Beating the Stayover Rule

There is one way left to buy back-to-back tickets and keep under the airlines' radar. But changes are under way.
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There is probably no creation of the airlines that raises the blood pressure and depletes the travel account of the business traveler more than the concept of the Saturday night stayover.

The reasoning behind the insidious restriction, which it makes it impossible to get a low fare unless you stay at your destination through Saturday, is obvious. Business travelers, who are less flexible and usually don't need or want to stay through Saturday, are easy targets for higher fares.

For years, travel agents and passengers oftentimes have been able to circumvent the airline's greediness by doing what is termed

back-to-back ticketing

.

When you buy a back to back ticket, what you are actually doing is buying two round trip tickets and throwing away half of each ticket that you don't use. For example, let's say you want to fly to Los Angeles from New York, leaving on a Tuesday and returning on a Friday. You or your travel agent could book a flight for you that leaves New York for Los Angeles on Tuesday and has a return date anytime in the next 30 days. You would then use the first part of that ticket to get to Los Angeles.

The second ticket would be from Los Angeles to New York, leaving on Friday, with the return trip scheduled for any time in the next 30 days.

The difference in fares using this strategy can be considerable. Based on available LA-NY fares we checked Friday morning, for a hypothetical trip leaving New York on Jan. 5 and returning on Jan. 8, you could save as much as $1,200 by using back-to-back ticketing on this trip.

In addition, some enterprising business types can then use the other halves of the tickets as well -- two, two, two trips for less than the price of one!

Of course, there is one little problem to all this. The airlines consider this tactic to be a violation of their "tariffs" and illegal.

Two years ago, the industry began to crack down on ticket agents who were found to be writing back-to-back tickets for clients. The airlines went after agencies, and they began to send agencies bills for the difference in ticket prices that the airlines felt they had been shortchanged. The

Society of Travel Agents

complained, and travel agents screamed foul, but passengers who used the tickets, for the most part, were not individually affected.

This is changing, though. The airlines seem to be making a new effort at going directly after the passengers who use back-to-back tickets, and in some cases, telling the passenger at the gate that they have to pay the full coach fare when it is determined that they have used such a ticket. This week both

Continental Airlines

(CAIB)

and

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

sent letters to travel agencies warning them that if a passenger is caught using a back-to-back ticket, they are going to deny boarding to the passenger. They will confiscate the ticket and make the customer buy a new one at full fare.

Elaine Grant, senior editor of

Travel Agent

, sums it up this way: "The airlines don't want the tiniest bit of revenue to escape, and they are now using their technological clout to crack down on any issue affecting costs."

Now, while we certainly are not offering our own version of the Anarchist's Cookbook for Business Travelers here at

TSC

, I would like to point out that there is one way that agents and passengers can still avoid being "nabbed" for back-to-back ticketing. And it is pretty simple: Use two different airlines.

This technique appears to keep you under the airlines' current radar. But changes are under foot.

Grant points out that she is aware of at least two major airlines actively working on ways to combine their ticketing information so that they can flag multicarrier, back-to-back abuses.

It should be noted that there are airlines that do not require the dreaded Saturday night stay. Both

Frontier Airlines

(FRNT)

and

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Report

do not include the usual Saturday night requirement in their fare structures.

Meanwhile, most industry watchers are anxiously awaiting the outcome of a pending lawsuit involving

Nelson Chase

against

Northwest Airlines

(NWAC)

. This case, which is now in the discovery process, is seen as the one that will serve to determine if in fact the airlines have a case when it comes to back-to-back ticketing. Are airline seats a commodity? Or a "package" of goods not to be tampered with?

Meanwhile -- if you use back-to-back tickets, just be aware that the airlines are now throwing their technological strength behind catching you, and not just the agent who wrote the ticket.

Holly Hegeman, based in Dallas, pilots the Wing Tips column for TheStreet.com. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site, at

www.planebusiness.com

.