Typically, the least expensive air tickets from the U.S. to Europe are round-trip, require at least a seven-day advance purchase, a minimum stay of seven days or a Saturday night, and maybe a maximum stay, and they're nonrefundable, but if you have to change your plans, you can apply the dollar value toward another ticket by paying whatever the new fare might be plus a change fee up to $200. You have to book the complete round-trip; "open" returns are not available.
These conventional round-trip fares can satisfy the needs of a vast majority of travelers. But not all. Sometimes, readers don't know exactly when they want to return, or they be traveling in the other direction by sea. As one reader recently asked, "Which airline flying from the U.S. to Europe has the most flexible policy on changing return ticket dates or departure locations? I read that most ticket holders who buy round-trips pay a penalty for changing their return. Also, what are pros and cons to purchasing one-way tickets?"
I'm hesitant to answer which one airline has the most flexible option, since (1) each airline has its own set of rules, (2) I can't possibly check all the combinations of routes and dates, (3) most airline websites fail to provide all the pertinent details, and (4) as a result, I can't guarantee that what I believe will hold up in all cases. I can, however, provide some general guidelines.
The big lines
As noted, the least expensive tickets on the big old-line airlines generally require round-trip booking and purchase. Even among the supposedly cookie-cutter big lines, however, you find some differences. I recently checked prices from New York to London on American and British Airways for a midweek trip in mid-February:
- Both American and British Airways show the lowest one-way fare as $808.
- Both lines quote their lowest round-trip fares as $478, with a stay of one week, although each line gets to that total by a different combination of base fare, fees, and taxes.
- American says that you can change that ticket for a fee of $200 plus any difference in applicable fare of your new flight, but the new flight must confirm with the restrictions on the original flight.
- British Airways has a minor variation: For $115 more, you can buy a more "flexible" ticket class that allows you to change the return for $100—again subject to a possible fare increase and consistent with the original restrictions. The net result is about the same as on American.
- American's prices for three-, four-, or eight-month month stays, although higher, reflect mainly seasonal differences rather than a more expensive base fare class.
Clearly, one-way on a legacy line is a nonstarter. But as long as you definitely plan to return by air, your maximum exposure in buying a round-trip is the $200 or so you'd have to pay to exchange your ticket for a new return flight.