American, Delta, and United Earn a Cranky Jackass for Forcing Travelers to Overpay for Multi-City Trips

I’ve made a conscious effort over the last couple years to pull back on awarding too many Cranky Jackass awards. I didn’t want to cheapen such an illustrious institution. But today, American, Delta, and United each get aCranky Jackass Award share of the first Cranky Jackass of the year. This is a complex issue, but the upshot is that if you need to book a multi-city trip, you now need to book each direction as individual one ways to avoid overpaying by potentially thousands of dollars. This is a very bad move with huge unintended consequences. United already appears to be backing off, but only partially. Let’s hope this all disappears soon.

Let me back up and talk about the different types of itineraries since this will help make it easier to understand what’s going on.

The Basics of Itinerary Types
The airlines have different rules on how fares can be combined on different types of itineraries, but it’s the last one down below that’s the target of these changes.

  • One Way – From Point A to Point B (eg Los Angeles – New York)
  • Roundtrip – From Point A to Point B and back to Point A (eg Los Angeles – New York – Los Angeles)
  • Single Open Jaw – From Point A to Point B and back to Point C OR from Point A to Point B and from Point D back to Point A (eg Los Angeles – New York – San Francisco or Los Angeles – New York and Washington – Los Angeles)
  • Double Open Jaw – From Point A to Point B and from Point C to Point D (eg Los Angeles – New York and then Washington – San Francisco)
  • Multi-Component Circle Trip – From Point A to any number of places and then back to Point A as long as the chain isn’t broken(eg Los Angeles – New York – Washington – Los Angeles)

This is a somewhat simplistic explanation, but let’s focus on that last piece, the multi-component circle trip. Previously, if you bought a ticket that had no more than two stopovers on a circle trip for domestic travel, it would just combine the lowest fares in the market to create the total fare. In the last couple weeks, however, airlines stopped allowing people to combine non-refundable fares on circle trips. That means if you do one search and price everything together, the system will now only use very expensive refundable fares.

Why Is This Bad?
The big problem here is that this is an opaque rule change. Travelers don’t know that now, in many cases if not all, they can save a ton of money by searching for separate one way options. Here’s an example itinerary that shows what I’m talking about.

American Circle Trip Pricing

I picked some dates in May for a pretty standard circle trip with at least a couple of days in each place. As of yesterday when I ran the search (pricing can always change), this would cost only $412.80 if bought individually as three separate one ways. But if you try to book it on a single ticket? That’s $1837.20 now. Why so expensive? Well, it’s because for circle trips, only refundable fares will be considered per the new rules.

Let’s not just pick on American. I looked at Delta on the same dates going from Orlando to Minneapolis, on to Dallas and then back to Orlando. Bought as three one way tickets, the total was only $370.80. But on a single ticket? It was $2288.20, an increase of more than $1900 for the same exact thing.

That is obnoxious at the very least, and frankly, it should be illegal to not disclose to passengers that it’s much cheaper if booked separately. It’s particularly awful since airlines have beaten it into travelers for decades that you’ll never save money by buying two one ways instead of a roundtrip.

Where this really hits hard is with corporate travelers. Many large companies use online booking tools and it’s pretty common for travelers to need something more than a simple roundtrip. So now when a traveler punches in a circle trip, the system will spit back an insanely high price. The traveler will just book it and the company will lose a ton of money. If the traveler is smart enough to figure out he needs to book everything individually, great. But if plans change, there will now be a $200 change fee for every direction instead of one fee for the entire ticket. That’s a big potential cost increase, and the corporates and agencies are screaming at the top of their lungs right now.

The airlines somehow didn’t think this through when they made the change. This is the kind of behavior that gets Congress to push through regulation.

Whose Fault is This?
I’m having trouble pinpointing exactly how this started, but you can judge for yourself from their individual responses to my query.

American

Those particular fares [Ed Note: The fares I asked about were domestic non-refundable fares, so it’s a pretty broad brush] were intended to be local fares, so it was never our intention that they be combined on a single ticket. Our intent is to price by origin and the final intended destination. We know that this change has had some unintended consequences, so we’ve been making adjustments in response to customer feedback.

Delta

I don’t have a comment to share at this time.

United

We matched the industry on domestic combinability changes.

