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 utterly shocking -- others were easier on the pocketbook.
Discount Airfare Deals
One-Way Fare Case Study #1: International Flight
In this case study, I'm pitting American 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 late-winter flights departing from New York City. For the same travel dates, a roundtrip flight from the Big Apple to Paris cost $822.60 with taxes on American Airlines versus $1,102.59 with taxes on Aer Lingus and $811 with taxes on Expedia (flying on United) -- pretty comparable. Things changed when I searched for one-way flights. A one-way flight from New York to Paris cost $594.46 with taxes on Aer Lingus, and $582.51 with taxes on Expedia (flying on Jet Airways). For the same travel date and itinerary, American Airlines charged $2,433.70 with taxes. Ouch!
To further illustrate the topsy-turvy pricing of roundtrip versus one-way international fares, I compared discounter Air Berlin with major carrier United Airlines and online travel booking site Travelocity. A roundtrip flight from Washington D.C. to Berlin cost $847.30 on Travelocity (flying Turkish Airlines), $880.20 on United and $1,118.03 on Air Berlin. Yet the same flight one-way cost $544.29 on Air Berlin (less than half the roundtrip fare) and $623.10 on Travelocity (flying American Airlines), but a mind-boggling $3,060.70 on United (nearly three and a half times the roundtrip fare!).
Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
One-Way Fare Case Study #2: Domestic Flight
Next in the ring we have United, domestic discount airline JetBlue and travel booking site Orbitz serving up their best fares for a late-winter flight from Pittsburgh to Seattle. For the dates I searched, the cheapest roundtrip tickets departing the Steel City for Seattle were $349.70 on United Airlines, $351.20 on JetBlue, and $349 on Orbitz (flying United).
One-way tickets for similar dates were low-cost. United Airlines offered a one-way ticket for $174.10 with taxes, JetBlue came in at $175.60 with taxes and Orbitz showed me a one-way flight also costing $174 including taxes (flying on United).
Major Airlines Playing by Discount Airline Rules ... Sometimes
Sometimes the big airlines hit consumers with outrageously expensive one-way tickets like the $2,433.70 (economy class, mind you) flight to Europe from American Airlines or United's crazy $3,060.70 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.)
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When faced with a $3,060.70 one-way flight compared to a $880.20 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 on to 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 Web site 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.
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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 AirTran, JetBlue, Air Lingus, 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 guides to the domestic discounters and 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 Travelociy all beat one-way and roundtrip fares for similar itineraries when pitted against airlines for international fares.
The legacy carriers (major U.S. airlines like US Airways, 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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Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Airfarewatchdog.com.
--written by Ed Hewitt and Caroline Costello