Kayak is one of the best online tools that you can use to find cheap airfare. But Kayak takes things even further and has a special type of fare known as a “hacker fare” that can potentially save you even more money.
In this comprehensive article, I will break down what hacker fares are and how they work. I will tell you everything you need to know about them including how to find them and also discuss some considerations you want to think about before deciding to book them. I’ll also show you even better alternatives for finding cheaper fares in some cases.
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What are Kayak Hacker Fares?
Kayak hacker fares are special fares that can save you money by optimizing your flight route with multiple airlines and/or different airports.
For example, you may fly on United Airlines to your destination but might fly Delta Airlines on the way back. This is an example of a Kayak hacker fare but there are other types of examples and some special things you need to know about these fares so be sure to keep reading below!
How to find Kayak Hacker Fares
To find Kayak hacker fares there is no special tool you need to use — you can just use the standard Kayak search tool here.
You will simply input your origin and destination along with your scheduled flight dates and select any special criteria like the number of adults, checked bags, and your preferred cabin class. Then just click the search button.
You will see all of the search results appear below.
Some of the hacker fares will be clearly designated as a “Hacker Fare” directly under the price. Take a look at the screenshot below and you can tell that this is a hacker fare.
But not all of the hacker fares are marked with the hacker fare designation. Take a look at the example below. You can tell that it is a hacker fare because of the different airlines that are used and also the different airports that are involved.
However, it only shows “JustFly” which is one of the online booking agencies offering the cheap price.
In the end, the hacker fare designation really doesn’t matter when it comes to booking a flight. Regardless of what the search results display, you may be getting a cheaper flight by flying with different airlines or routing through different airports aka a hacker fare.
So don’t get hung up on the hacker fare designation.
Are Kayak Hacker Fares really cheaper?
The cheapest fares available from Kayak are not always going to be hacker fares. So again don’t get fixated on trying to always feel like you have to find a Kayak hacker fare to get the cheapest deal.
Here is what I have learned about using online travel agencies to book airfare (or anything for that matter).
You always need to compare prices.
Now, a service like Kayak actually already compares the prices for you whenever you do searches so this is partially taken care of for you.
But I always suggest travelers to check with at least Google Flights or perhaps the ITA Matrix to verify that they are finding the cheapest flights. I put Kayak hacker fares to the test against Google Flights and the results were pretty interesting.
I searched for a round-trip flight from Houston (IAH) to Los Angeles (LAX) departing on January 23 and returning on January 30.
Here is the price I got from Kayak: $148.
Note that this is not a hacker fare but it is the cheapest fare being offered by Kayak. In case you’re wondering, the price involves a basic economy fare.
Now I searched for this same route on the same days with Google Flights and check out the itinerary that Google Flights put together: $135 for a roundtrip — $13 cheaper!
This itinerary is actually a “hacker fare” since it involves flying on two separate tickets with two separate airlines: American Airlines and United Airlines.
So as you can see Google Flights not only provided a cheaper itinerary but it also provided a “hacker fare” that Kayak did not even pick up.
So this just goes to show that you should always compare your results from Kayak with other search engines like Google Flights.
But do note that if you want to search for these “hacker fare” type itineraries that involve multiple airlines you need to make sure that you have selected that in your Google Flights settings. You can do this under the “More” settings in Google Flights by selecting “Show separate tickets.”
Are Kayak Hacker Fares worth it?
There are a few things you want to consider when looking at buying a hacker fare. Basically what it comes down to is that hacker fares may add more moving pieces to your travel experience.
For seasoned travelers, these moving pieces are probably not that big of a deal but to newcomer travelers adding more moving pieces to an already slightly stressful or challenging travel experience can create more opportunities for something to go wrong.
Below, I will break down those type of things that can potentially go wrong.
Using different airlines
When you are using different airlines for your departure leg and your return leg it is usually not that big of a deal.
Unlike on a connection where you would have to quickly claim your bags and re-check them, when you have several days in-between your flight segments there is no rush to handle your baggage and so that is not an issue.
But dealing with different airlines can cause some confusion.
For example, the airlines could have very different baggage policies and that could cause you to forget to purchase baggage fees or get surprised by high fees. The same thing could be said about seat selection fees or any fees associated with the airline like unaccompanied minor fees.
You also are splitting up your miles earned with the airlines and so you are not building a balance with a single airline. If you are someone who barely travels, this is not that big of a deal to you but if you are someone who plans on traveling frequently, you may want to consider flying on one specific airline or one airline alliance to maximize your miles.
Airport transfer time and money
It is not uncommon for hacker fares to require you to switch airports.
If you are simply flying out of a different airport that you arrived in, this is not always that big of a deal. For example, if you are flying into LaGuardia airport and then flying out of Newark airport and taking a taxi, will that really affect your travel plans? Probably not that much.
