This last month I've been hit with several questions about two related topics: open tickets and one-way air tickets.
"Is there a way to buy a round-trip ticket, but leave the return date open, and if so, how do I do it?"
"I am planning a trip from San Diego to Butte, MT. I would like to have the option of staying longer and not having to pay the penalty of changing my ticket. Is it possible to get a good fare with an open return date?"
"How much would a one-way from the west coast of the U.S. to Australia/New Zealand be?"
"I'm going to South America on March 14th and need to fly into Quito, Ecuador. I don't know when I will be returning (to San Francisco) or where I will be returning from. What would be my best, and most inexpensive, option?"
These two topics are related because "open" tickets are largely a relic of the past, so the solution to an uncertain return date is, in fact, often two one-way tickets. And the short answer to cheap one-way tickets is that you can find cheap one-way fares on some routes and not on others.
Uncertain Return Dates
Occasionally, you head somewhere without a firm date for your return. Before and shortly after deregulation, you could usually buy an "open" ticket: a round-trip with a firm departure flight reservation but with the return date left to be determined at a later time, at the regular round-trip price. Now, however, they're generally not available at or even near the lowest levels of fares. Instead, if you face an uncertain return date, you have limited options:
Buy a round-trip ticket with the required fixed return date, then pay the airline's penalty to change your return when you finally decide on a date. That can cost an extra fee up to $150 (or more on some international tickets), but it may still be the best option. However, even with a fee, the exchange option may be to the original maximum validity period of the round-trip ticket. Because many round-trips have a 30-day maximum stay, if you want to stay longer, this won't work.
The only tickets I know that now allow either open routings or easy changes are some of the various round-the-world, circle-Pacific, and other such multistop "air passes" and visitor tickets. The problem with them, of course, is that they work only for very long, multistop trips, not simple round-trips.
If you're a student or faculty member, you might be able to find a student fare that allows long stays with flexible return dates on some routes. Check with a student travel agency such as STA travel.
If all else fails, you can buy a one-way ticket for your "going" trip and another one-way to return.
One-Way Trips—Domestic and Intra-Europe
Given the current competitive marketplace, I've found few domestic routes where you couldn't buy a one-way ticket for substantially less than the cheapest round-trip. I've documented several cases in my earlier report on finding return airfares from one-way cruises. All the major airline websites and the sites of the big online agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity provide fare searches for one-way tickets, so comparing options is a snap. And, as I've noted, good one-way deals are now widely available—if not to/from your preferred airports, at least to/from nearby fields.
Europe enjoys the same environment. Low-fare lines EasyJet, Ryanair, and their many imitators cover the continent with low one-way fares. The main drawback is that you may have to use secondary airports.
Occasionally, however, you can't find a cheap one-way that suits your needs, and can't use a low-fare line. If that's the case, your only options are either to buy the expensive one-way or, if it's cheaper, buy a round-trip and discard the return portion.
Many popular long-haul international trips still impose a heavy price premium for one-way travel. I have four general recommendations for travelers who need such tickets:
- On a few routes, airlines not based in either the U.S. or a destination country offer cut-rate one-way tickets. The specific cases I found recently were between the U.S. and South America via Toronto on Air Canada and between Newark and London on Malaysia Airlines—the fares were more than half the round-trip, but not by much. This is a fairly common situation: Airlines want to protect their own turf but are quite willing to mess around with a neighboring country's market. The main problem is that, except for Air Canada, the foreign airlines that sell cut-rate tickets on long-haul international routes generally depart from only one or two U.S. gateways. And these discounted fares are often posted only on third-party sites rather than the airline's own site.
- To/from Europe, Aer Lingus, the major Irish international airline, has re-invented itself as a low-fare line and now routinely sells all its tickets on a one-way basis. It flies to/from dozens of European cities, so you can connect Boston, Chicago, or New York (its three U.S. gateways) with any of those European cities through a Dublin or Shannon connection.
- If worst comes to worst, there are still routes where a round-trip costs less than half the one-way fare. I found that to be the case for a reader who needed a cheap round-trip to Sydney: Because of the current fare war, a cheap round-trip was considerably less than the best posted one-way rate. So my reader's best bet was to buy a cheap round-trip and discard the unused return portion. That practice violates airline rules, but few, if any travelers, are bothered by that detail.
- Some consolidators and discount agencies can arrange one-way trips. Consolidators I've previously listed include Airline Consolidator.com, Airsaver.com, and BargainTravel.com. Also, some agencies that specialize in round-the-world trips are good sources of one-way tickets, including AirTreks, and Air Brokers International.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)