Why Are They Doing This?
What the airlines are really doing here is trying to kill an ant using a wrecking ball. We’ve seen the legacy carriers get more aggressive with matching ultra low cost carrier fares in certain markets, and that means that individual segment fares on two flights are a lot cheaper than connecting fares. This is an effort to try and hide that pricing from people. Here’s an example.

United Circle Trip

In some cases, this would have previously priced as a sum of local fares on a single ticket, meaning the cost would have been $264.20. But United’s lowest one way fare from Orlando to San Francisco is $338.60, so it doesn’t want to undercut itself. To fix that, it just made it so that non-refundable fares couldn’t be combined on an itinerary like this. If the stop in Denver is longer than a permitted connection (4 hours), then it’ll price at near $1,000.

Of course, the smartest people who really are trying to game the system are still going to be able to purchase individual segments and get away with this. But those who just stumbled on it through a website won’t know it exists. That must be the point.

All this being said, the most important point is that this fare structure is the legacy carriers’ doing. Yet those on legitimate multi-city trips are suffering mightily because of the inconsistency that the airlines have created.

Is There Hope?
Yes there is. United appears to have figured out that this was a problem and has now implemented a softer approach. So far, it’s terrible because it’s not across the board. Best I can tell from a quick search is that fares that require a Saturday night stay can’t be combined, but other fares can. Talk about a confusing situation.

Yesterday, United sent out a rushed communication from its sales team called “Understanding domestic fare combinability rules.” In it, United explains exactly why it’s doing this (the reasons I mentioned above). But it says that circle trips are again allowed on one ticket when the traveler returns to the point of origin. So it will still be a problem for people going, say, LA to New York, on to Washington, and then back to San Francisco. But in theory it’s not going to be a problem for the person who comes back to LA. That may be the goal, but it’s not what’s happening in practice in every domestic market as of yesterday.

I would assume we’ll see American and Delta soften their stances here as well over time, especially considering the anger I’m hearing coming out of the corporate and agency community. In fact, that’s why I’m publishing this post today. If highlighting what the airlines are doing can help get it reversed, then I’m all for it.

Regardless of where it ends up, that level of trust that one way fares aren’t going to be cheaper than the sum of the parts is lost. You should always check one way pricing now to make sure you’re not getting screwed.

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62 Comments on "American, Delta, and United Earn a Cranky Jackass for Forcing Travelers to Overpay for Multi-City Trips"

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christophe.bottega
Member

To say that I don’t find it surprising would be an understatement !
I’m much more appalled by the differential which is simply huge !… and which seems to be more than an cancel for any reason insurance premium would cost !…
How can they justify such a difference ?

noahkimmel
Member

…and here I am thinking it was an early April fool’s post.

Nevsky
Member

United said “We matched the industry on domestic combinability changes.”
That is the problem, the government allowed the industry to be an oligopoly. We need to have more competition. The government either needs to break up the airlines or allow international competition, such as letting the Middle Eastern airlines operate in the US as long as they hire US crews and follow all US labor regulations. In fact, the carrot here might be that they have to use US crews (and follow US labor regulations) on trips from the US to the Middle East.

Andy
Member

That’s an interesting idea, but I worry that in practice the ME3 would just end up lobbying heavily against those restrictions and they’d be gutted by pro-big-business politicians. If it could be codified in some way that would prevent such gutting, then maybe…

As far as breaking up the US airlines, I think we’re going to see some competition reenter the market as the ULCC’s and the smaller airlines like JetBlue and Virgin start to expand more.

Jim
Guest

Yeah, they will expand more by merging with each other. Virgin is currently trying to be acquired by either JetBlue or Alaska.

Susan
Guest

“we need to have more competition”… well we have it, the corporate world needs to support it! Yeah the competition can’t fly you around the world, but they can get you around the US pretty well. Support it if you want it to prosper and grow!

henry
Guest

The ME3 already hire Americans so your restrictions are superfluous.

It’s the U.S.airlines that for the most part don’t play nice and don’t hire cabin crews of the nationality they fly to.

Nevsky
Member

The point is that they should be required to hire full US crews (not just a few Americans) and be in full compliance with US labor laws for all flights from the US to the Middle East in order to get rights to operate domestically in the United States.

Jim
Guest

The ME3 hire hardly any Americans. All crew I’ve had, including pilots and FAs, are based in the middle east. Of course they hire ground staff locally, as all airlines do.

