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There are tricks such as "fuel dumping" or "hidden city ticketing" which involve booking a ticket comprised of several connecting flights, then leaving the airport at a stop, possibly even "hopping off" a plane (intermediate landing). Rationale: Sometimes these tickets are cheaper than a ticket to one of the stops. So one adds an additional leg and discards it.

Some people say that when using such tricks, one enters a legal gray area. But I wonder:

Could leaving the airport at a stop really be illegal, i.e. violating an airline's or a travel agency's terms?

Also there are suggestions that one should not request an upgrade, because then the trick may be discovered by the airline. Here I wonder:

How can they know that one will throw away the last leg?

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there's a difference between illegal and violating the contract of carriage. The first is a criminal offense, the second a civil case. Many airlines indeed do have clauses that make it a contract violation to not use the entire ticket, and you can end up having the return trip disallowed unless starting at the final destination of the outbound ticket, but I'm not aware of any country where such would be a crime. –  jwenting Jun 10 '13 at 7:15
    
I always thought that violating a contract is illegal, but my knowledge of law admittedly is limited. –  feklee Jun 10 '13 at 11:20
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@feklee Generally yes. Question is what will airline do about this? The worst they can do is put you on a no fly list. –  Karlson Jun 10 '13 at 18:29
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@feklee "illegal" is generally used to indicate criminal violations. Breach of contract would be a civil offense, not criminal. You would not end up arrested and thrown in prison for example for doing it (in most countries). –  jwenting Jun 11 '13 at 5:16
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Quite similar question was asked some time ago, btw travel.stackexchange.com/questions/4440/… –  Rabbit Jun 13 '13 at 0:34
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3 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

This very likely violates the airline's terms. ("Illegal" might be putting it too strongly.) For example, here is the relevant passage from United Airlines' Contract of Carriage.

J) Prohibited Practices:

  1. Fares apply for travel only between the points for which they are published. Tickets may not be purchased and used at fare(s) from an initial departure point on the Ticket which is before the Passenger’s actual point of origin of travel, or to a more distant point(s) than the Passenger’s actual destination being traveled even when the purchase and use of such Tickets would produce a lower fare. This practice is known as “Hidden Cities Ticketing” or “Point Beyond Ticketing” and is prohibited by UA.
  2. The purchase and use of round-trip Tickets for the purpose of one-way travel only, known as “Throwaway Ticketing” is prohibited by UA.
  3. The use of Flight Coupons from two or more different Tickets issued at round trip fares for the purpose of circumventing applicable tariff rules (such as advance purchase/minimum stay requirements) commonly referred to as “Back-to-Back Ticketing” is prohibited by UA.

K) UA’s Remedies for Violation(s) of Rules - Where a Ticket is purchased and used in violation of these rules or any fare rule (including Hidden Cities Ticketing, Point Beyond Ticketing, Throwaway Ticketing, or Back-to-Back Ticketing), UA has the right in its sole discretion to take all actions permitted by law, including but not limited to, the following:

  1. Invalidate the Ticket(s);
  2. Cancel any remaining portion of the Passenger’s itinerary;
  3. Confiscate any unused Flight Coupons;
  4. Refuse to board the Passenger and to carry the Passenger’s baggage, unless the difference between the fare paid and the fare for transportation used is collected prior to boarding;
  5. Assess the Passenger for the actual value of the Ticket which shall be the difference between the lowest fare applicable to the Passenger’s actual itinerary and the fare actually paid;
  6. Delete miles in the Passenger’s frequent flyer account (UA’s MileagePlus program), revoke the Passenger’s Elite status, if any, in the MileagePlus Program, terminate the Passenger’s participation in the MileagePlus Program, or take any other action permitted by the MileagePlus Program Rules in UA’s “MileagePlus Rules;” and
  7. Take legal action with respect to the Passenger.
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Thanks! What if I need to hop off honestly unplanned? How do I avoid punishment? –  feklee Jun 9 '13 at 22:28
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@feklee: That should probably be a new question. But my advice would be to call the airline as soon as possible and explain the situation. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 9 '13 at 22:32
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@feklee: in the second link you shared there are many comments of people who did hop off without any consequences so I doubt the airlines take action every time this happens. I can imagine though that if someone misses the last leg frequently, then some pattern may be easily detected in their purchase/flight history. –  Rabbit Jun 9 '13 at 22:58
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@feklee the main purpose is to prevent people buying a ticket say JFK-ATL-SFO because it is cheaper than ATL-SFO and only getting on at ATL (just an example, the pricing structure on that specific route may not give you an advantage in price this way), then on the return deplaning at ATL. –  jwenting Jun 10 '13 at 7:18
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From an airliner, as long as you do not have a checked-in luggage to be delivered at the final destination and the sectors are within the same country then it is hard for the airlines to figure that out (they don't care actually).

