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. But the big airlines still charge roundtrip prices (or more) for select routes, and certain one-way trips could cost hundreds or even thousands more than similar roundtrip itineraries. Travelers still need to have a few tricks up their sleeves in order to avoid one-way highway robbery.
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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.
One-way fare case study No. 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 $751.20 with taxes on American Airlines versus $793.25 with taxes on Aer Lingus and $708.10 with taxes on Expedia — pretty comparable. Things changed when I searched for one-way flights. A one-way flight from New York to Paris cost $440.16 with taxes on Aer Lingus, and $394.10 with taxes on Expedia (flying on Icelandair). For the same travel date and itinerary, American Airlines charged $2,404.10 with taxes. Ouch!
One-way fare case study No. 2: domestic flight
Next in the ring we have major carrier United Airlines, 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 $370.40 on both United Airlines and JetBlue, and $205.90 on Orbitz.
Slideshow: Awful airlines One-way tickets for similar dates were low-cost. United Airlines offered a one-way ticket for $120.20 with taxes, JetBlue came in at $185.20 with taxes and Orbitz showed me a one-way flight costing just $105.20 including taxes and fees (flying on Northwest Airlines).
Major airlines playing by discount airline rules ... sometimes
Sometimes the big airlines hit consumers with outrageously expensive one-way tickets like the $2,404.10 (economy class, mind you) flight to Europe from American Airlines. However, the majors do match or beat prices of discount airlines on certain routes. Of course, this is on a route-by-route basis; United matched JetBlue's roundtrip fares on the Pittsburgh to Seattle flights I tested (and they beat JetBlue's one-way fare by $65), but when I searched for one-way fares for travel from New Orleans to Syracuse — a less popular route — United charged over two times the cost of JetBlue's one-way flight (one-way fares on JetBlue from New Orleans to Syracuse cost $145 with taxes, while United charged $363.20).
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 $2,404.10 one-way flight compared to a $751.20 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.
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 and Orbitz both beat one-way and roundtrip fares for similar itineraries when pitted against airlines.
The legacy carriers (major U.S. airlines like Continental, 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.