A
Guest
I do a lot of open jaw and multi-city flying but haven’t noticed this because I usually book so late and the fares are insane due to schedule. I get if a legacy is trying to compete with a ULCC on a route but it stands to reason that after I’m done with business at point B and flying to point C I could switch airlines and go with the cheaper options if desired. I’ve actually done this a lot where the carrier that got me there doesn’t offer or has bad schedules for my next destination. Agree completely on… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

Seems to me it’s a good way for the big guys to push people away from their airline into the hands of the low cost carriers.

SDFDuck
Guest

Thank you as always, Brett, for calling DCA by its proper name and not stapling the name of our 40th President onto it unnecessarily.

Delta not having a comment is pretty priceless, though.

southflniceguy
Member

This is ridiculous. This is not a political blog the legal name has a president in it. Stay on topic.

Andy
Member

The legal name is stupid. “Ronald Regan Washington National Airport” long-winded and superfluous. Besides, it was already named for a president. Why does it need to be named for two?

Eric @GoldBoxATL
Guest

I am booking ATL-MIA, then MIA-RDU (via ATL), then RDU-ATL. The fare is $855. I can book 3 one way tickets in First Class for less than the 855. Coach for 3 segments is $80, $119 $119 yet Delta wants $855 too book these 3 flights as one itinerary.

brenda_koenen
Member

Excellent recap of this mess! Thank you.

Jason H
Guest

I don’t really get why this is worse or very different than any of the other things that airlines do with pricing (not to say that they are always logical or favorable though). I have never made the assumption that booking multiple segments together is always cheaper than not.If businesses are complaining that they will have to pay too much in change fees, well, then that’s what the changeable tickets are for to begin with.
I understand the annoyance here but not the outrage.

henry
Guest

How can you not be outraged? You go to a supermarket and buy bread, milk and cereal and at check out are charged $45, while if you bought them separately they would each be $5 you would not be outaged?

Well, enough people have already been outraged that a supermarket could never legally do that. Only airlines are above the law and can screw Citizens without Congress doing its job.

Jason H
Guest

Nevermind that airline tickets are very different from bread, milk and the like, I would just buy them each separately if it saved money. Not particularly difficult to do. Or go to a different supermarket. The airlines aren’t making you fly with them or buy those fares.

Jan Marie Brown
Guest
Jason, old remark, I know.. Hopefully you have learned something about consumerism and how this is bad for all of us. Buying different tickets means if you must make a change you can end up with 2-3-4 times the $200 service fees! Not to mention the chance of not having your bags transferred to the next flight and a lot of other issues connected with getting a fare price. The airlines are flying pigs. NO ONE with half a brain would stick up for these greedy, corporate jackasses! And our government lets them get away with it, that is outrageous… Read more »
Jim
Guest

Of course a supermarket could legally do that. Buying those little prepackaged boxes of chips and dip will cost you more than buying them separately.

SteveFromCVG
Member

It wouldn’t take long for the legacy carriers to update their software and find purchases of one way tickets within a certain timeframe and display a higher amount per second or third ticket to the individual. Not sure this is legal, but it’s only software.

Best thing might be purchasing one way trips on different airlines.

Jonathan Reed
Guest

The upside is that if individual segments are cheap and there is no financial incentive to buy a round trip, the flyer gets flexibility to use different airlines on a round trip. This can promote greater convenience and lower costs. For example, United might be cheaper or more convenient on the “going” part of the trip and Delta cheaper or more convenient on the “coming back” part of the trip. I love these one way fares.

Nevsky
Member

Further to my last comment, people should be entitled to sell their segments on eBay or elsewhere like everything else. Why should airline tickets be that different from an event ticket? The only requirement is that all changes should have to be registered with the airline (for security and other purposes) and a small fee (such as, perhaps $10) could be charged. All information that would need to be provided for a normal reservation would have to be provided.

SteveFromCVG
Member
I can hear the airlines screaming bloody hell about doing this. Name the excuse: Security (not really), Fraud (again, not really since the original ticket number is already in the system and what is a piece of paper anymore), Takes too much time (it never was a problem before computers and you could cash in a ticket, even on a different airline), and a myriad of other excuses they would think up. I know I walked away from tickets that I couldn’t use because the change fee was worth more than the ticket. Face it, when times are bad airlines… Read more »
Kilroy
Guest

For CVG to Chicago, I am surprised you didn’t use Ultimate Air Shuttle out of CVG or Lunken to MDW, for a few hundred bucks less. Otherwise DAY is an hour away and much easier to get in/out of, with fares that are not usually as stratospheric.

