Historically, one-way tickets cost roundtrip dollars; that is, you’d pay almost as much for a single one-way ticket as you would for a roundtrip ticket to the same destination. Fortunately for thrifty flyers, domestic discount airlines and travel booking sites have entered the mix and now offer reasonably priced one-way tickets. Although the big airlines still charge roundtrip prices (or more) for many international routes, and certain one-way trips could cost hundreds or even thousands more than similar roundtrip itineraries, they have lately become more competitive for domestic one-way fares. Travelers still need to have a few tricks up their sleeves in order to avoid one-way highway robbery.
Why are some one-way flights so expensive? I asked George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, who told me that one-way flights are frequently purchased by business travelers who tend to combine trips (and whose corporate travel departments usually pay full price for fares). Hobica also said the airlines don’t particularly want travelers to fly one-way, as it upsets airline travel schedules.
To get an idea of current one-way fare prices, I searched for flights on a number of airfare providers (big airlines, domestic airlines and online travel booking sites). Some of the exorbitant one-way tickets I found were shocking — others were easier on the pocketbook.
One-Way Fare Case Study #1: International Flights
In this case study, I’m pitting United Airlines against discount airline Aer Lingus and online travel booking site Expedia. I decided a trip to Paris would be just lovely and searched for spring flights departing from New York City. For the same travel dates, a roundtrip flight from the Big Apple to Paris cost $1,231 with taxes on United versus $1,302 with taxes on Aer Lingus and $851 with taxes on Expedia (flying on XL Airways France).
Things changed when I searched for one-way flights. A one-way flight from New York to Paris cost $736 with taxes on Aer Lingus and $489 with taxes on Expedia (again, flying on XL Airways France). For the same travel date and itinerary, United Airlines charged $1,314 with taxes. Ouch!
To further illustrate the topsy-turvy pricing of roundtrip versus one-way international fares, I compared discounter Norwegian Air with major carrier Delta and online travel booking site Travelocity. A roundtrip flight from Fort Lauderdale to Oslo cost $863 on Travelocity (flying on United), $988 on Delta and $731 on Norwegian. Yet the same flight one-way cost $420 on Norwegian and $522 on Travelocity (interestingly, also flying on Norwegian at a higher fare), but a mind-boggling $2,684 on Delta (nearly three times the roundtrip fare!).
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One-Way Fare Case Study #2: Domestic Flights
Next in the ring we have American, domestic discount airline JetBlue and travel booking site Orbitz serving up their best fares for a spring flight from Seattle to Boston. For the dates I searched, the cheapest roundtrip tickets with taxes were $393 on American, $397 on JetBlue and $387 on Orbitz (flying United).
One-way tickets for similar dates actually cost less than half the roundtrip fare. American offered a one-way ticket for $150, JetBlue came in at $171 and Orbitz showed me a one-way flight costing $130 including taxes (flying on Sun Country).
Major Airlines Playing by Discount Airline Rules … Sometimes
Sometimes the big airlines hit consumers with outrageously expensive one-way tickets like the $1,314 (economy class, mind you) flight to Paris from United or Delta’s crazy $2,684 one-way fare. However, domestic competition has forced the majors to match or beat prices of discount airlines on many routes. Of course, this is on a route-by-route basis. In the past a disparity was more apparent between the majors and discounters in domestic one-way fares between less popular routes, but it is less and less so now.
When the major airlines are in direct competition with the smarter/leaner/sensible-er discount airlines, they adopt discount airline pricing tactics. When there’s less competition, they gouge and maneuver to force you to buy nonrefundable, non-changeable, inflexible, traveler-unfriendly itineraries. (This, of course, is a practice called “predatory pricing,” where the major airline matches the smaller airline to try to push it out of business, then returns to the same old anti-consumer pricing tactics. Long live the discount airlines.)
When faced with a $2,684 one-way flight compared to a $988 roundtrip ticket on the same airline for the same departure date to the same gateway, you may feel the urge to call up a certain airline and tell them where they can put their one-way fare. After all, you’re paying over three times the price for half the goods. So why not buy the roundtrip ticket for the same departure date and skip the second flight?
Unfortunately, the airlines are onto travelers who participate in what they call “throwaway ticketing” (although we prefer the more appropriate term, “turning the tables”): booking a roundtrip flight and only using one of your tickets in order to save money over a more expensive one-way flight. Most airlines have a restrictive clause in their terms and conditions that bans throwaway ticketing. For example, Delta’s website says the airline prohibits “Throw-away ticketing — use of discounted roundtrip excursion fares for one-way travel.” As punishment, the airline threatens to confiscate unused flight coupons, refuse boarding or even charge the passenger for the more expensive one-way flight.
Although throwaway ticketing is taboo according to airline executives, many travelers risk getting caught and do it anyway. Your airline might never notice. Travel agents tend to stay away from the practice because airlines may threaten to refuse tickets to agents who help travelers book throwaway tickets. Bottom line: Engage in throwaway ticketing at your own risk.
Where to Find a Cheap One-Way Flight
Before you risk your precious airline coupons by purchasing a throwaway ticket, search for cheap one-way flights from discount airlines and online booking sites, which frequently offer reasonably priced one-way tickets.
Airlines like JetBlue, Air Lingus, Norwegian Air, Spirit and Southwest sell air tickets a la carte. These carriers price their fares based on one-way purchases, pricing each leg according to availability. This means you can pay X dollars for each leg of your journey whether you’re taking a one-way trip to Chicago or flying to seven cities in one itinerary. For more information on discount airlines, see our guide to the international discounters.
Online booking sites like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity are also good bets for finding affordable one-way flights. Our test cases showed Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity all beat one-way and roundtrip fares for similar itineraries when pitted against airlines for international fares. You’ll also want to try metasearch sites like Kayak and Skyscanner.
The legacy carriers (major U.S. airlines like United, Delta and American) often charge exorbitant fees for one-way flights — but as I previously mentioned, these guys sometimes match or beat the prices of discount airlines on certain routes. With millions of fares out there, the best way to find cheap one-way flights for your particular itinerary is to search for flight prices on multiple sites.
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Ed Hewitt and Caroline Costello contributed to this story.
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