When Can I Skip a Flight Without Having My Entire Trip Cancelled?
There are many ways to save some dough when booking flights, including flying into (or out of) alternate airports that offer cheaper alternatives. But what happens if you don't want to actually fly the entire itinerary? TPG reader Jason wants to help his aunt, who lives in Michigan but booked a connecting flight to Europe out of Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) instead of a nonstop out of Detroit (DTW), saving over $1,000 on the round-trip ticket...
[pullquote source="TPG Reader Jason"]On the way back, she connects/clears customs in Detroit. My question is: when she gets her checked bag, can she simply clear customs in Detroit then leave the airport terminal? My Uncle would then pick her up from there over O’Hare, as it’s much easier for them to do that.[/pullquote]
Generally speaking, whenever you book a flight on any airline, it treats the trip as one, complete itinerary. If you then don't show up for any portion of it, the rest of the unflown flights will be cancelled and then subject to a change fee and possible fare difference if you then try to rebook. As a result, you should never skip a leg in the middle of an itinerary.
An analogy could be made to a chef cooking a recipe. The steps laid out in the recipe are carefully prescribed in a specific order, and leaving one out will run the risk of completely ruining a dish. Sure, the chef can customize each step slightly with different spices and cooking techniques, but the core of the recipe remains consistent. The same holds true for a trip. You're able to personalize it a bit (seat selection, meal choice, etc.) but must keep the core itinerary intact. If you simply skip a flight in the middle of a trip, you'll likely have the rest of it automatically cancelled.
But what about Jason's aunt? Is there anything to stop her from simply not taking her final flight? The short answer is no: since she'll need to claim her bags in Detroit anyway, there's nothing to stop her from simply walking out of the airport as if she has reached her final destination. She technically doesn't even need to let the airline know; when she doesn't board the plane at the designated time, the gate agent will simply fill her spot with a passenger waiting for a seat assignment or on the standby list.
That being said, there are a couple of important caveats if you choose to skip your final flight:
- Make sure you can retrieve your luggage: Some airlines are fine checking bags only to an intermediate destination on an itinerary, especially if you have a long (or overnight) layover. And if your final flight is a domestic connection in the US, you must claim your luggage after clearing customs and then recheck it before your connecting flight. However, skipping the last flight becomes a problem if your bags are checked through to your final destination.
- Make sure you're allowed to enter the intermediate country: If you're trying to do this while connecting through a country (rather than within that country), make sure you have the proper documents to allow this.
- Don't make this a habit: What Jason's aunt is doing is referred to as "throwaway ticketing" where a trip is booked from a different airport to save money but the last flight is thrown away. I actually did this once with an unnamed airline that wanted an insane amount of money for the one-way flight I needed. A round-trip itinerary was 40% cheaper, so I booked the round-trip, flew the outbound, then cancelled the return. Doing it once or even a few times probably won't raise any red flags; doing it consistently could lead the airline to boot you from its frequent flyer program.
(Like the chef analogy? Imagine leaving out the garnish. Not a requirement, but do it enough and a restaurant owner may let you go.)
Airlines are (obviously) out to make money, and they're frequently able to charge a premium for nonstop flights from key destinations due to demand. You in turn can get around these hiked fares by looking at alternate airports, but you generally must then fly the entire itinerary or else risk having the rest of the trip cancelled. The lone exception would be your final flight; if you're fine with the above caveats and are able to skip that last leg for any reason, you shouldn't encounter any problems.