Suspicious Stopovers, Seduction, and the Art of Airline Pricing

Leon van der Vyver
5 min readMay 26, 2022


Before a recent trip from Colombia to Spain, I investigated various routes and airlines to find a reasonably priced flight.

In the screenshot below, a one-way ticket on 21 June from Mexico City to Barcelona, with a stopover in Bogota, costs $785 in Avianca’s M category.

Source: Avianca

The screenshot below shows the price of only the Bogota to Barcelona flight. This is the exact same flight as the second leg in the above screenshot — Avianca Flight 18 on 21 June. In Avianca’s M category, this flight costs $895.

Source: Avianca

Therefore, it is $100 cheaper to book the journey from Mexico City to Barcelona via Bogota, than to only book the second leg of the journey from Bogota to Barcelona, providing that you somehow get to Mexico City first!

This seemingly illogical practice seems to defy common business sense. Surely the further you fly the more you should pay?

Not quite. Airlines base their pricing on demand. If they know there is high demand for passengers flying directly between Bogota and Barcelona, they can justify the $895 price tag. However, there might be very few passengers flying from Mexico City willing to stopover in Bogota on the way to Barcelona (given the 3am wakeup, and existing direct flights between Mexico City and Barcelona). To seduce these passengers onto the beautiful, red-striped Avianca planes, the airline needs to drop the total ticket price to $785 — thereby purely competing on price.

Two for the price of less-than-one

Another apparent pricing anomaly is sometimes seen with one-way vs round trip tickets. The example below is on Scandinavian Airlines between New York and Frankfurt. A one-way economy ticket on 14 September is available for a staggering $2 815.

Source: Scandinavian Airlines

However, by booking the exact same ticket, with some arbitrary return date, the total round trip price is $1 345 — almost $1 500 less than the one-way ticket.

Source: Scandinavian Airlines

Even if you had no intention of returning to New York, you could simply buy the round trip ticket and not get on the plane for the return leg. This concept is called throwaway ticketing, but airlines aren’t impressed by it. They now have an empty seat on a plane that could have been sold to a one-way passenger.

But how can this massive price difference be explained? The reason mainly lies in passenger profiles. In general, one-way tickets cater to business people. Leisure travellers naturally return home after their holidays, and know their return date weeks, or months, in advance. For their “loyalty” to the airline, and for purchasing their tickets in advance, they are “rewarded” with discounted pricing on round trips.

One-way tickets are almost always sold at full fare (and applicable fare class). Given airlines’ general dislike of throwaway ticketing, and the fact that companies will often be paying for last-minute, one-way tickets, paying full fare is seen as acceptable by business people. Airlines are some of the most revenue optimising businesses on the planet — they would hardly be charging these fees if no one was paying them.

Courts of law, human barricades, and the controversial practice of skiplagging

Another, more controversial, ticketing practice is called skiplagging, which refers to only using the initial portion of a multi-leg journey.

For example, a Turkish Airlines ticket from Cape Town to Brussels, with a stopover in Istanbul, might be cheaper than a ticket from Cape Town to Istanbul. The pricing can again be explained by supply and demand — Turkish Airlines knows that they are the only airline serving the Cape Town — Istanbul route with a direct flight. However, to compete with the convenience of the recently relaunched AirBelgium direct flight between Cape Town and Brussels, they need to lower their prices to even below that of the Cape Town — Istanbul flight.

Some savvy/daring travellers take advantage of these prices. Passengers intending to travel to Istanbul might buy the full ticket from Cape Town to Brussels, but only use the first leg, and leave the airport in Istanbul. This has proven to be such a cost saver that a dedicated website, Skiplagged, exists to find these fares.

Skiplagged showing how the concept can save you $120.

However, airlines strongly oppose the practice. They consider it as breaking the contract that you have with them, which states that you will complete the journey (you can find these clauses in the conditions of carriage for your respective airline). United Airlines felt so strongly about this, that they took the (then 22-year-old) founder of Skiplagged to court — but the case was dismissed. Southwest Airlines also has an ongoing lawsuit against Skiplagged (although this is more related to Southwest’s insistence that its tickets only be purchasable on their own website).

I have personally been on two flights where it seemed that airport staff were intent on preventing “skip lagging”. Both were Turkish Airlines flights, the first from Istanbul to Mexico City, continuing onwards to Cancun. The second was from Istanbul to Bogota, continuing on to Panama City. When I disembarked in Mexico City and Bogota respectively, three airport staff members formed a human barricade in the jet bridge (the walkway that attaches to the plane) and asked to see boarding passes.

Unfortunately I did not ask them what would have happened if a Cancun or Panama-bound passengers tried to disembark, but I imagine it would have resembled a scene similar to the final Argo airport escape (except in reverse, breaking into the airport).

Another consideration is that you can’t check any baggage, as this will continue to the final destination. Airlines might also strip you of your frequent flyer miles, or ban you from their flights (although this is usually reserved for unruly passengers) if you do not finish your journey. If applicable, you will also need to provide visas for your final destination, even if you have no intention of ending up there.

As illogical as ticket pricing might seem, rest assured that somewhere there is a supercomputer working very hard to outsmart your furious Googling for flights. But does it feel good when you outmanoeuvre said computer by spending 24 hours on the floor of some secondary airport, eating two-day-old sandwiches, all in the spirit of saving $100? Certainly.