On a recent day trip to Houston (yes, these exist outside of mileage and status runs) United’s website broke their own ticketing rules and forced me into a Hidden-City ticket against my will.
Hidden-City tickets are a constant source of debate by frequent and infrequent travelers alike. For those unfamiliar, airlines charge different prices based on the origin and destination, not the actual flight or distance. For example, a flight from LAX to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) direct may cost $500 in coach roundtrip, while LAX to Orlando with a connection in O’Hare is just $200 roundtrip.
The reason for the difference in price and lower cost is because customers will pay a premium to fly direct while they may book away from the airline if they have to take a connection. Pricing flights like the example above allow carriers to earn their premium on those willing to pay for direct flights, and helps them steal business from their competition when they don’t offer a non-stop flight on the route.
United Detests Hidden-City Tickets
Hidden-city tickets would be the LAX-ORD in this example. Some customers may be tempted to book this but shouldn’t do so blindly as there are lots of potential hurdles (re-routing, checked luggage, etc.) The airline hates the act of circumventing their ticketing methods so much that they threatened one repeat offender.
I booked a day trip to Houston for an important meeting with a morning outbound and evening return. When I booked the trip, I knew my timeline would be tight and things often change in business but United 1K status has been great for same-day flight changes (SDFC). An SDFC allows me to switch my departure, arrival and route within 24 hours without a change fee subject to availability on the flight for free, or sometimes, a small additional payment for specific choices. United, unlike American, allows very attractive SDFC options including switching connecting cities or switching to a direct instead of the connection.
This is the ticket I booked.
As you’ll notice in the screenshot, I booked Pittsburgh to Houston on a Wednesday in August with an annoying return of Houston-New Orleans-Washington Dulles-Pittsburgh. However, it would satisfy the need and if available I could just switch to something that made more sense.
Here is a copy of my receipt which remained the same even after the departure of the first leg and a SDFC for the first flight to a more conducive time.
What United.com Decided I Wanted
Once checkin was open, I checked the app on my phone but SDFC wasn’t available as an option. I opted to call in to the 1K desk and was able to hop on a better flight for the morning, but the agent stated that for my return from “New Orleans” nothing had opened up yet. I clarified that my destination was Houston, the agent politely disagreed, we discussed and then the agent researched it further.
On their side of the system, it looked different. I pulled it up on my computer to confirm and sure enough, United.com or their backend systems had incorrectly paired the flights.
United’s website (United.com) was often referred to as “United dot bomb” for its failure to produce correct results and functionality for the better part of the late 1990s and into the 2000s. While my experience on United.com has been positive to this point, it seems like the kind of error that would justify the name.
The carrier’s website and backend software had decided that what I really wanted was not the ticket that was sold to me, my origin and destination (Pittsburgh to Houston) but rather, a flight to New Orleans with a favorable layover.
The website booked me a Hidden-City ticket to get me a better price (the direct options were about 3x as much.) Except, I didn’t want one regardless of the cost advantage.
The issues with Hidden-city tickets are numerous. If I had checked a bag, according to what I booked, I would be standing lonely at Houston baggage claim while my luggage waited in the transfer hold for my later New Orleans flight. I would have also had to claim it in New Orleans and immediately recheck it which wouldn’t have given me a ton of time. As I didn’t check luggage, I did however, have time for some New Orleans beignets.
Most importantly to me, I couldn’t change my ticket as I preferred. Had I wished to buy a restricted ticket without status, I could have saved money and bought Basic Economy on the route for a couple of hundred dollars less. The flexibility is worth it to me, so buying a ticket for more money without the same flexibility to me is like United stealing.
United’s 1K desk is usually great, hold times are rarely very long in my opinion and I have yet to encounter a problem they couldn’t overcome. Until this one. No one could help. Not the rate desk, not a supervisor, not the customer service agent who separately called me and did their level best to deliver a result for me.
If booked intentionally, a hidden-city ticket could cost you your status, miles, and even a court case. They did send me a $200 voucher for my trouble. I’m not sure that’s an even trade, but it was the most the customer service agent can do, I can’t fault them for doing 100% of what they can to correct the issue.
As voraciously as United has challenged Hidden-city ticket customers, it’s beyond frustrating when their own website issues Hidden-city tickets to unsuspecting customers. The consequence for me as a customer booking a hidden-city ticket could mean the forefeiture of hundreds of thousands of miles, valuable status and even a lifetime ban. With stiff penalties for what could be an honest mistake by a customer, you’d think when they commit the mortal Hidden-city ticketing sin they would be quickly and deeply repentent. No such luck.
What would you do if you were in my situation? How would you resolve the matter? Is there a more ironic United.com glitch?