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What is ship rigging? All about the travel hack airlines hate.




Airlines have banned the practice, but that hasn’t stopped fliers from doing it

(Video: Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Earlier this week, an unaccompanied minor departing from Gainesville Regional Airport in Florida found himself in the headlines after he was denied boarding on an American Airlines flight. He had not committed a crime, nor was he accused of being unruly.

His offense? Trying to use a money-saving hack that brave flyers use every year.

It’s called ship-lagging, and although it sounds playful enough, it’s hardly a game on the airlines’ minds. In fact, most operators see it as a form of fraud.

Here’s everything you need to know about the controversial practice.

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“Skip boarding – or ‘hidden-city tickets’ – is booking a trip where you plan to disembark in a city and drop the last leg or legs of a flight,” explains Clint Henderson, industry expert and managing editor of Points Lighthouse.

“Say I want to fly to Miami from New York,” he explains. “The prices are high if I book direct, but if I fly from New York to Miami to Orlando, I can save $130. I could book it, pocket the savings and then get off the plane in Miami instead of continuing to Orlando.”

It may seem counterintuitive: You fly eventually fewer miles in the sky, so why should it cost more money on the ground? Well, airlines usually price flights with a connection at a lower price than direct because the latter is often more in demand. Additionally, as Henderson points out, carriers want to route as many passengers as possible through their dedicated hubs to increase efficiency and thereby cut costs. That means you can usually save money by connecting through one of these primary operating bases.

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As for the teenager in Gainesville, he was booked on a flight to New York City via Charlotte – a major hub for American Airlines. However, his family is based in North Carolina, so he never planned to board the connecting flight to New York, his father, Hunter Parsons, told local media. Gate agents became suspicious of his intentions after seeing his license in North Carolina. That’s when he was pulled aside for questioning, his ticket was canceled and the family had to buy a new one, Parsons said.

Several news outlets have reported that the teenager was “detained” during the incident, but an American Airlines spokesperson refuted that description.

“Our records indicate that the customer was only questioned at the ticket counter about the journey while attempting to check in for the flight,” AA spokeswoman Andrea Koos said in an email. “A member of our customer relations team has been in contact with them to address their concerns.”

What are the airline’s guidelines for ship lagging?

The fact that the teenager was refused boarding underlines how seriously the airlines take ship boarding. That makes sense, since the practice loses revenue from them on two fronts: Not only are passengers underpaying — potentially by hundreds of dollars per ticket — but the seat on the thrown leg could have been sold to someone else.

Most major airline contracts of carriage expressly prohibit shipbuilding as a result. If an airline catches you trying to skip, they can cancel your entire itinerary. Henderson also points to examples of travelers who have had frequent flyer miles and memberships revoked, or even rare cases of passengers who have been sued.

“Airlines are getting more sophisticated and smarter about it,” he adds. “I expect this to become even more widespread as the technology further improves.”

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In the meantime, it remains a bit of a sticky topic in travel. It can be difficult to prove what a passenger’s traveling intentions really are.

Matt Meltzer, a Miami-based travel writer, said he’s saved hundreds of dollars on flights by skipping over the past few years. He sees the teenager’s recent experience as an outsider and doesn’t think gate agents at major hubs are looking for shipping.

“If I was going to get on that plane and someone accused me of not intending to fly to New York, I would just say, ‘No! Got Hamilton tickets tomorrow night. Very excited. Go Mets!’”

And it’s not exactly sound business practice to pre-emptively accuse paying customers of fraud. Representatives from both Delta and United declined to comment for this story; Delta pointed to a link to the airline’s contract of carriage, which expressly prohibits tickets to hidden cities. United, American and Southwest also prohibit the practice in their contract of carriage.

So should you skip ship-lagging?

Despite airlines banning the practice, some travelers avoid the rules — and there are resources dedicated to helping them. Most notably, Skiplagged.com helped popularize the practice, and the term itself, when the site launched in 2013 (United Airlines and Orbitz tried unsuccessfully to sue the site a year later).

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Be forewarned: In addition to serving the airlines’ zeal, shipping comes with its own wave of logistical headaches. Chris Dong, a Los Angeles-based travel writer and points expert who used to skipper, says you especially can’t do this on a round-trip flight.

“Airlines will cancel your return flight if you are a ‘no show’ for any segment of a booked itinerary,” Dong said in an email.

If there is a change in the schedule, or if a flight is delayed or diverted, which can be common in a stormy, busy travel season, then, as Dong points out, “there is a possibility that the whole plan for the hopover could go off the window.”

Finally, Henderson introduces another pitfall: “What if you’re the last one on board and they make you check your carry-on?”

“You’ll be in trouble because your bag will end up in the wrong town,” he said. “The airlines can take your loyalty account, ban you from the airline, and even sue you. It’s definitely not worth the risk to try this just to save a few bucks. Don’t do it!”

Brad Japhe is a London-based travel writer. You can follow him on Instagram: @Journeys_with_japhe.





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