This past week, I read a number of posts about Hacker Fares in different prestigious outlets, including a great article about the ethical concerns behind these fares and travel hacking (from Chris Elliott, one of my favorite writers). However, most of the other posts were click baits and full of crappy info, so I decided to write my own guide to demystify hacker fares and cover all you need to know to the point.
Why? Because AirLapse is all about travel hacking and making this knowledge more accessible to everyone. I’m a firm supporter of democratized air travel, and I envision and contribute to a future where we all can travel comfortably, cheaply, and in a sustainable way.
Let’s start. By the way, if you are looking for the best tools to find hacker fares, skip the first part and start here.
Hacker Fares Explained: The Basics
Most people think hacker fares are something new, but they have been around for ages. The difference is that since 2010, online travel agencies (OTAs) and flight booking websites have exploded. Flight search is more accessible than ever, and tools are becoming easier to understand, so people can have more information and compare better.
Now with flight booking tools powered by AI, and the possibility to learn from past data, finding hacker fares requires much less work than a few years before, and some tools are even suggesting these itineraries when you search, saving you loads of money.
What is a hacker fare?
A hacker fares is a type of airline ticket that helps you save money by building up your itinerary in an unconventional way, taking advantage of the cheapest fares offered by one or more airlines. It is a legal way to book cheaper flights, and there are a number of tricks that can be used to build up these tickets. Some examples are: booking a round trip flight as two one-way tickets on different airlines, self-transferring to different airports, booking round trip but throwing away the return ticket (throwaway ticketing), and booking a connecting flight to a different destination but hopping off earlier (hidden-city ticketing).
The term existed long ago, but it was popularized by Kayak (my favorite travel search engine and tracking app), as a way to describe that a traveler can “hack” their way into a cheaper fare by booking two separate one-way tickets. It even has an entry on Wikipedia.
The main advantage of hacker fares is that it usually results in a lower overall cost. A much lower cost. It is possible because airlines often have differing prices for one-way and round-trip flights, and hundreds of other variables such as promotions, round-trip deals, codeshares, and fares.
Hacker fares vs. mistake fares: What’s the difference?
Some time ago the term mistake fare got popular, but they are different from hacker fares.
Mistake fares, sometimes also known as error fares, are basically pricing errors. It happens when an airline or travel agency accidentally lists a flight for much less than it is supposed to cost. These errors can happen for a variety of reasons, for example:
- Human Error: Someone might make a mistake when entering the price of a flight, missing a digit or entering the wrong number.
- Currency Conversion Errors: When prices are converted between different currencies, rounding errors or other mistakes can occasionally result in significant price discrepancies.
- Technical Glitches: Software errors or bugs can sometimes cause incorrect prices to be displayed.
- Fuel Surcharge Omissions: Sometimes, an airline might accidentally leave out the fuel surcharge, which is a significant part of the ticket price, leading to a much lower listed fare.
Mistake fares can offer incredibly cheap tickets, often at a fraction of the usual cost. Most often, airlines honor these fares, but they are not required to. Policies vary a lot by country and airline: some places require airlines to honor any ticket they sell, while others allow airlines to cancel tickets sold at mistake fares.
It’s fun to find mistake fares, and there are plenty of websites and resources to track those. That’s how I scored a trip from Sweden to Hawaii for just $162 with American Airlines/British Airways.
Glossary: Other names for Hacker Fares
Keep in mind that if you are googling or looking for more articles or resources, hacker fares can have different names. Here’s a comprehensive list of all other terms you might see
Hacker Fares vs. Travel Hacking
Travel hacking and hacker fares are two different concepts within the world of budget travel, but they both aim to help travelers save money.
Travel Hacking often refers to using various strategies to accumulate points and miles (typically through credit card rewards or frequent flyer programs), which can then be redeemed for free or discounted travel. These strategies include taking advantage of sign-up bonuses, strategically using credit cards to earn points on everyday spending, or even running significant expenses through cards to earn rewards. Travel hacking requires a thorough understanding of rewards programs and careful financial management, but it can result in substantial savings on travel expenses.
