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United allows you to book trips to and from ZFV, Philadelphia’s 30th St. train station. Such fares include flights to or from Newark and trains from there to Philadelphia.
Because in the short term an airline’s ticket prices have more to do with competition from other airlines than anything else, United often sells tickets to ZFV for cheaper than flights to Newark, even when the trip to ZFV is the same flights to Newark plus a train ride. This presents an intriguing hidden city ticketing option, doubly intriguing because you have to collect any checked bags in Newark.
Hidden city ticketing is the practice of booking a ticket with a connection and planning to fly only to the intermediate connection point. Hidden city ticketing can save you a lot of money when flights to your real destination are expensive, flights to your fake destination are cheaper, and you can book tickets to the fake destination with a connection at the real destination.
For example if you want to fly from Baltimore to Chicago and the fare is $200 one way, but you find Baltimore to Milwaukee with a connection in Chicago for $150 one way, you can buy Baltimore to Milwaukee and just leave the airport in Chicago $50 richer than you would have been if you had booked a ticket to Chicago.
Hidden city ticketing is not illegal, but airlines don’t like it. In the past, United sued a website that searched for hidden city tickets. (The case was thrown out on procedural grounds; I also think United would lose on the merits.) I’ll have more hidden city caveats as they apply to ZFV fares at the end of the post.
Cheap ZFV Fares
Philadelphia is an American Airlines/US Airways hub with a lot of direct flights on the airline. Most United itineraries to Philadelphia, by contrast, will have a layover at a United hub. People don’t like layovers, so United needs to price these connecting itineraries attractively to compete with American Airlines/US Airways direct flights.
Similarly, United has a fortress hub at Newark with direct flights from all over the country. If someone flies to Newark, they will want to fly United because of the much better schedule United has compared to other carriers at the airport. So United has some pricing power at the airport.
That’s why we often see that United charges more for a direct flight from somewhere to Newark than for that same flight plus a train ticket to Philadelphia.
Example: One Way from Las Vegas
This is a calendar of only United-marketed itineraries (I’ll explain how to get it below) from Las Vegas to Philadelphia’s train station in September. There are a lot of days including Fridays and Satrudays for $125.
Here is a calendar of flights from Las Vegas to Newark in September. The cheapest price is $167, and the cheapest Friday is $178.
And the cheapest flights are with a connection, which means an extra 2.5 hours of travel to Newark. The United direct flights are pricing at $222–$97 more than the price from Las Vegas to Philadelphia that included the same flight.
Example: One Way from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
These $105 itineraries are a direct DFW to Newark flight plus a train ride. Now let’s search DFW to Newark on all airlines with no maximum number of layovers. The cheapest days are $147, and the cheapest Fridays are $158.
How to Find These Fares
I started on the ITA Matrix. First I searched for United one way fares from different cities to ZFV. To make sure you only get United fares, include the advanced routing code UA+.
You’ll get a calendar of results that include flights to Newark.
Now re-run the search and change the destination to Newark and remove the advanced routing codes. You’ll get a calendar of results from all airlines.
Compare the two calendars. If the United fares to Philadelphia are cheaper, you can book them on united.com or on whatever online travel agency you prefer.
Caveats & FAQ
A normal caveat with hidden city ticketing is that you cannot check a bag because it will fly to your final destination. With tickets to ZFV, though, you can check a bag. The bag will come out at baggage claim in Newark, and you are expected to pick it up there are carry it to the train. No one will (or can) force you to do that instead of just leaving.
Another normal caveat is that your plans could be ruined by inclement weather that causes a re-routing that eliminates the connection in your true destination. This is less of a worry with ZFV fares. To get to ZFV, you have to fly to Newark and take the train. If United tried to re-route me to Philadelphia’s airport via Chicago instead, I would insist on changing the itinerary back to plane to Newark plus train because ZFV and Philadelphia’s airport are in very different places.
You are violating United’s terms and conditions, and United could respond by not awarding miles for your trip or even canceling your MileagePlus account. I have never seen a single report of United doing this. Surely your odds of United noticing and punishing you increase if you book these tickets frequently.
What about skipping your train legs, what effect will that have on you and your ticket? There’s a 1,500+ post FlyerTalk thread on the subject, and this is the summary based on folks’ experience:
Skipping ZFV-EWR/EWR-ZFV Segment
The scenarios below are categorized as low-risk, medium-risk, or high-risk.
- Low-risk scenarios are unlikely to result in cancelled segments; the risks here include UA coming after you if you do it frequently, and the possibility of being routed directly to PHL in IRROPS.
- Medium-risk scenarios are those where some people have reported cancelled segments, particularly if there is enough lag time between the Amtrak segment and one or more of the United segments for the systems to sync up; sometimes you can get an agent to reinstate canceled segments/trip for no charge but seating assignment and upgrades will probably be lost.
- High-risk scenarios are those where some segments are almost certain to be cancelled.
Here are the scenarios:
- Booking One Way or Round Trip: ZFV-EWR-XXX, boarding ZFV-EWR downline (e.g. at TRE or MET) – No risk (subject to obtaining your train ticket–see below)
- Booking One Way: ZFV-EWR-XXX, Skipping ZFV-EWR only – Medium-risk
- Booking One Way: XXX-EWR-ZFV, Skipping EWR-ZFV only – Low-risk
- Booking Round Trip: ZFV-EWR-XXX, Skipping ZFV-EWR only – High-risk
- Booking Round Trip: XXX-EWR-ZFV, Skipping ZFV-EWR only – Medium-risk
- Booking Round Trip: ZFV-EWR-XXX, Skipping EWR-ZFV only – Low-risk
- Booking Round Trip: XXX-EWR-ZFV, Skipping EWR-ZFV only – High-risk
- Booking Round Trip: ZFV-EWR-XXX -OR- XXX-EWR-ZFV, Skipping ZFV-EWR and EWR-ZFV – High-risk
So FlyerTalk is basically suggesting that you only skip the train if it is the very last segment on your ticket. The easiest way to do that is to book a one way TO Newark/Philadelphia.
There are reports of people booking ZFV to Newark to a destination, printing their real Amtrak ticket at a station, and then skipping the Amtrak segment and being allowed to fly out of Newark. But read the FlyerTalk thread in detail before trying that.
If you want to fly to Newark, you can save serious money booking United fares to ZFV, a Philadelphia train station, and then skipping the train segment.
As with all hidden city ticketing, there is risk.
More hidden city ticketing articles, all of which are about award booking:
- Anatomy of an Award: South America, Africa, Europe, and North America in Business Class for 100k Miles
- $200 Flight to Japan with Hidden City Ticketing on LifeMiles Awards (Dead)
- Saving Singapore Miles with Hidden City Ticketing
- Save 15,000 Miles on Your Next Award with This Hidden City Ticket
Hat Tip Dan’s Deals