Secret savings: Multicity flights a clever option

A view from an airplane window -- with focus on the plane's wing -- during a colorful, pastel sunrise.
A view from an airplane window -- with focus on the plane's wing -- during a colorful, pastel sunrise.

Yes, you can fly from A to B.

But it’s a lot more fun to fly a round robin. Or open jaw. Or a “surface.”

All are types of multicity flights, which travel agents and business travelers know well but which are misty and mysterious for the general public.

“The airlines don’t make it more transparent,” says Pam Nikitas, owner of Joan Anderson Travel in Detroit. “It’s to their advantage if you book all one-ways. And that can be very expensive.”

Beyond cost, the public often does not realize you can even take a multicity flight that would let you do things like:

–Stop off in Denver for a few days en route to Las Vegas;

–Return to the U.S. from Florence instead of Rome, where you arrived;

–Fly into Flint, although you flew out from Detroit.

For leisure clients headed to Europe, Nikitas often puts together creative and money-saving multicity flight itineraries that prevent travelers from having to backtrack to previously visited cities. They work, she says, as long as you are aware that multicity itineraries can spiral into complications with multiple city airports, luggage issues or tricky connections.

“Not all routing and not all destinations are easy to book. Not all itineraries lend themselves to simplicity,” she says.

Still, it’s worth looking into them, says Patrick Surry, chief data scientist for Boston-based Hopper.com, which tracks airfares and trends.

“If you pick the right airline and routing, you can often visit multiple cities for the same price as just visiting one,” he says. “For the adventurous traveler, this can be a great deal.”

Which button to push

For those unfamiliar with online airline ticket booking, multicity flights probably are out of your comfort zone. But for savvy travelers, it’s fun to play around with them on a meta-search site like Kayak or Matrix ITA Software, or at fare booking sites like Orbitz, Travelocity or Expedia. You also can search directly through the airlines. Otherwise, use an experienced travel agent who knows the hidden nuances of the system.

Start on any online booking site by hitting the button that says “multi-city” or “multi-city itinerary.” (Confused? See our step-by-step Free Press video. It shows you actual multicity itineraries and how to book.)

Let’s take a look at three simple examples of multicity tickets, including prices the Free Press found in a test in early April:

Open jaw: Let’s say you need to fly from Detroit to Dallas, stop there for a few days, then fly on to Chicago for a meeting. From there, your daughter will drive you back to Michigan.

You can fly nonstop Detroit to Dallas, then on to Chicago a few days later, all for $414. That is just barely more than the $396 fare if you flew only round-trip between Detroit and Dallas. This itinerary is named an open jaw because that’s what it looks like drawn on a map — a wide open mouth.

Round-robin: Let’s say you need to fly to both Los Angeles and San Francisco for weddings a few days apart. If you tried to fly out there twice, the cost would be daunting.

Instead, click multicity and fly from Detroit to Los Angeles, where you will stop a few days, then on to San Francisco for a few more days, then from San Francisco back to Detroit, all for $403. That is just $105 more than a Detroit-Los Angeles round-trip.

By the way, with this itinerary, you’re making a simple circle. It’s the baby version of the complex “round the world” ticket that circles the globe, with stops at multiple cities along the way. A round-the-world ticket is the ultimate multicity ticket.

Surface: Surface refers to a route where part of the trip is by land. Let’s say you plan to fly from Detroit to Minneapolis, then drive west to Montana to see the sights for two weeks. After that, you want to fly from Bozeman back to Detroit.

It’s an odd trip — two disconnected flight legs — but it is completely allowed. And in a Free Press test of this route, cost was a very reasonable $465, only $100 more than a round-trip between Detroit and Minneapolis alone.

Careful, careful

Pitfalls can trip up a multicity flight if carelessly planned.

One of the biggest is booking into or out of the wrong city airport. If you need to connect out of Chicago O’Hare to Honolulu, don’t find yourself at Chicago Midway unless it’s a deliberate choice. Check that fine print for ORD, O’Hare’s airport code, not MDW, Midway.

In Europe, you also can run into this problem if you fly budget airlines as part of your multicity route. Ryanair, for example, uses inconvenient Beauvais Airport in Paris, not the major airport Charles de Gaulle. That can seriously mess up a trip.

In addition, remember that booking a complex multicity flight where you may fly three different legs on three different airlines may mean each leg has a different checked bag fee, luggage transfer policy and frequent flier program.

Round and round

Now that we’ve got your interest, there is one further caveat. Although most airlines allow multicity bookings, a few do not.

Those that do include mainline U.S. airlines like Delta, United and American, most foreign airlines, and the discount airlines Spirit and JetBlue. Fares on multicity itineraries vary widely but can be cheaper with more nonstops than if you booked a series of individual, one-way legs (check and compare.)

However, Southwest, Frontier and Allegiant do not have multicity booking options. They sell each one-way leg individually. It does not necessarily mean it’s more expensive, but you must book each leg of a multicity trip on its own, which is a hassle.

Of course, most of us never attempt to book a multicity airline itinerary at all, even when it’s allowed.

“It can get complicated,” says Nikitas. “It shouldn’t be, but it can.”

Free stopovers

OK, here’s another type of multicity trip, and a good one. Some airlines offer passengers a free stopover of 24 hours or more in the airline’s home city en route to their destination.

The most well-known example is Icelandair. From Boston, New York or other U.S. gateways, you can fly to Reykjavik, stay a couple days, then fly on to Europe for the same price as if you had flown straight to Europe.

Other airlines that offer a free stopover perk include Etihad (Abu Dhabi), Japan Airlines (Tokyo or Osaka), Singapore Airlines (Singapore) and FinnAir (Helsinki.) Hopper.com, which analyzes fare trends, compiled a full list here: www.hopper.com/articles/1048/get-free-international-stopovers-on-these-airlines. ___

 

This article was written by ELLEN CREAGER from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.