There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what happens when you skip a segment on a flight itinerary. There are a variety of reasons people may do this, so in this post I wanted to look at that from a few perspectives:
- Why people intentionally skip segments on an itinerary
- What happens to your ticket if you skip a flight on an itinerary
- How to minimize the risk of skipping a flight on an itinerary
- The potential consequences of skipping a flight on an itinerary
Note that this is not an endorsement of this practice, but rather is intended to answer questions that I get all the time.
Why people intentionally skip segments on an itinerary
There are a variety of reasons people may want to skip segments on a flight itinerary, the most basic of which is known as throwaway ticketing.
As we all know, airline pricing can be completely irrational, and this is largely because of the pricing power that airlines have in various markets.
Airlines know that they can charge more if they operate a flight nonstop than with a connection (since people value a nonstop), they know that certain cities can sustain higher prices than others (for example, there’s more finance money in New York than Colombo, and airfare reflects that).
So how does this play out? Take for example this Los Angeles to New York to San Juan flight on Delta, which is ~$450 one-way in business class.
Meanwhile if you booked just that same Los Angeles to New York flight, you’d pay $200+ more.
If you were to book the San Juan itinerary with the intent of getting off in New York, you’d directly be violating Delta’s rules, and I think anyone who booked that knows exactly what they’re doing.
But let me get to an area where people are more genuinely confused. For example, we recently saw mistake fares from Vietnam to North America in Cathay Pacific first & business class, routing via Hong Kong.
A lot of readers asked “so could I fly from Vietnam to the US, and on the return get off in Hong Kong rather than going all the way back to Vietnam?”
What happens to your ticket if you skip a flight on an itinerary
As soon as you skip a segment on a flight itinerary the remainder of your ticket will be invalid. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work across the board.
If your entire itinerary is on one airline then that’s almost certainly how it’s going to be.
However, I’ve heard of instances where people have had a ticket on interline partners where a segment was skipped and they could still board a flight down the line. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, and it doesn’t happen consistently, but I have heard of some instances of it happening, and I imagine that comes down to some airline systems just not communicating well.
But assume that if you skip a segment on an itinerary, your itinerary will be canceled. This isn’t an issue if you’re booking a one-way and skip the last segment, but for example, you couldn’t book a roundtrip, skip the last segment of the outbound, and still expect to take the return portion of the trip.
How to minimize the risk of skipping a flight on an itinerary
If you know you’re planning on skipping a segment on an itinerary, make sure you don’t check bags, or at least make sure you are able to check your bags through to the destination you intend to fly to.
Most airlines have a policy against short checking bags, meaning if you were flying from Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Hanoi, you’re typically not allowed to pick up your bags in Hong Kong. The exception is if you have a long layover, in which case you may be able to do so.
Also make sure you don’t have to gate check your bag, because it would be rough to discover that bag will be sent to your final destination if you have no intent of actually flying there.
Furthermore, keep in mind that you’ll still need to meet the travel requirements for the destination you’re booked to travel to.
In other words, if you have a ticket from the US to Vietnam via Hong Kong booked, expect that you’ll need a Vietnamese visa in order to board your Hong Kong bound flight in the US. Saying “oh, I don’t intend to fly there” isn’t an acceptable answer.
Lastly, if you’re going to do this, make sure you don’t end up making duplicate bookings on one airline that are scheduled to depart around the same time.
Using the same US to Vietnam via Hong Kong example, you’re not going to want to be booked on a flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi that leaves around the same time as a flight you booked on that same airline to somewhere else, as those might be marked as duplicate bookings.
My one other tip involves using your frequent flyer number for your itinerary, so stay tuned for that.
The potential consequences of skipping a flight on an itinerary
Let me start by saying that I’m not a lawyer, so I’m only sharing my take as someone who (usually) has some common sense and is pretty familiar with airline rules. Also keep in mind that different countries have different laws.
So, what are the potential consequences of skipping a segment on an itinerary?
It’s not illegal
Skipping a segment on an itinerary isn’t illegal in any country that I know of. I think this is worth clarifying because in the airline industry “illegal” is often used in a way that has nothing to do with laws.
For example, an “illegal connection” is one where there isn’t enough time to connect, per the airline rules. If you find yourself having an illegal connection, you don’t need to expect the police to meet the flight. 😉
Using any throwaway ticketing techniques would at most be a contract dispute, so there’s nothing inherently illegal here one way or another, as far as I know. And as I’ll explain below, in some countries it’s actually completely legal and supported by court cases.
It (typically) violates the airline contract of carriage
While not illegal, intentionally skipping segments on an itinerary does almost always violates airlines’ contracts of carriage.
For example, here’s what American’s contract of carriage says regarding this:
Reservations made to exploit or circumvent fare and ticket rules are strictly prohibited.
Examples include (but are not limited to):
- Purchase a ticket without intending to fly all flights to gain lower fares (hidden cities)
- Buy a ticket without intent to travel, including to gain access to our airport lounges or other facilities
- Combine 2 or more roundtrip excursion fares end-to-end to circumvent minimum stay requirements (back-to-back ticketing)
- Book a ticket in someone’s name without the person’s consent (which is illegal)
- Hold reservations for reasons including securing upgrades, blocking seats or obtaining lower fares
If we find evidence that you or your agent are using an exploitive practice, we reserve the right to:
- Cancel any unused part of the ticket
- Refuse to let the passenger fly and check bags
- Not refund an otherwise refundable ticket
- Charge you for what the ticket would have cost if you hadn’t booked it fraudulently.
How an airline could try to punish you
So if you do decide to skip a segment, how could an airline punish you?
- They could punish you in regards to your frequent flyer account, since that’s something that’s 100% within their control, as they own the program and the miles
- An airline could try to sue you, but the effort required would be extreme, and it’s questionable if they’d win; this all depends on the country as well, because in Spain a court actually ruled that airlines couldn’t punish passengers for throwaway ticketing
One important thing to keep in mind is that the airline would have to prove intent here. In other words, they’d have to prove that you were trying to “exploit or circumvent fare and ticket rules.”
There are plenty of other situations where someone may be skipping a segment. Maybe they accidentally fell asleep in the terminal and missed their flight, maybe they became ill and couldn’t fly, maybe they had a genuine change in plans, etc.
So it’s all about intent, and that’s not something that’s necessarily easy to prove in court, unless someone makes a habit of it.
My take on all of this
This post isn’t at all an endorsement of any throwaway ticketing techniques, but rather is intended to address the countless number of questions I’ve received about this, in particular following the recent Cathay Pacific fare.
If you are going to engage in some sort of throwaway ticketing (which most airlines prohibit, but several courts have ruled is permissible), my general advice is:
- Make sure you’re not checking bags, and make sure your carry-ons are within the size limits and that you board early, so that you’re not forced to gate check them to your final destination
- Like everything in life, moderation is key; if you do this once with an airline, chances are they won’t care, while if you do this constantly, they will likely take note
- If you are going to do this, I’d recommend doing it with a different airline than the one you’re crediting the miles to, since the most likely punishment from the airline would involve your frequent flyer account; that risk isn’t there if you’re crediting miles to another frequent flyer program, for example
Anyway, that’s my general take, and hopefully that answers some of the most common questions I get on the topic.
If you have any other questions or firsthand experiences to share, I’d love to hear them!