Hacker Fares, on the other hand, are a specific strategy for saving money on airline tickets. The goal is to take advantage of price variations between airlines and potentially save money on the overall trip. Travel search engines like Kayak and Kiwi often show these hacker fares as options when searching for flights.
|Booking two separate one-way tickets to save money
|Using a variety of strategies to save money on travel, such as booking hacker fares, using credit card rewards points, and taking advantage of airline promotions
|An airline accidentally lists a ticket for much less than it is worth
|Can save you a significant amount of money
|Can save you even more money than hacker fares
|Can save you a large amount of money, but there is no guarantee that the fare will be honored
Why hacker fares are at risk (Top 5 Reasons)
1. Airlines are becoming more aware of hacker fares and are taking steps to prevent them.
Some airlines have started adding restrictions to their tickets, making it more challenging to book hacker fares. For example, some airlines now require passengers to book round-trip tickets to qualify for specific discounts. Some airlines started making the price of round trips precisely the same as two one-way flights. Other airlines allow checked-in luggage to a final destination only (not to stopovers), which prevents many hidden-city tickets, etc.
2. Travel search engines are becoming better at detecting hacker fares.
As more people start using hacker fares to save money, travel search engines are becoming more sophisticated at detecting them. Gradually, it is becoming more difficult to find hacker fares that a travel search engine has not flagged.
For example, Kiwi saved me €492 on this flight, and suggests hidden-city tickets, throwaway tickets and self-transfers hacker fares.
3. The demand for hacker fares is increasing.
As more and more people become aware of hacker fares, their demand is increasing. With search engines even suggesting these itineraries, finding and booking these tickets is easier than ever. This means that airlines are more likely to sell out of hacker fares quickly, making it more difficult for people to find them.
4. Hacker fares can be risky.
Since airlines don’t like hacker fares, some can act against travelers caught booking those types of tickets. Here are some of the most common consequences:
- Cancellation of Itinerary: Many airlines’ contracts of carriage allow for the cancellation of an itinerary if a passenger abandons their journey before completion. If a traveler were to book a hacker fare on a round trip itinerary and not report for at least one of those flights, the remainder of their tickets – including return flights – could be canceled.
- Revocation of frequent flyer miles: If the traveler uses their frequent flyer number to earn points, all the miles from the hacker fare could be revoked.
- Charged full retail price: If a passenger is caught trying to exploit a hidden city ticket, they could be forced to pay the full retail price of the flight, which is automatically charged to their credit card.
- Banned from flying: In extreme cases, travelers who continually exploit hacker fares can be banned from flying aboard their carrier of choice.
- Travel Insurance will not cover you: Travel insurance will not cover a traveler who experiences any of these situations from flying on a hacker fare. The airline’s contract of carriage allows for these situations, meaning the passenger is left unprotected in case of any issues.
It’s very rare that you get in legal trouble, like getting sued, and most likely nothing will happen to you other than losing a certain leg of your trip. Unless you announce it to the airline beforehand on purpose, they won’t know that you booked a hacker fare, and they won’t even be able to deny boarding.
Best tools to find hacker fares
Kiwi.com is an online travel agency founded in 2012 and based in the Czech Republic. It’s known for its comprehensive flight search engine and unique features that aim to provide cost-effective travel options for users. It’s one of the only flight search engines that offer multiple types of hacker fares.
How Kiwi.com Finds Hacker Fares
Kiwi.com offers a unique form of hacker fares through a proprietary feature known as “virtual interlining” or Kiwi code. This feature allows the platform to combine flights from over 600 airlines, including those that don’t normally cooperate, to create cost-effective and convenient itineraries.
