How to use (and not use) one-way airfares

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Have you ever tried to book a one-way airfare? Depending on which market you’re looking to travel in, your results likely have been mixed.

Domestic one-way fares

For much of recent history, airlines looked down upon one-way airfares, as their pricing models were geared to maximize revenue from business travelers. While common sense may dictate that a one-way fare would be half the cost of a roundtrip fare, airlines saw this logic as a threat to their profits. Historically, a cornerstone of airline pricing has been to charge business travelers more than leisure travelers. They distinguished between the two groups with the “Saturday night stay requirement.” Because business travelers want to get home at the end of the work week, airlines viewed anyone staying over a Saturday night as a leisure traveler, and offered them a more discounted fare as a result.

Of course, allowing anyone to book one-way airfares at half the cost of roundtrip airfares would defeat this system entirely.

Over time the marketplace evolved, introducing competitors such as JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America, which price their fares based on each direction, not a roundtrip. Succumbing to competitive pressures, many “legacy” U.S. airlines had to follow suit, offering competitive one-way fares in markets where they faced competition.

This brings us to today, where many U.S. fare markets are competitive and you can find one-way fares at about half the cost of a roundtrip. This doesn’t hold true for every U.S. fare market, but many city pairs offer these reasonable one-way fares now because of competition.

International one-way fares

International airfare markets are a bit different, as they are subject to less competition than domestic fare markets in some cases.

Between the U.S. and Europe – forget about it. One-way fares in this market often match or exceed the cost of a roundtrip airfare. You are better off booking a roundtrip and either throwing away (not using) the return or booking it for a date you can potentially use down the road. Airlines say that this “throwaway ticketing” is against their rules – and it is – but unless you do this repeatedly they are not going to notice.

Between the U.S. and Asia is a different story. I often find last minute fares from the U.S. to Asia for less than $800. This market is far more competitive than U.S-Europe, and last-minute deals (one-way and roundtrip) are common.

Know when to hold ’em… and when to fold ’em

Booking one-way airfares is always a game against the airlines. If you’re looking to make a one-way booking, conduct your due diligence by searching both one-way and roundtrip fares. You’ll quickly learn which is less expensive for the route you are looking to book. And while booking one-way between the U.S. and Europe is a lost cause, why not book a roundtrip on the chance you’ll go back?

Asia is far simpler – especially Hong Kong. Send me a postcard from your last-minute, discounted fare to Bali (as low as $532 one-way from Los Angeles on EVA Airways at the time of writing. You’re welcome.)

Ngapali Beach 1

About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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