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Flexible flight options for spontaneous travelers

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on December 22, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins.

Most low-fare air tickets tie you into a fixed itinerary as soon as you buy them, usually weeks to months before you actually start your trip. Although many travelers can accept that rigidity, some prefer to be a bit more spontaneous. A few recent inquiries highlight the issue:

  • "Is it possible to purchase an international airline ticket with a flexible return date, instead of being tied to specific return date?"
  • "What do travelers who would like to leisurely wander/travel around the world do?"

Fortunately, travelers seeking flexibility do have some options.

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Open return or one-way

The answer to the first question is, "generally, no," at least as far as low-cost tickets are concerned. The lowest published international airfares almost always require a fixed round-trip itinerary, generally with no more than 30 days at the destination.

As an alternative, you could buy a one-way ticket to your destination and another one-way back when you're ready to return. On most legacy lines, however, one-way tickets are considerably more expensive than half the cheapest round-trip tickets. In fact, one-way tickets are often more expensive than round-trips. So far, the major exception to that pattern is on Aer Lingus, which sells relatively cheap one-way tickets between the U.S. and Ireland. So if you're headed to Europe, you could buy one-way tickets and use Ireland as a gateway.

Some discount agencies offer low-cost one-way international tickets. They're usually more than half the discounted round-trip cost, but often much lower than the big airlines' published one-way fares.

If you're heading to Europe, and you're really flexible, consider Airhitch, which arranges one-way travel from the U.S. to Europe and back. Its "hitch" program is something like standby, over a period of several days, so it works best if you live in one of the major U.S. gateway cities with lots of service to Europe. Current one-way costs to Europe range from $165 (East Coast) to $232 (West Coast) plus fees and the usual taxes.

Destination roaming

Even if you have to lock in your intercontinental travel, you can arrange for free-form travel once you get to your destination. Visitor tickets (often erroneously labeled "air passes") allow you to arrange set-price flights within most of the world's important destination regions.

Some of the more flexible overall programs are operated by the three major worldwide alliances: Oneworld (eight lines including American, British, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas), SkyTeam (nine lines including Continental, Delta, Northwest, and Air France), and Star Alliance (16 lines including United, US Airways, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, and Singapore).

  • Star Alliance offers the most regional visitor tickets, covering Asia, Brazil, Europe, Japan, South Pacific, and Thailand
  • Oneworld tickets cover Europe and South America
  • SkyTeam tickets cover just Europe

The basic ground rules are the same for all: Buy a set number of coupons and complete travel within a set time period; specifics vary by pass. Stop over at any one city only once, but connect through the same hub city more than once. Set your complete itinerary in advance, but reserve only the first flight—other legs of your trip can remain "open" until you're ready to set dates. The Star Alliance Europe pass, for example, provides three to 10 coupons, starting at $65 per flight; take up to three months to use your coupons.

Most regional visitor tickets are available only in economy class. And you must use an alliance member to fly from the U.S. to the destination area. For more information, visit Oneworld, SkyTeam, Star Alliance, or the website or reservation office of any member airline.

Europe by Air is an even more flexible visitor ticket, with flights on 24 participating airlines, mostly small. Pay a flat $99 per nonstop flight (plus taxes and fees), regardless of length, for flying over a period up to 120 days, and the entire itinerary can be "open." For more information visit Europe by Air's website.

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