When a user enters their travel details, Kiwi.com doesn’t limit its search to direct flights or standard connections offered by airline alliances. Instead, it analyzes all possible flight combinations across its vast airline database. Even when it finds that the best route involves multiple airlines that don’t usually cooperate, Kiwi.com allows users to book this complex itinerary as a single purchase. Since they recognize the risks in such bookings, Kiwi.com also offers a guarantee: if a traveler misses a connection due to a delay or cancellation, the platform promises to book them on a new flight to their destination or offer a full refund, providing a level of protection for its customers.
Other features I love from Kiwi
- Hidden city fares: These are fares that allow travelers to book a one-way ticket to a city that they don’t actually intend to visit. They then get off the plane at their desired destination and abandon the rest of their ticket. This can save travelers a significant amount of money, but it is important to note that it is against the terms and conditions of most airlines.
- Throwaway tickets: These are tickets that are cheaper than the price of a round-trip ticket because they allow travelers to book a one-way ticket that they don’t actually intend to use. For example, a traveler might book a one-way ticket from New York to Los Angeles for $300, even though the price of a round-trip ticket is $500. They then simply throw away the ticket for the return leg.
Skyscanner is a popular global search engine that we covered many times since 2013. It provides a free service to help users find and compare prices for flights, hotels, and car rentals. It is available online and as a mobile app, offering services in over 30 languages.
How Skyscanner finds hacker fares
Skyscanner uses a comprehensive search algorithm to find the best travel deals for users. Rather than just searching for round-trip flights with the same airline, Skyscanner scours all airlines and finds the best combinations for each journey. This includes flying out with one airline and returning with another or even using different airports for departure and arrival.
Other features I love from Skyscanner
- Hotels and Car Rentals: In addition to flights, Skyscanner also offers search and comparison services for hotels and car rentals. It aggregates information from various booking sites to provide users with a range of options and prices.
- Price Alerts: Users can set up price alerts for specific flights or routes, and Skyscanner will notify them via email if the price changes.
- Flexible Search Options: Skyscanner offers flexible search options that allow users to search for the cheapest flights within an entire month or even year. This feature is particularly useful for travelers with flexible schedules.
- Direct Booking: Some airlines allow direct booking through Skyscanner, which means users can complete their purchase without being redirected to another site.
Skiplagged is an airfare search engine that finds cheap flights by taking advantage of a pricing loophole often referred to as “hidden city ticketing” or “point beyond ticketing.”
How Skiplagged Finds Hacker Fares
Skiplagged finds flights for people who are looking to travel from city A to city B, with the understanding that the traveler will simply disembark at city B and not take the final leg of the journey to a different city C. This is why it’s called “Skiplagged” – the traveler is skipping the last leg of the flight.
Some key points about Skiplagged:
- Hidden City Ticketing: Skiplagged is one of the few search engines that specifically look for “hidden city” fares, which can offer significant savings.
- One-Way Tickets: Because of the nature of hidden city ticketing, it generally only works with one-way tickets. If you try it with a round-trip ticket and skip a leg of the journey, the airline might cancel the rest of your trip.
- Carry-On Luggage: Hidden city ticketing usually works best if you only have carry-on luggage, as checked luggage will typically be sent to the final destination on your ticket.
- Hotels and Cars: In addition to flights, Skiplagged also allows users to search for deals on hotels and car rentals.
How AI will change Hacker Fares
In the past few months, we’ve seen a ton of AI tools come up and how they are revolutionizing every industry, including travel. We’ve covered the best AI travel alls as well as how to plan trips using ChatGPT and Bard. But the applications of AI goes beyond what we’ve seen, and airlines and travel companies are already using it to change many legacy workflow that have been around for ages, including ticket fares and pricing.