But if you are required to learn a second system for public transportation that could add more confusion to your itinerary. Some public transport systems require you to take multiple transfers from buses to trains and back-and-forth and that can get very time consuming.
The next consideration you have to think about is remembering to fly out of the right airport and not getting mixed up. I know someone in the past who flew into one airport in Tokyo (HND) and nearly flew out of the wrong airport because they forgot which airport to leave out of (NRT).
For people who are not that experienced with traveling and like to keep their travel simple, switching up the airports is just one more element to their travels that can go wrong.
It is also possible that you may need to switch airports on a connection.
I personally always try to avoid switching airports on a connection. That is because it usually requires a hefty sum of money to get from one airport to the other and you have to deal with things like your luggage and all of the time involved. There also may be an overnight layover involved.
Kayak hacker fares often will include basic economy flights or flights with airlines that have baggage fees for all of your bags, including carry-ons. So when you are searching for hacker fares you need to be very mindful about the baggage fee policies.
Luckily, they make it pretty easy to view the baggage policy with the luggage icons that you can find in the search results.
Take a look at the image below that shows the baggage icons.
The luggage icon on the left is for a carry-on and the icon on the right is for a checked bag. In this case, this is a basic economy fare and it shows that there is no carry-on allowed and that you have no checked baggage allowance. (Some basic economy fares will allow for free carry-ons.)
If you would like to add a carry-on or checked bag to the total price, you can simply click on one of those luggage icons and then select to add luggage.
For some airlines, basic economy fares do not allow you to use the overhead storage bin. This means that you cannot bring a carry-on item.
Some other airlines like Spirit Airlines or Frontier Airlines will force you to pay extra for a carry-on for all types of fares.
The price for bringing a carry-on on board will increase as you get closer to your departure date so if you are planning on bringing a carry-on, you should try to pay for those baggage fees as soon as possible (you can generally expect to pay around $38 for a carry-on with Spirit).
Most domestic airlines like United will require you to pay extra for your checked baggage when flying around the US. Typically, you can expect to pay about $30 for your first checked bag if flying around the US. This is why it is good to jump on some co-branded credit cards like the United Explorer Card which offers a free first checked bag for you and a companion.
Some airlines will offer you a free checked baggage allowance when flying to certain international destinations. For example, American Airlines will provide you with a free checked bag when flying to South America or Europe.
Tip: Southwest Airlines is an exception to most airlines and allows you to fly with two free checked bags.
Are these really hacker fares?
A hacker fare can mean something different to different people. When some people hear “hacker fare,” they might think of some very different types of fare, and I’ll cover a few of those below.
“Hidden city fares”
Some seasoned travelers will book flights that have a connecting flight even when the passenger has no intention of connecting. This is known as a “hidden city fare” or “skip leg flight” and it is something that the airlines frown upon.
The idea is that the flight with the connection will be cheaper and if you don’t have any luggage checked you can simply hop off the plane at the connection airport and that can be your final destination. If you are interested in those type of fares, I highly suggest that you check out the website SkipLagged.
Just keep in mind that if you are trying to build loyalty with an airline, hidden city fares could complicate/ruin that relationship. They are not for everyone but can definitely save you some money.
The next type of hacker fare is to do something called VPN ticketing. Basically you trick a website into thinking you are located in a different country, usually the home country of that airline, and you do this in order to purchase cheaper airline tickets.
This is a trick that many people have done over the years and it has worked out successfully for a lot of travelers.
There have been reports at certain locations of travelers being required to show that they are residents of the country that they purchased the ticket in and that has led to some trouble so this is definitely something you want to do some research on and proceed very carefully. You can read up on the best VPNs for traveling here.
Mistake fares are those airline tickets that you can buy for absurdly cheap prices. For example, you might find a $2,500 ticket for $180 or something ridiculous like that.
Mistake fares are tricky because sometimes the airlines will not honor them and will instead refund your purchase. So if you ever stumble upon a mistake fare try not to purchase any nonrefundable travel expenses or at least have travel insurance on those purchases.
Mistake fares usually happen due to some type of technical error that is the fault of the airlines.
Another type of deal associated with hacker fares is a flash deal. These are tickets that go on sale for very low prices but only for a short amount time. Often these are only good for specific routes and on specific dates so you have to be very flexible to take it advantage of these deals.
Southwest Airlines is known for offering its flash deals on a routine basis but many other airlines also offer these.
Overall, the Kayak hacker fares may be able to save you money in some cases.
However, Kayak hacker fares are often going to have certain types of challenges when it comes to switching airports, switching airlines, and baggage fees. To some people, especially seasoned travelers, these will not matter as much but for inexperienced travelers these elements add more moving pieces which can cause more things to go wrong.
And finally, you can sometimes find cheaper hacker fares with other search engines like Google Flights or by trying out different travel hacking techniques.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.