One-way flights make a comeback

May 18, 2012

Last March, when I decided to visit Bali, round-trip fares to the Indonesian island cost more than $3,000. But I only wanted to go one way, and because I was flexible about when I could leave, I was able to book a one-way ticket for $600 instead. I haven’t looked back since. After a month in Bali, I flew one-way to Singapore, then to Athens, and I’ll soon go to Istanbul, all for about half of what it would have cost me to fly to Bali and back home.

Not everyone can fly to Bali for an indefinite stay, but even travelers who want to take a shorter trip can make the most of one-way fares to create a customized itinerary that offers both savings and flexibility. Now traveling through Europe, I book only one-way tickets, even though I’ll eventually end up back in Washington, where I started.

And I’m not the only one. Once, flying one-way was mostly associated with long-term backpackers who spend months or even years wandering the planet. But now, more and more travelers are realizing the value of casting off the shackles of a round-trip ticket and the change fees, set dates and other restrictions that come with it.

In 2011, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, one-third of all airline travelers didn’t fly a traditional round trip, a steady increase from 19 percent in 2002. Their non-round-trip tickets included one-way fares, such as mine to Bali, and multiple stops, for business travelers visiting several clients or for families visiting several sets of relatives. They also included round-trip tickets that were booked in one-way increments.

It seems that the days of flying directly from one place to another and back again on the same airline may be dwindling.

But don’t assume that the price of a one-way ticket would be half that of one with a return. It may seem logical, but that’s not always the case. Whether a flight is point to point or includes a layover, airline pricing seems to have its own logic.

Adam Bruk found that out firsthand when booking a flight from his home town of Greenwood, Ind., to Boston. “We were booking last minute and noticed that flights in and out of Logan [International Airport] were very expensive,” he says. Using an aggregator to figure out exactly how the costs broke down, Bruk noticed that the return trip was significantly less expensive than the flight to Boston. So he expanded his search to include different airports and airlines, and booked an outgoing flight on Delta Air Lines to a nearby airport and the return trip from Boston on American Airlines. “Ultimately, we saved a couple hundred dollars compared to booking a round-trip ticket in and out of Boston Logan on either American or Delta,” he says.

Aja Stallworth, a leisure travel consultant in San Diego, says that for long-haul or transatlantic flights, the large international carriers often have the best rates. But for smaller regional flights, she recommends that her clients fly on budget carriers. “Budget airlines provide a lot of value in regards to in-flight amenities,” she says. “They’re also less likely to have hidden fees, such as for checking your bag. I’d say they’re more of a value airline than a budget one.”

Many of the so-called budget carriers, such as Frontier Airlines, allow booking only in one-way increments and encourage customers to book directly on the company’s Web site for the best rates and service. Stallworth says that’s a wise move. “Unless an aggregator like Travelocity or Kayak offers significant savings, booking directly with your airline or travel agents offers a level of accountability should you have any issues while you’re traveling.”

Matt Kepnes, who runs the award-winning travel Web site Nomadic Matt, says that finding the best fare on one-way trips is all about research. “I’ll check every aggregator in the world,” he says on a call from Japan, “and then go directly to the airlines to see if they can match or beat the lowest one.” Kepnes also recommends checking the airlines’ international sites to see whether the fare is cheaper in a weaker currency.

Competition may be a wonderful thing for cost-conscious travelers in the United States, but in many areas of the world, there are only one or two regional carriers. In such cases, says Lance Huntley, an actor and director from San Francisco, one-way tickets are the best way of making the trip more bearable. “In developing parts of the world, not all airlines are treated equally,” he says. “Sometimes it makes sense to take a one-way hopper flight on a bad airline to a destination with a better hub, where you can pick up a better airline, and fly to your final destination.” Now planning a trip to the Balkans, Huntley has booked a series of one-way flights to get around the region.

Randi Sumner, an association executive in Highland Park, N.J., knows all about booking a series of one-way flights to create a nontraditional trip. She’ll frequently schedule a family holiday to coincide with business travel. Such trips often require three or more flights, each of which she’ll book separately. “My business meeting is usually a set date, so I’ll book in advance to secure that portion of my flight,” she says. “But when I meet up with my family to drive home, or fly to another region first, I like to have the flexibility of booking the rest of the trip later, even if it’s last minute. A round-trip ticket would lock me in too much to plans I haven’t made yet.”

Restricted fares may cost less, but if you’re not entirely sure of your plans, booking a fare in advance can cost more in the long run than changing a single one-way ticket of a multi-stop journey or booking a last-minute ticket once your plans are set. Change fees can add up quickly. In 2011, Delta charged a staggering $587,800 in cancellation and flight fees, the most of any airline. American came in second at more than $373,000. By booking in one-way increments only after her plans are set, Sumner says, she avoids cancellation and change fees.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, which has ranked highest in J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction survey for the past four years, says that the industry is changing to welcome one-way travelers. “It used to be that airlines required a round-trip purchase on airfares, but that’s not the case anymore,” says Marianne Lindsey, a representative for the airline. “Passengers can get great one-way fares on Alaska Airlines to just about everywhere we fly.” Alaska charged a mere $7,944 in change and cancellation fees in 2011.

Post-recession air travel will continue to evolve as carriers struggle to both turn a profit and survive fierce competition. Whether it’s last minute or in advance, one-way or a series of tickets to create a longer journey for business or pleasure, travelers have more options than ever to create a trip tailored to their needs.

McCluskey is a freelance writer from Washington who is currently traveling one-way through Europe.

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