AI will undoubtedly impact the way we find and book flights, including the discovery and utilization of hacker fares. Here are a few ways AI can change this landscape:
- Improved Algorithms: AI can help develop more sophisticated search algorithms that take into account numerous factors beyond just price and flight duration. These might include historical data, time of booking, route popularity, and more, to find the optimal combination of flights for a given journey. This could make the discovery of hacker fares more efficient and personalized. Examples: Kayak’s Best time to Travel, Skyscanner Savings Generator and Hopper.
- Dynamic Pricing: AI can be used to better predict demand and adjust prices accordingly. This could potentially lead to more opportunities for hacker fares as price fluctuations create temporary loopholes that can be exploited.
- Personalized Recommendations: AI can use past booking data and user preferences to suggest tailored travel options, including potential hacker fares that fit within a user’s specific travel needs and budget.
- Real-Time Adjustments: AI can enable real-time adjustments in response to changing conditions, such as flight delays or cancellations, potentially identifying new hacker fare opportunities as they arise.
- Predictive Analysis: By analyzing large amounts of historical and real-time data, AI can help predict future price trends, enabling travelers to book flights at optimal times to take advantage of potential hacker fares.
- Chatbots and Virtual Assistants: AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can help travelers find and book hacker fares more easily, providing assistance and answering queries at any time. Example: Eddy AI travel assistant based on Kiwi.
While AI can undoubtedly enhance the process of finding hacker fares, it’s also worth noting that airlines and booking platforms can also use AI to identify and potentially close loopholes that lead to hacker fares.
Here are a few ways that airlines and booking platforms will use AI to prevent hacker fares:
- Anomaly Detection: AI can be used to detect unusual patterns or anomalies in booking behavior that may indicate the use of hacker fares. For example, it might flag itineraries where passengers frequently don’t board the last leg of their journey, a common sign of hidden-city ticketing.
- Predictive Analysis: AI can analyze historical data to predict when and where hacker fares are most likely to occur, allowing airlines to adjust their pricing strategies accordingly.
- Dynamic Pricing: AI can help airlines implement dynamic pricing models that adjust in real-time based on demand, supply, and other factors. This can make the pricing structure more complex and harder for consumers (or automated tools) to exploit.
- Route Optimization: AI can optimize flight routes and schedules to minimize the occurrence of hacker fares. For example, it might suggest changes to the frequency of certain routes, or recommend partnering with other airlines to offer more direct flights.
- Customer Segmentation: By understanding customer behavior and segmenting customers into different groups, AI can help airlines offer personalized pricing and travel options, making the blanket pricing strategy (which often leads to hacker fares) less necessary.
- Terms Enforcement: AI can help enforce airline terms and conditions by automatically detecting violations (like not boarding a booked flight) and applying penalties, such as revoking frequent flyer miles or even banning the customer from the airline.
- Legal and Regulatory Compliance: AI can help ensure compliance with evolving legal and regulatory landscapes around fare pricing and ticketing, helping airlines avoid potential legal issues associated with hacker fares.
Conclusion: Will hacker fares end soon?
This space is changing rapidly for sure, and as more people know about hacker fares, the more the industry will fight against them. While it is always hard to predict the future, I don’t think that hacker fares will disappear. As technology changes, it will be easier to catch and prevent the existing hacker fares as we know them today, but it will also create new opportunities to exploit. So, hacker fares as a term are here to say, but we will see a change in what exactly that means, and what those fares comprise.
On the one hand, airlines are becoming aware that hacker fares are more accessible than ever and are already taking action: some airlines now require passengers to book round-trip tickets to qualify for certain discounts or not check in luggage. Additionally, traditional flight search engines are improving at detecting hacker fares and are less likely to show them to users.
On the other hand, AI tools are becoming more sophisticated and can find hacker fares that would have been difficult to find in the past. Additionally, the demand for hacker fares is increasing as more and more people are looking for ways to save money on travel.
The development of new AI tools, the continued growth of the travel hacking community, the democratization of knowledge, and the increased cost of air travel all make me firmly believe that we will have hacker fares for a long time.
What’s your take? As usual, feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments below