Introduction: Extrahepatic biliary malignancies are often diagnosed at an advanced stage. We compared patients with unresectable perihilar cholangiocarcinoma (PHCC) and gallbladder cancer (GBC) who underwent a palliative procedure versus an aborted laparotomy. Methods: Seven hundred seventy-seven patients who underwent surgery for PHCC or GBC between 2000 and 2014 were identified. Uni- and multivariable analyses were performed to identify factors associated with outcome. Results: Utilization of preoperative imaging increased over time (CT use, 80.1 % pre-2009 vs. 90 % post-2009) (p < 0.001). The proportion of the patients undergoing curative-intent resection also increased (2000–2004, 67.0 % vs. 2005–2009, 74.5 % vs. 2010–2014, 78.8 %; p = 0.001). The planned surgery was aborted in 106 (13.7 %) patients and 94 (12.1 %) had a palliative procedure. A higher incidence of postoperative complications (19.2 vs. 3.8 %, p = 0.001) including deep surgical site infections (8.3 vs. 1.1 %), bleeding (4.8 vs. 0 %), bile leak (6.0 vs. 0 %) and longer length of stay (7 vs. 4.5 days) were observed among the patients who underwent a palliative surgical procedure versus an aborted non-therapeutic, non-palliative laparotomy (all p < 0.05). OS was comparable among the patients who underwent a palliative procedure (8.7 months) versus an aborted laparotomy (7.8 months) (p = 0.23). Conclusion: Increased use of advanced imaging modalities was accompanied by increased curative-intent surgery. Compared with patients in whom surgery was aborted, patients who underwent surgical palliation demonstrated an increased incidence of postoperative morbidity with comparable survival.