Keith
Guest
Brett Great article. I wondered why I was not able to make reservations like I did last year. I think you should issue a SUPER BIG jackass award to the airlines for this. Especially to United for the worst type of “me too” thinking(i.e the other guys are doing it). Probably the mom’s of the United exec’s never used the “jumping off the bridge” analogy! :) I am a United 1K and million miler and a business traveler and this now makes my booking trips more difficult. Last year I was able to maintain my 1K status because of the… Read more »
christophe.bottega
Member

Well, at least you knew to buy first instead of hoping for an upgrade !…

Jason
Guest

Why do we always think that airlines should be only given the lowest possible revenue for every purchase. Are they not allowed to act like a business?
If Kroger sells a 20 pack of cookies for $2 but the 40 pack is $5, should we out law them from selling the 40 pack because two 20 packs is cheaper?
Should Comcast be allowed to sell a triple play cheaper than a double play (hint: they do).
If the customer buys it, that’s their choice. If the price is too high, the airline won’t sell the seat.

Justin
Guest
It is all about transparency and how you label it. In your two 20 packs or one 40 pack example, I, as the consumer, can clearly see both products, the respective prices, and evaluate for my self which to purchase. Do I value the fact that the 40 pack may take up less space for storage as its one box vs two boxes and do I value that at a dollar? Every time I go to rebuild my cable bundle, the price difference is made obvious when I go to finalize the service agreement. And yes, they do weird stuff… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Justin, you just made the airlines’ point. You have to go and shop to see that the two 20 packs are cheaper than the single 40 pack.

Why shouldn’t you have to shop on airlines’ websites? If you want the convenience of one reservation and one change fee, you can pay more, otherwise shop around and pay less.

christophe.bottega
Member

More, yes, … insanely more is where it starts being silly !…

Nevsky
Member

First, because they are an oligopoly. In many cities landing slots are limited. If another store wants to open nearby, if space is available, it can. Not so with airlines. Also, if I buy something at Kroger, I can resell it or transfer it to someone freely if I cannot use it. Why can I not do the same with an airline ticket, assuming notice is given for security purposes?

Jason
Guest
If airlines allowed free or cheap name changes it would make flying much more expensive. Airlines need to charge business and last minute travelers higher fares for the economics to work out. If everyone paid the same, they’d lose money because of willingness to pay etc. In a world of name changes, brokers would buy cheap tickets in advance and undercut last minute fares. The brokers would make a margin and airlines lose out on most last minute premium fares. Airlines would be forced to eliminate many advance purchase and deeply discounted fares. Other industries don’t allow name changes either… Read more »
Jim
Guest

Are you actually Brett? Why did you write flyer instead of flier?

Nevsky
Member

No. Not Brett. Just the way I normally spell it.

Andrew mondt
Member
Proof, yet again, that a good corporate travel agent can be your friend. My concern is that the airline may send a debit memo If it sees multiple e tickets in one pnr. Breaking the ticketing at a connecting point is asking for trouble. This pricing complexity has been around on the international market for years. That’s why their had been a constant battle between the airlines and the public regarding creative pricing (hidden city, international currency, code shares and validation etc.) and the airlines. Airlines have a right to manage inventory but as a traveler or agent I will… Read more »
christophe.bottega
Member

Aren’t connections and stopover priced differently ? I think CF article was strictly speaking of stopovers…

Eric @goldboxATL
Guest

Called Delta Diamond Medallion line to see if they could book the 3 o/w under one PNR, she tried and no such luck. She was blown away at the difference.

Morgan Grainger
Guest
In a lot of ways, combining fares end-on-end like this is the opposite of hidden-city ticketing: specifying a connection city explicitly and using separate fares for each hop results in a lower overall cost than using a single fare. The difference is that hidden-city ticketing is risky and against carriers’ contracts of carriage, whereas combining fares end-on-end has, until this change, been specifically allowed, and had no other downsides. Now, using separate fares by booking two tickets isn’t against the contract of carriage, but it exposes you to multiple change fees if your plans change, as well as an unprotected… Read more »
jaybru
Member
Nothing, I say nothing about UA surprises me although I can’t believe this doesn’t apply to all the other airlines. Anyway, I’ve booked flights just about every which way I can. But, we’re talking here about AIR fares, and little involves common sense. Of course, the Contract of Carriage covers everything we need to know, meaning the airline has the authority to do anything it wants, without advance notice or explanation. End of discussion! Anyway, simple domestic fares, booking one-way, combination of locals, or round-trip. I think the rule is you can do anything you want, but the airline decides… Read more »
ORDFlyer312
Member

You mean “Welcome to the Friendly Skies!”

