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.
Aer Lingus for one-way tickets
Alone among the long-established airlines, Ireland’s Aer Lingus recently switched to pricing all of its tickets strictly one-way. For the same sample trip—in this case, New York to London via a connection in Dublin—Aer Lingus quoted a one-way fare of $249, including all taxes.
Aer Lingus shows its one-way fares from its U.S. gateway cities (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York) to Dublin, Shannon, Birmingham, Glasgow, London, or Manchester; it also shows one-way fares from several other cities to Dublin or Shannon, via connecting flights on a domestic U.S. airline. Also, if Aer Lingus’ website doesn’t show a through fare from the U.S. to other European cities, you can buy a separate low-fare ticket from Dublin or Shannon to just about anywhere in Europe on Aer Lingus or Ryanair.
On my test, at least, two one-way tickets on Aer Lingus would cost a bit more than a round-trip on American or British Airways. However, you could wait to buy your return flight until you were sure of the dates, thereby avoiding any sort of exchange fee.
A few charter-style low-fare airlines you might normally fail to check sometimes offer lower one-way fares than the big legacy lines. Flights on each route are usually only once or twice weekly, service to most U.S. areas other than Florida is mostly summer-only seasonal, and economy class is even worse (if you can believe it) than on the legacy lines:
- Two Canadian charter-type airlines, Air Transat and Zoom Airlines offer relatively low one-way fares from major Canadian cities to a handful of European cities—mostly in the U.K., but a few elsewhere. You can fly from Toronto to London for under $300, one-way, for example. If you live near a big border city, a short drive into Canada could cut your costs significantly.
- Several European charter-style low-fare lines fly from their home countries to a few major U.S. cities. Among the lines to check are Condor (Calgary, Ft. Myers, Halifax, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Vancouver to Germany), Eurofly (New York to Milan), LTU (Las Vegas, Ft. Myers, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York to Dusseldorf, with connections to other German cities), and Thomas Cook (Orlando to several U.K. airports).
Hitch a ride?
Airhitch has been around for several decades offering one-way “hitch” flights from the U.S. to major European cities. You can do the reverse for a return flight. Current costs range from $194 from the East Coast to $262 from the West Coast.
Basically, Airhitch arranges for travelers to fill seats on flights that would otherwise be unsold at departure time. In essence, it’s an off-line “standby” system (although Airhitch founder Robert Segelbaum doesn’t like me to describe it that way). It’s aimed mainly at students or anyone else who has the flexibility to travel to New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Orlando, or a few other gateways on their own—and possibly crash there with friends for a few days, waiting for the right departure.
Airhitch operates almost entirely online these days, and if you have any interest, its website is as entertaining as it is informative. Note that www.air-hitch.org is an entirely separate operation, about which I know very little.
What to do
If you’re in need of an uncertain return or one-way flight, here’s my suggested strategy:
- Start with Aer Lingus, which is the benchmark. Check out its one-way options, including the necessary connections in the U.S. and Europe. If you really need just a one-way trip, chances are you won’t beat Aer Lingus.
- If you need a round-trip with an uncertain return, you should never have to pay more than two one-way Aer Lingus trips.
- But you might be able to do better. Use SmarterTravel.com’s price-comparison tool to check out the best fares and schedules for your trip. Enter your best guess for a return date. Then, check out what you’d have to pay to change that return, and add that figure to the cost of your ticket.
- If you live in or near a city with flights to Europe on one of the Canadian or European charter-style lines, check what those lines can offer.
When you’ve collected the numbers, decide which option is the best and buy it.