Are Travel Hacks Ethical?

Nikolas Langes, the founder of Tripdelta was in Santiago, Chile when he was searching for flights. He realized that by changing his Internet Protocol address to Chile, he could pay a lower fee than he would if it still said that he was in Germany or the United States.

Price variations aren’t uncommon. They have been around as long as airline tickets themselves have been available. However, now that we live in a world that switching your location is very easy, the question isn’t whether you can save money by pretending to be another country, but if you should.

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Anna Klaeysen of the New York Society for Ethical Culture thinks we shouldn’t. “Travel hacking, or strategies for getting better deals, may be legal,” she says, “but they are not always ethical, especially when they involve deception.”

The federal government agrees with Klaeysen to a certain extent. This past year, the Transportation Department investigated a fare error of a flight from New York to Copenhagen on United’s Web site. Regulators sided with the airline, which refused to honor the $142 round-trip price.

How did it happen? “In order to purchase a ticket, individuals had to go to United’s Denmark Web site which had fares listed in Danish krone throughout the purchasing process,” it concluded, adding that there was “evidence of bad faith by the large majority of purchasers.”

Langes doesn’t see it this way. He believes that airline-pricing systems are very complex so they can adjust very quickly. The airlines have the means to react accordingly if it really hurts their revenues. What could happen is that the prices of cheap currencies and expensive currencies converge.

What about if the information is publicly available? Finding an attractive hotel rate through an online travel agency and then calling the hotel to negotiate a better rate is perfectly fine. It’s no different than comparison shopping and doesn’t harm the hotel or the customer.

Natalie Holder, who has served as an ethics and compliance officer for companies including Starwood and Diageo, says travelers should make their travel arrangements by the book. “Getting a good deal should comply with local laws and the travel company’s code of business conduct,” she says.

For example, it is tempting to buy a “hidden city” airline ticket, finishing your flight at a stopover instead of continuing to your final destination – a hack that can save you hundreds of dollars. However, it violates the airline’s fare rules, can get your travel agent in trouble and could lead to higher fares for everyone.

Of course, money-saving workarounds come and go, and more often than not, travel companies will get wise and put a stop to them. From cruising altitude, this looks like a ridiculous game of cat-and-mouse — and one that the travel companies will eventually win.