Friday, November 18, 2016

Hidden Cities

The term "hidden city" conjures up all sorts of romantic notions: a Mayan city lost in a jungle; a Soviet-era science city excluded from maps; abandoned tunnels under a city, beyond the rule of law.

It's also part of a strategy some people use to save a lot of money when traveling.

I've posted about my plan to circle the Northern Hemisphere, a notion I find romantic. So, how about inserting a hidden city into my journey?

Having purchased a ticket as far as Hawaii, I wanted to continue on to Asia. Fukuoka, in southern Japan, seemed like a good next stop.

I had decided to allow my route and stop-offs to be biased by:
  • Low fares.
  • Carriers in the SkyTeam airline alliance. I get benefits I don't get with other alliances.
  • Fewest connections.
Nonstop to Fukuoka on Delta was almost $1,500, which is steep. Nonstop to Tokyo was a spendy $1,406.
It was time to experiment with a different strategy. I thought about the Delta route system: Tokyo is a hub for Delta, with connections to several Asian Cities. Would it be cheaper to fly to one of those cities beyond Tokyo?

Bingo: a Hidden-City Ticket!

I found a $568 fare from Honolulu (HNL) to Shanghai (PVG), via Tokyo Narita (NRT).
How can this be? It's $1,406 to fly from HNL to NRT, but only $568 to fly on the same plane to NRT, then take another plane to PVG.
This is called hidden-city ticketing.
Airlines sell passage from one city to another. With the HNL/PVG pricing, Delta is offering to transport me from Honolulu to Shanghai. The pricing is driven by competition on the HNL/PVG city pair, not the HNL/NRT city pair.
In airline parlance, Tokyo NRT is a hidden city.

Risks and Mitigations

It was tempting to buy the HNL/PVG ticket, then abandon the journey in Tokyo. I would save almost $900.

Delta and other carriers forbid this practice in their Contracts of Passage:
But why should I care? How can the airline enforce this rule?
  • I won't have a checked bag, I only travel with a carry-on. 
  • Delta would not detect my abandoned journey until I was well beyond Immigration in Tokyo: they couldn't force me to fly to Shanghai. 
  • It's a one-way ticket, so I wouldn't care if they canceled the remainder of the ticket.
But there are risks. Before boarding the flight in Honolulu, Delta will check my documents. If Chinese Immigration denies my entry to Shanghai, it's the airline's financial responsibility to house me, then fly me back out of the country.

An airline agent asks to see my Chinese visa.
I don't need a visa for Shanghai and the surrounding province, provided I stay less than 144 hours.
An airline agent asks to see my onward ticket out of China.
This has happened to me before: I simply bought a fully refundable onward ticket right on the spot when an airline official told me I would not be allowed to board a flight. Later, I cashed in the ticket.
The airline starts checking carry-ons at the gate ("gate-checks").
My 35 liter backpack fits under the seat in front of me, so I can decline a gate-check. I can also board early and nab the necessary bin space before its full.
The airline changes the routing between the city pair.
This happens occasionally, and I don't have a good mitigation. 

For example, the most recent times I flew out of Manchester, England, to Minneapolis via Amsterdam, the routing was changed on the day of travel. One time the route was switched to Manchester/ Philadelphia/ Minneapolis, and another time it was switched to Manchester/ Atlanta/ Minneapolis. If my plan had been to jump ship in Amsterdam, I would have had a problem.
The airline cancels my frequent flyer program membership.
Airlines can cancel membership of their frequent flyer programs when they detect hidden city travel. I don't want to lose the Delta SkyMiles I've accumulated, along with the other benefits I get from membership in their frequent flyer program.

I could travel with an airline where I have not accumulated many frequent flyer miles.
It could be unethical.
I plead the fifth!
    Note: Airport processes vary by airline. The above table reflects my experience with Delta.

    Time for a Decision

    In the end I decided I would fly to Shanghai where I would answer the question:
    What do residents of this mega-city do if they want to go for a day hike? 
    After a few days, I'll backtrack to Fukuoka on a somewhat expensive $282 nonstop on China Eastern Airlines, a SkyTeam member.

    As a bonus, I won't be spending much time getting between airport and city in Shanghai and Fukuoka. Shanghai's maglev train travels the nineteen miles from airport to city in 8 minutes. Fukuoka's airport is just 5 minutes by subway from Downtown.

    • I previously posted about getting from downtown Fukuoka to airside at the airport in 13 minutes. We have a lot to learn from Asian airports.
    • I took the photo at the top of this post at the Daihonzan Naritasan Kurume Temple in Kurume, Kyushu, Japan. The passageway leads to an animatronic Hell in the basement.


    1. I was guessing the tunnel might be Methodist Hospital :-)

      1. There are points of similarity. Eternal flames vs. a radiation beam.