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Back-to-Back Ticketing: Risky or Just Plane Resourceful?

(Updated June 4, 2003)

Many travelers across the country, especially business owners, are trying to beat the system by using "back-to-back" ticketing. So what exactly is this, and how does it work? Is it risky or resourceful? Judge for yourself.

What is back-to-back ticketing?

Simply put, back-to-back ticketing is when a traveler purchases two separate Saturday night stay-over tickets in order to avoid the high price of a one- or two-day ticket without the Saturday night stay-over. Back-to-back tickets are more effective on the larger airlines than the low-cost airlines, where this strategy is not typically needed. Why would someone go to all this trouble? The savings can be huge. A computer consultant from Boston told me his back-to-back ticketing story:

"I needed to leave the following week from Boston to Memphis with a return the day after my arrival. When I called Northwest Airlines I was quoted a fare of $1,480.00. After that, I called my travel agent who suggested I book two seven-day advance tickets on separate airlines. I purchased one round-trip from Boston on Northwest that left the next week with a return date two weeks later for $238.00. I then purchased a round trip ticket from Memphis on US Airways for the return flight for $189.00. The cost savings were $1,053.00. The kicker is I ended up using all the segments because I had to go back for another meeting. I just planned the meeting to fit the ticket dates."

In this case, the traveler allocated wisely since he used all of the segments. Most segments that are booked back-to-back, however, go unused. One agent who wrote me opposed back-to-back ticketing because she felt that, in the long run, the resulting high number of no-shows always leads to higher fares. In addition, depending on the airline, the traveler can sometimes apply the dollar value of the unused portion of a ticket toward the purchase of a new round-trip ticket that includes the same city pair. It's easy to see why the airlines are upset, as the lost revenue is astounding. While not illegal, back-to-back ticketing violates the conditions of carriage in tariff rules set by the carriers. In an interview with Home Office Computing, a US Airways spokesperson stated, "We strongly discourage the use of back-to-back ticketing and are taking a much closer look at the current enforcement policy."

What are the penalties?

So what are the penalties if someone is caught with back-to-back tickets? In some cases, the airline has billed the offending travel agency as much as $100,000. The offending passenger can have his or her ticket confiscated and may end up having to pay the full fare. In addition, they may have frequent flyer privileges revoked. Still, some travel agents feel they are only doing what the customer asks. One travel agent confessed that she will continue to book back-to-back tickets, but only on two different carriers. If the client wants to book both tickets on the same carrier, she tells them to reserve the other ticket themselves. The agent said she has booked back-to-back tickets on one carrier in the past by using the client’s full name on one ticket and initials on the other ticket (she does not do that anymore). She went on to state that most people are caught because they are greedy and use their frequent flyer card on all segments. Airlines have identified many offenders by tracking their frequent flyer numbers. If you are doing this on one airline, this will draw a red flag for sure. But if you are flying on two different carriers, it's harder to detect.

"It's an airline-created mess," states Kevin Mitchell, President of Business Travel Coalition. "The odds of getting caught are small, and the savings are huge…Travelers should feel no compunction about it." Many agree with Mitchell's stance. Asmall business owner outside of Pittsburgh said that, "Owning a small company, I am very limited in my resources. It would be foolish of me not to take advantage of these loopholes…Furthermore, I feel I am not breaking any law whatsoever." She goes on to assert, "the airlines are still getting my money for the services I utilized."

With careful planning, travelers purchasing back-to-back tickets save a lot of money and can earn numerous frequent flyer miles. With the new trend in airline alliances and code sharing, however, airlines may be able to track back-to-back tickets more closely since airlines will have access to more information - and the consequences can be tough. In the end, it is up to each individual to decide whether or not to play fare roulette.

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