It seems that nearly everything about the airline business has changed over the past 10 or 20 years, and it’s hard to find anyone who is happy about the current model. It seems that the only thing the airlines are better at than annoying customers is losing money as an industry.
There is some good news, however. In spite of so many people complaining about high airfares, they are actually far lower today than they have been for most of the last century, at least for those who are careful and know how to pack light. More good news comes in the fact that one-way airfares are often exactly half the price of round-trip airfares now, giving travelers far more flexibility in the process.
One-way airfares used to be a joke
If you were traveling in the era before all airfares were searchable online, you probably remember a telephone conversation like this to an airline’s 800 number:
Me: Yes, how much is the cheapest round-trip from LA to New York?
Airline: That’s $299.
Me: Okay, so how much is the cheapest one-way just from LA to New York?
Airline: Ummm….that’s $950.
For decades it was nearly impossible to get a cheap one-way airfare, so nearly everyone except some business travelers bought round-trips. It was even to the point where regular long-distance commuters would save money by buying two round-trip tickets and throwing away the return ticket on both.
The old rule where you had to not only buy a round-trip ticket, but also stay over at least one Saturday night is pretty much dead. That was one way the airlines could charge business travelers more to help keep prices lower for tourists, but now, passengers can often buy two one-way tickets for the exact same price as a discounted round-trip. This helps make things like multi-stop and open jaw trips cheaper and easier, among other things.
Round-trip vs. One-way comparison for 20 sample city pairs
Below are 20 sample itineraries for US and international flights, mixing up extremely popular routes with more obscure routes that require at least one change of plane. One-way fares are the sum of flying both ways, rather than simply a doubling of the outbound fare.
(RT fare / Combined OW fares / OW to RT %)
- $655 / $628 / 96% – Honolulu to Houston
- $200 / $200 / 100% – New York City to Miami
- $243 / $243 / 100% – Los Angeles to New York City
- $220 / $220 / 100% – San Francisco to Austin
- $343 / $343 / 100% – Portland to Orlando
In this small sample, there is no price advantage to buying round-trip tickets.
US to international
- $909 / $1,451 / 160% – Los Angeles to London
- $1,070 / $2,860 / 267% – Louisville to Paris
- $1,165 / $2,240 / 192% – Atlanta to Rio de Janeiro
- $545 / $848 / 156% – Chicago to Belize City
International itineraries from the US are much cheaper as round-trips.
- $125 / $131 / 105% – London to Barcelona
- $248 / $659 / 266% – Frankfurt to Palermo
- $244 / $331 / 136% – Copenhagen to Istanbul
- $1,430 / $1,852 / 130% – London to Sydney
- $834 / $1,118 / 134% – Madrid to Bangkok
If a low-cost carrier flies a route, the one-ways are a good deal, but on other flights the round-trip saves.
- $351 / $300 / 85% – Dubai to Mumbai
- $496 / $566 / 114% – Delhi to Kuala Lumpur
- $586 / $618 / 105% – Beijing to Bali
- $896 / $1,115 / 124% – Melbourne to Seoul
- $1,504 / $1,886 / 125% – Tokyo to Fiji
Involving Asian cities, it can go either way, so it’s always worth checking both.
What we learn from the lower one-way airfares
If you are a regular on the low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines or EasyJet or Air Asia, you probably already know that those are typically priced as one-way segments no matter what. But you might not have realized that other airlines are also doing this in many places, and you can take advantage of it when you have a flexible or uncertain schedule.
Unless you are certain of both your departure and return dates in advance, it’s worth checking for one-way fares vs. the round-trip price. You might decide to stay longer or return sooner, and knowing that the fare is the same could be a big help.
This means cheaper multi-stop and open-jaw trips
Only a few years ago, it was complicated or impossible to work out an effective multi-stop trip, or an open-jaw (flying into one city and back home from another). But in the era of cheap one-way flights, it can often be sorted out in minutes by anyone.
One-way flights are sometimes even cheaper than round-trips
Probably the biggest takeaway from the new one-way ticket pricing strategy by the airlines is that if you aren’t 100% certain of your schedule, it’s worth checking your own preferred dates both ways before you buy. Also, if you were thinking about including another city on the same trip, you might actually find that it’s as cheap or even cheaper to fly into one airport and out of another.
With two examples above (Honolulu to Houston and Delhi to Dubai), the prices were actually cheaper when priced as separate one-way flights. Keep in mind that airfares are usually cheapest 4 to 6 weeks before departure, and if it’s a longer duration you might find that the return ticket is actually a lower price if you wait to book it. If your outbound flight is cheaper than your return flight, it might pay off to only book the first leg and wait on the second.