How will the airlines finds out? Sometimes, at some airlines, in some sectors there will an airline representative at the plane's door to check the boarding pass during deplaning to make sure only people who should leave at this airport will leave, this happens rarely and usually happens in international flights with more than one sector. Also head counting could reveal this. Again, for domestic flights usually no one checks. Just grab your bags and leave if you want to. In case a representative stopped you at the door and asked you to show your boarding, this is one of the good times to play dumb and say you thought you reached your destination! one more thing, as long as they assigned a representative to check boarding passes this means they don't want to make problems, they just want people who should leave to leave and people who shouldn't leave to stay :)

Is this legal or not? This depends on the country (or state) and airlines rules (I think it is not allowed everywhere). In my country (and I can confirm this in some other countries as well) if you want to leave the plane before you should leave it, it is a problem! you will be questioned and held at the airport until the plane reaches it's final destination. Again, this usually happens for people who come to a flight attendant and ask to be deplaned, such as people with aviophobia who decide to cancel flying at the last moment or people who got a call or something before the departure and ask to leave the airplane.

What to worry about? If you left the plane a sector or two earlier and the plane took off and never landed (crashed)! and you show up alive, you will be the first suspect! Even though this is really unlikely but you have to put this in mind.

I personally have done this many times and left a sector earlier, but I wouldn't tell you to do it or not, you have to decide this yourself. Off the record, it is really unlikely (rare actually) to be caught. I suggest that you talk to the ground agent who will board the aircraft at the stop, ask him nicely and most likely he/she will help.

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Note this advice is only relevant when both your flights are on the same plane (a so-called "direct flight") and you are literally "hopping off". More often, the two flights are on different planes; then the airline will certainly know if you don't board the second one. –  Nate Eldredge Jun 10 '13 at 0:29
    
Exactly @NateEldredge. I did not talk about the trips with different planes. –  user1712 Jun 10 '13 at 0:46
    
Thanks for your thoughts, and sorry that my wording caused confusion! I now changed it from "hopping off" to "leaving the airport". As you say that hopping off is a problem in your country and that normally people who do that are held at the airport, I wonder: Will airline staff go at length to search for you, possibly even delaying the connecting flight? I would feel bad about that, and also I would worry about having to pay for that if they ever catch me. –  feklee Jun 10 '13 at 9:39
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ok, I am keeping the answer anyway :) –  user1712 Jun 10 '13 at 11:57
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You have legal and you have ethics. As already mentioned in earlier answer. It is more a civil case. So then the question is, is it ethical.

I remember reading about these tricks in 2011 in an article in the NY-times while being in the air. The question was not so much whether it was illegal or not, but more on the ethical side of the tricks. It boiled down to the fact that it is as ethical as airlines exploiting monopoly positions on certain routes. In fact by using these tricks you are playing their game more or less.

Did some googling and found both the article and blog I read back then. I would suggest reading both, since the wording is much better then mine in this answer.

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I now read both - very interesting. Quote from the article: "But those rules don’t carry the force of law, and most travel lawyers say that their recourse is limited." –  feklee Jun 10 '13 at 21:04
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