Hacker Fares Explained: A Complete Guide (2023)

What Are Hacker Fares and Why They Won’t End Soon (2023)

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 clickbaits and full of crappy info, so I decided to write my own guide demystify hacker fares and cover all you need to know, to the point.

Why? Because AirLapse is all about travel hacking, and to make 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 comfortable, cheap, 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 bee around for ages. The difference is that since 2010, there has been an explosion of online travel agencies (OTAs) and flight booking websites. 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.

How to find hacker fares in 2023?

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 for building 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:

  1. Human Error: Someone might simply make a mistake when entering the price of a flight, missing a digit or entering the wrong number.
  2. Currency Conversion Errors: When prices are converted between different currencies, rounding errors or other mistakes can occasionally result in significant price discrepancies.
  3. Technical Glitches: Software errors or bugs can sometimes cause incorrect prices to be displayed.
  4. 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

  • Loophole fares are another type of hacker fare. These fares exploit loopholes in airline pricing algorithms. For example, an airline might price a one-way ticket from Stockholm to New York at $300 but a one-way ticket from New York to Stockholm at $500. You can save $200 on your flight by booking these two tickets separately.
  • Open jaws are a type of hacker fare that involves booking a trip ticket with a stopover in a city that you don’t actually intend to visit. This can save you money, as you will only be paying for the flights between your two main destinations.
  • Pivot fares are a type of hacker fare that involves booking a round-trip ticket with a change of airlines in the middle of your trip. This can save you money, as you will only pay for the flights between your two main destinations.
  • Scorched earth fares are a type of hacker fare that involves booking a round-trip ticket with a very long layover. This can save you money, as you will only be paying for the flights between your two main destinations.
  • Throwaway-ticket fares are a type of hacker fare that involves booking a round-trip ticket with a one-way ticket that you don’t actually intend to use. This can save you money, as you will only be paying for the flights between your two main destinations.
  • Yard sales are a type of hacker fare that involves booking a round-trip ticket with a very low fare. Airlines often offer these fares when they are trying to fill up empty flight seats.
  • Mileage runs are a type of hacker fare used to earn frequent flyer miles. The point is to earn as many miles as possible, paying as little as you can. Then you use those miles to book expensive tickets on premium cabins. Mileage runs were more common in the past with the old award charts that were based on miles flown and not on money spent. Most frequent flyer programs now are based on how much money you spend with the airline. You can even qualify for higher tiers without flying at all.

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.

FeatureHacker FaresTravel HackingMistake Fares
DefinitionBooking two separate one-way tickets to save moneyUsing a variety of strategies to save money on travel, such as booking hacker fares, using credit card rewards points, and taking advantage of airline promotionsAn airline accidentally lists a ticket for much less than it is worth
ComplexitySimpleComplexComplex
Time commitmentLowHighLow
Potential savingsCan save you a significant amount of moneyCan save you even more money than hacker faresCan save you a large amount of money, but there is no guarantee that the fare will be honored
Comparison between Travel Hacking, Hacker Fares and Mistake Fares

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 to add restrictions to their tickets that make it more difficult to book hacker fares. For example, some airlines now require passengers to book round-trip tickets in order to qualify for certain discounts. Some airlines started making the price of round trips exactly the same as two one-way flights. Other airlines allow checked-in in luggage to 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 and more people start to use 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 have not been flagged by a travel search engine.

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, the demand for them is increasing. With search engines even suggesting these itenaries, it is easier than ever to find and book these tickets. 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 of them can take action against travellers caught booking those types of tickets. Here are some of the most common consequences:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Banned from flying: In extreme cases, travelers who continually exploit hacker fares can be banned from flying aboard their carrier of choice.
  5. 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.

Note

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 in 2023

1. Kayak

Kayak is a travel search engine and aggregator that allows users to find and compare prices for flights, hotels, car rentals, and vacation packages from a variety of travel websites. It does not sell these services directly; instead, once users find a deal they like, Kayak redirects them to the respective travel supplier or online travel agency to make the actual booking.

Kayak Logo (2023)

How Kayak finds hacker fares

Kayak has a built-in feature that automatically searches for hacker fares. When you search for a round-trip flight on Kayak it also separately searches for one-way fares for each leg of the journey, across multiple airlines. These hacker fares are typically highlighted in your search results, with a clear indication that each leg of the journey is provided by a different airline.

Other features I love from Kayak

  1. Trips Feature: This feature allows you to organize all of your travel plans in one place. You can sync your travel plans with your calendar, share itineraries with others, and access your plans on any device.
  2. Best time to travel tool. Find the cheapest time to arrange a trip, full tutorial here.
  3. Price Forecast: Kayak’s Price Forecast tool uses historical data to predict whether the price for a particular flight is likely to go up or down in the next 7 days. This can help you decide whether to book now or wait for a potential price drop.
  4. Price Alerts: With this feature, you can set up alerts to be notified when the price of a specific flight or hotel changes. This can be particularly useful if you have flexible travel dates and are waiting for the best price.
  5. Explore Tool: If you’re not sure where to go, Kayak’s Explore tool can show you where you can travel within your budget. You just enter your home airport and your budget, and the tool will show you a map of destinations and their corresponding prices.
  6. Mobile App: Their mobile app is one of the best for flight tracking, IMHO.
Hacker Fares on Kayak (2023)

2. Kiwi.com

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.

Kiwi Logo (2023)

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Kiwi.com: One of the best way to find hacker fares in 2023

3. Skyscanner

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.

Skyscanner Logo (2023)

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

  1. 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.
  2. Price Alerts: Users can set up price alerts for specific flights or routes, and Skyscanner will notify them via email if the price changes.
  3. 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.
  4. Direct Booking: Some airlines allow direct booking through Skyscanner, which means users can complete their purchase without being redirected to another site.
Skyscanner Website (2023) - Find hacker fares

4. Skiplagged

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.”

Skiplagged Logo (2023)

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:

  1. Hidden City Ticketing: Skiplagged is one of the few search engines that specifically look for “hidden city” fares, which can offer significant savings.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Hotels and Cars: In addition to flights, Skiplagged also allows users to search for deals on hotels and car rentals.
Skiplagged (2023)

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’s 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 is 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 the 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 on what exactly that means and 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 in order to qualify for certain discounts, or not checking-in luggage. Additionally, traditional flight search engines are becoming better at detecting hacker fares and are less likely to show them to users.

On the other hand, AI tools are becoming more sophisticated and are able to 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 are all factors that 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

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