

Let’s start with the obvious: Hacker fares can save money. Exactly how much depends on when and where you’re flying, and how open you are to booking flights with separate airlines. One analysis suggests that you can expect to save about 10%, or roughly $33, on domestic flights.

For a family of five, saving $33 apiece can make a big difference. For a solo business traveler, the savings may or may not be worth the added inconvenience of combing through flight options or dealing with multiple airlines.

Flexibility in Scheduling

Going for one-way tickets might also result in some extra flexibility, depending on flight times. You might find that you’re able to combine two individual flights to create an itinerary that works better for you than the return ticket options. Businesses may even decide to build a multi-city business trip, instead of sending employees on multiple trips.

Hacker Fare Risks

They May Not Exist

The first downside to consider about hacker fares is that, in most cases, they don’t exist. That is, two one-way flights will be more expensive than a round-trip ticket about 80-90% of the time, according to an NBC12 report.

Confusion, or worst, missed flights

Hacker fares can lead to a more confusing travel experience than booking round-trip. The cheapest option may fly into one airport and out of another. The outgoing flight may not charge a baggage fee, while the return trip does. There’s a greater risk for employees to overlook fees that eat into savings or even miss a flight if they don’t review travel information closely.

Missed Refunds

Another important reason for business travelers to think twice before booking a hacker fare is the reduced protection if your plans change. If poor weather cancels your outgoing flight on a roundtrip ticket, you’re entitled to a refund. You may also be able to claim a refund in certain other situations, like illness or jury duty. With a return ticket, you stand to recoup the entire cost of the airfare. However if you booked a hacker fare, the airline considers the return flight to be a completely separate case than the first flight, and it can be difficult or impossible to get a refund on the second, unused flight.

Increased Change Fees

If your schedule changes, which often happens when traveling to visit clients or for other business meetings, you could end up paying for multiple change fees. Considering some airlines charge around $200 for a change, that can add up and quickly diminish any savings you found with the hacker fare. Not to mention, you could waste extra time changing each leg individually with the carrier who issued the ticket.

Hacker fares, when available, may save money, but they often make for a more complicated travel experience. Businesses need to determine whether the potential savings is worth the added travel research time and inconvenience.

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