Airfares don’t always make sense. From endless fare classes to Saturday night stay requirements, airlines have one of most the most opaquely priced products out there. This lack of pricing simplicity and transparency leads to misunderstanding of how airfares work, and how consumers can get what they need without paying a fortune.
One-way fares have been especially problematic. Simple logic would suggest that a one-way fare should be approximately half the value of a roundtrip, but as frequent travelers know well, this often isn’t the case. In fact, there are many instances in which a one-way fare will price as near – or even higher – than the price of a roundtrip on the same route. Why does this happen, and what can travelers do to get a fairer price?
The Mystery of One-Way Fares
Airfares are based on city pairs, or fare markets. This makes sense, as a fare from Seattle to San Diego has different competitive considerations than a fare from San Francisco to San Diego. But because airlines want to extract higher fares from business travelers, a roundtrip flight is usually required to get the most discounted fare, typically including a Saturday night (since business travelers want to get home for the weekend.)
The rise of discount airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America has changed this game somewhat. These airlines base their fares on each direction rather than pricing them as a roundtrip. That means that you can buy one-way fares on these carriers without being penalized as you would be on the legacy carriers (American, Delta, United and US Airways.) Best of all, competitive pressures have resulted in even these old-school airlines offering some fares as inexpensive one-ways, usually in markets where they compete with one of the discount airlines.
But the discount airlines don’t fly to Asia, Europe or South America, meaning that one-way tickets to or from these regions can be painfully expensive.
How to book one-way airfare and not pay a fortune
For these international routes (along with uncompetitive domestic ones) the legacy airlines are going to charge a significant premium for booking a one-way ticket. For instance, your blogger needs a one-way return from Europe in May. Prices are a staggering $1,500 or more for this one-way trip. However, booking a roundtrip (with a return in June) brings that price down to less than $1,000. Best of all, I’m planing to return to Europe in June anyway, so not only have I saved $500 on the ticket I need back to the U.S. in May, I’m getting the return to Europe essentially for free.
Even if you can’t use a return ticket, book one anyway if it offers you a better price for your one-way journey. And remember that airline tickets are valid for one year, so if you find later that you can use the return ticket after all, you may be able to get this “bonus” flight by paying the airline’s change fee.
One word of caution: This is what airlines call “throwaway ticketing”, and they hate it because it subverts their fare rules. If you’re a frequent flier and member of an airline’s loyalty program, don’t make this a habit. Once or twice per year probably won’t raise many flags, but consistently using roundtrip tickets as one-ways will get you noticed by the airline’s revenue department, and not in a good way.