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Paying a lot for multicity flights? Book separate, or take a mini-vacation

Salt Lake City international airport
George Frey | Reuters
Salt Lake City international airport

As flights to multiple cities get costlier, a recent survey suggests passengers are getting savvier about avoiding higher prices.

A new airfare pricing rule rolled out by American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines may add up to hundreds of dollars to tickets booked for multicity trips — the kind many business travelers take to visit more than one city on a single trip. Although a group of airline passengers and travel agents is fighting back by filing an antitrust lawsuit against the airlines, the rule could prove costly for passengers in the meantime.

However, a new study by OAG Aviation found that a good number of travelers are already adjusting to the reality. OAG data showed that fliers are skipping multicity ticket prices offered up by the airline booking sites, instead opting to "self-connect" by booking separate tickets to several different cities — often on different airlines. Experts say that booking that way is more cumbersome, but in many cases can be cheaper.

OAG surveyed more than 2,900 travelers, finding that 40 percent of travelers have already self-connected. Meanwhile, 92 percent are willing to self-connect under the right circumstances, and 37 percent are willing to wait more than four hours on a layover in order to save $200.

For millennials — a group not noted for being interested in waiting around for things to happen — the survey found that number jumps to 55 percent.

More expensive multicity travel "absolutely plays to the consumer in terms of encouraging self-connecting travel," said OAG senior analyst John Grant.

"Savvy passengers will quickly start scouring the internet for connecting opportunities between airlines as much as within an airline network," he said. "In time, this may lead the recent changes to be adjusted back to the current status quo."

OAG's survey found that while saving money is a key incentive for self-connecting travelers, 31 percent of travelers are more likely to self-connect through a city they'd actually like to visit. That is becoming more of a trend, as cities and municipalities invest big dollars in "airport cities" — or aerotropolises — that offer a wide range of food, lodging and entertainment that go beyond transitory options.

Internationally, places like Phuket International Airport in Thailand also bill themselves as "resorts," while domestic locations like Denver International and New York's JFK are part of at least 70 different aerotropolises worldwide, according to Airport World.

"Many passengers make active decisions about the airport they wish to visit," said Scott Ludwigsen, executive vice president of the travel research group at Phoenix Marketing International. The firm polls travelers while they're in airports, and recently found that Tampa, Florida, and Salt Lake City had airports that ranked highly with travelers.

"Some passengers choose to avoid connecting through certain airports, but others passengers have their favorite airports that they like to spend some downtime in while connecting due to positive experiences they have had in the past," he added.

For example, Ludwigsen said, 75 percent of Charlotte Douglas International Airport's passengers are connecting passengers. Many choose North Carolina's CLT "for its hospitality and the simple charm of their rocking chairs," he said.

Nearly half of Salt Lake City International Airport's passengers are making flight connections there, and "SLC passengers rate the food and beverage above average as well as the gate areas and the terminal facilities," said Ludwigsen.

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.