I recently called the 1K line about a multi-leg trip (ORD – SFO – BUR – LAX – ORD) asking why the lowest fare option wasn’t available. Instead it only showed the flexible and first class fares. YET, I was able to book it segment by segment as 3 different transactions, all one-way for much, much cheaper. On another note, expert mode is not working on each segment….

letstry2
Member
Why would anyone even try and book a round trip multiple stop trip if it’s going to cost them 2 0r 3 times as much. In this day of e tickets and computer booking’s there is no reason why they should. Only time I would consider it is if it was a one destination trip (lax-ewr-lax for example) and even then only if it was considerably cheaper than two one way’s. Get the impression at times that the airlines think every one is completely stupid and have no idea what there up to. Time to start hitting them in there… Read more »
Carl
Member

There are multiple reasons to book multiple legs on a single ticket. One reason is that change/cancel fees will apply once if you have to cancel the ticket or make wholesale changes. Another is that taxes and fees can be lower if the trip has a lot of legs (there are caps to some of the taxes/fees.) Yet another is that if there is an IRROPs situation that the waiver will apply to the whole ticket, instead of a situation where the IRROPs event causes you to cancel the entire trip, but other segments aren’t applicable to the waiver.

christophe.bottega
Member

And then, wouldn’t in those cases insurance premiums be cheaper than the price difference ?

oldiesfan6479
Guest

There might be something wrong with your AA map, Crankster–since AA doesn’t fly SFO-DCA nonstop.

Marissa
Guest

I agree with you all about United. Last month I had a complicated itinerary from BIl and needed to go to EWR, DCA, GLA, and LHR. I couldn’t make it work on the new version of the web site but talking with them on FB UA priced the tix at near $6,000. Ridiculous. Eventually I bought 3 separate round trips that interlocked geographically for half the price. Given the length of this trip that means on occasional I have to check luggage, retrieve it, and re-check in multiple times. It sucks.

T
Guest

Book via a Travel Agency – they will know how to price these out at the lowest price. This is not a good move by the airlines, and hopefully will disappear as quickly as it appeared!

JoEllen
Guest

Wouldn’t this just open the door for airlines to also just start raising prices on one-way fares. Just a matter of time.

Devarsh
Member

And then you say airline industry regulation is uncalled for. Cheers on a consistent stance mate!!!

DAB
Guest
I wonder if it was just multi-city that was hosed up… Case in point, I was looking at booking a round trip last Tuesday for Apr 20-21 SAT-SLC. Historically what I would see is that US and WN would be similar in price, UA and AA a few hundred more (usually 1.5x), and DL totally unreasonable for their nonstop (like 2.5 to 3x US and WN). I haven’t been booking that itinerary nearly as much since the US/AA merger (project I was supporting finished), and so that is a few years old, but still how my mind is calibrated to… Read more »
Jeff (NYC)
Guest

The WSJ could at least have mentioned you for being 2-weeks ahead of them. http://www.wsj.com/articles/flying-to-more-than-one-city-just-got-more-expensive-1460565536

Kilroy
Guest

At least Bloomberg mentioned in its April 15 article (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-04-15/three-big-airlines-just-trashed-your-cheap-fares) that Brett wrote about this on March 31, and even included a direct link to this post in their quote from Brett’s blog article.

If you are going to be two weeks late to the party, you might as well be nice about it…

ptsbeyond
Member
One thing that should interest the government is that this airline tactic often results in over-collection of taxes, as there are maximum taxes/fees per direction etc that get collected separately when priced that way. Then again, that just means it matches the government’s endlessly complex/arcane tax system. Travel agency systems have long had issues of combinability – this overt policy change on the part of airlines is just making the money grab more obvious. And because of holding agencies responsible long into the future for any fare rule “violations” – they cow the very people who can help the most… Read more »
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