I've occasionally suggested an "open jaw" air ticket as an alternative option for some trips—and I've often assumed everyone knows what that is. I'm sure that's not true; that some of you aren't aware of this term. And even if you do know, you may not be quite sure how they work or how to research and book them. A reader put the question this way.
"Are 'open-jaw' rates the same as 'multi-destination' rates? My wife and I are trying to figure out how to go on a cruise from Santiago to Buenos Aires, and all of the travel sites show 'multi' and then they give you a rate."
The short answer is that, although in airline terms, they are not the same, you use the multiple destinations option to book them on the big online ticket agencies.
The Basic Idea
You often find yourself planning a trip where you would like to fly from your home to one city and return from another. Our reader's situation—a cruise between two foreign ports—is a perfect example. By returning directly from Buenos Aires, he would save time and avoid the extra expense of flying back to Santiago just to catch a return flight.
In another case, a traveler asked about the best way to travel by train from Madrid to Paris, Paris to Rome, then back to Madrid "to catch a return flight." I suggested that rather than spend up to two days on the long train haul from Rome to Madrid at the end of his trip, he should consider flying home directly from Rome on an open-jaw ticket.
Although it probably arises less frequently, you might also want to fly from one airport to a destination and back from that destination to a different city. In either case, the airlines call that sort of ticket an open jaw. The name comes from the similarity of the line drawing of the trip flight path (sort of) to an open jaw.
When low-priced excursion fares first came to the marketplace, they all required a round-trip purchase (as well as advance purchase and minimum stay). And those round-trip prices were usually less than each one-way fare—often less than half. Almost immediately, to accommodate travelers such as our two readers, the airlines introduced the concept of open-jaw fares. And they were generally set as the average of the round-trip fares from the origin to the two different destinations.
The main restrictions were (1) you had to honor the minimum-stay restrictions on the round-trips, and (2) the "open" portion of the itinerary—the distance between the arrival and departure destinations—had to be less than either of the flight legs.
In today's more chaotic airfare marketplace, few tickets fall into such simple formulas. But in my experience, in markets where one-way fares are very expensive, the current open-jaw pricing remains close to that old formula.
I checked a few sample trips to illustrate the pricing:
1.) Chicago (ORD) to Santiago (SCL), and Buenos Aires (EZE) to ORD, for midweek flights in April:
- Round-trip ORD to SCL: $996
- Round-trip ORD to EZE: $942
- Open jaw ORD to SCL, plus EZE to ORD: $832
This, I think, isn't typical: Expedia's result page told me it had found an "even cheaper" option in its open-jaw search. I would have expected something closer to the round-trip rates.
This search revealed another unexpected result. The open jaw was on American, the leading U.S. line to Latin America, and American's one-way fares from ORD to SCL started at $1,379. But if you were willing to detour a bit, Air Canada would take you there one-way by way of Toronto for $506.
2.) San Francisco (SFO) to Stockholm (ARN), and London (LHR) to SFO for midweek flights in June:
- Round-trip SFO to ARN: $1,120
- Round-trip SFO to LHR: $1,171
- Open jaw SFO to ARN, plus LHR to SFO: $1,202
Here, the open jaw is a bit pricier, for reasons that aren't at all clear. But the small difference is far less than you'd have to pay to fly back from London to Stockholm to catch a return flight. And I didn't find any one-way fares less than half the open jaw: The least expensive one-way ticket, at $815, was on a combination of United and Malaysia, requiring you to schlep from JFK to Newark.
3.) Portland, Maine (PWM), to San Diego (SAN), plus Portland, Oregon (PDX), to PWM:
- Round-trip PWM to SAN: $297
- Round-trip PWM to PDX: $303
- Open jaw PWM to SAN, plus PDX to PWM: $393
Here, the crazy fare situation in domestic markets comes into play. The PWM/SAN round-trip flight is cheaper than the PWM/PDX ticket because it's on JetBlue, a line that offers lower fares. The open jaw is on Continental.
Within the U.S., you often don't need open jaws, because one-way fares are about half the round-trip rates in on so many routes. The one-way fare on JetBlue from PDX to PWM, for example, is $139. In answering another reader, I found a similar situation for a one-way cruise to Alaska: Two one-way tickets, to Seattle and back from Anchorage, cost no more than a single open jaw.
Booking Open Jaws
As our reader concluded, you book an open-jaw trip online by entering it as a multi-destination trip. The initial menu of Expedia (where I checked) calls it "multiple destinations," Orbitz calls it "multi-city," Travelocity calls it "multi-destination," and individual airline sites use similar terms. Whatever the name, you enter the first one-way trip, then the return, and you get the open-jaw result.
In general, I find that open-jaw trips are most useful for international flights, where one-way fares can still be very high. But you find some strange anomalies in the general pattern of fares, such as the fact that Air Canada is offering cheap deals through Toronto, and Malaysia is heavily discounting its transatlantic service. The obvious conclusion remains: You have to research each trip.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)