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A few months ago, I went on an amazing safari through Tanzania with my family. Unfortunately, the trip started inauspiciously when I wasn’t allowed to get off the plane at my intended destination.
Hidden city ticketing is a way to pay a lower fare on a flight by booking to a destination that is different than your intended final destination. For example, let’s say you want to fly from San Francisco to Minneapolis on Delta Airlines. It is often cheaper to book a flight to Chicago with a layover in Minneapolis, and then simply leave the airport in Minneapolis, not taking the second leg to Chicago. This itinerary is typically cheaper because Delta’s pricing algorithm accounts for the fact that people are willing to pay more for a nonstop flight than for one with a stopover.
I was supposed to meet my family on the morning of Monday, June 13 in Arusha, a Tanzanian city served by Kilimanjaro International Airport. Because of work, I’d decided somewhat last minute, just three weeks before the trip, to join this incredible trip.
Due to the last-minute nature of the booking, I’d resigned myself to taking some awful, roundabout, economy class chimera of an itinerary. Miraculously, though, I managed to find the perfect booking in Qatar Airways’ excellent business class product, Qsuites, bookable for just 55,000 American Airlines miles and $96.50 in fees. The first flight of the journey would depart Stockholm Arlanda, where I’d been visiting friends, on Sunday afternoon, and arrive in Doha later that night. The second flight would leave Doha at about 2am and arrive in Kilimanjaro just before 10 AM.
In the ultimate display of hubristic folly, I decided to phone a friend and chat with him about my great find. For some godforsaken reason, we spoke for 45 fateful minutes and, when I hung up and refreshed the page, my prized itinerary was no longer available. I searched for an hour in vain, but eventually gave up and went to bed.
The master plan
After a prolonged stress dream involving a five-leg Air India economy class flight, I woke up and began searching for a new booking. After an hour of searching, I had concocted a way to salvage the lost itinerary: I’d book a virtually identical Qatar itinerary from Stockholm to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital, that had a technical stop in Kilimanjaro.
I didn’t know exactly what a technical stop was, but I noticed that the flight number here and the one for the flight I had found originally to JRO were the same. This, I figured, meant that passengers would be disembarking in Kilimanjaro and that I’d be on the same plane I would’ve otherwise been on had I moved more quickly with the original booking.
So I decided I’d get off the plane with the JRO passengers and hope for the best. I thought this had a decent chance of working for a few reasons:
- I’ve taken several Southwest flights that stopped in Houston and then went on to Dallas and noticed that there was zero verification when it came to who got off where
- I assumed that the first people at the airport to look at my ticket (if any) would be immigration, and they wouldn’t mind where in Tanzania I disembarked given that I had a visa valid for all ports of entry
- I figured this was essentially just a hidden city ticketing situation that, while frowned upon by the airline, would be perfectly doable as long as I didn’t have checked luggage
The reasoning here isn’t airtight–I grant you that. But I thought it was just good enough to give the plan a shot.
What actually happened at Kilimanjaro International Airport
To my relief, when we landed in JRO, I was able to depart the plane without trouble. As I walked from the tarmac to the terminal I realized my relief was premature–an airport worker was checking tickets at the door. I also noticed around 10 passengers from my flight standing nervously in a group beside the employee. When I got to the front of the line, the employee took one glance at my ticket and motioned for me to join the group standing to her right.
After the line had cleared five minutes later, she turned towards us:
“You are not at your final destination. Everyone needs to get back on the plane. Those who refuse will be arrested.”
With those three short sentences, the group turned around guiltily and walked back to the plane. Thus ended my experiment in international hidden city ticketing.
I tried with onboard wi-fi to book a one-way from Dar es Salaam to JRO on Precision Air, a local Tanzanian carrier, but found out the website wasn’t working. Ultimately, I bought a ticket from the Precision Air desk for a tremendous sum of money that would get me to my destination 10 hours behind schedule. Due to delays, I’d end up arriving closer to 14 hours late, exhausted, sweaty, and having missed the first day of safari.
This episode remains one of my dumber travel decisions. This wasn’t an issue of hindsight being 20/20, because I feel like regular sight should’ve prevented this. Nevertheless, I did learn a few important lessons:
- When you find an award itinerary on the dates you want, with the airline you want, at the last minute, don’t call your friend before booking
- Don’t get hung up on the perfect itinerary; you’ll have chances to fly them in the future
- It can be a bad idea to hidden city ticketing when flying internationally. If you do try it, book a backup ticket beforehand so you don’t end up paying through the nose at the last minute
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there are ways to hidden city ticket that can save you a lot of money and miles–I’ve written about those here. Just be careful before you do it.