Can One-Way Tickets Save You Money on Airfare?

Airplane passengers
Airplane passengers

Booking air travel in one-way increments
isn't just for long-term backpackers and spur-of-the-moment wanderers anymore.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, one-third of all airline travelers in 2011 didn't fly a traditional round trip, up from 19% in 2002. Chalk it up to scenarios such as business travelers visiting multiple clients, those combining work with leisure, or families setting out to visit several sets of relatives.

Frequent travelers are getting savvy about navigating layovers, perks and fares to create their best possible itinerary. Although it often requires a little more patience and time, booking one-way tickets separately rather than buying a standard round-trip ticket can offer better control over both price and timing.

The Basics of Road Warrior Travel

While common sense might suggest that the price of a one-way ticket ought to be exactly half of one with a return trip, that's not often the case. Airline pricing seems to have its own logic -- or lack of it -- and getting the best price often feels like a game of chance.

• Unrestricted fares often offer the flexibility to make changes without fees, but can cost a great deal more than their restricted counterparts. If you buy an unrestricted fare, you'll pay more but can make changes to your schedule fairly easily.

• Restricted fares are usually those extra-low prices that don't offer a refund if you cancel your reservation, and charge you a fee to change your ticket -- if they let you at all. If your plans are set in stone, go ahead and book that round-trip ticket at a cheaper, restricted fare. If your not entirely sure about your schedule, booking such a ticket and changing your plans later can cost more in the long run than you would have spent on changing one one-way ticket, or booking a last-minute ticket once your plans are firm.

In 2011, American Airlines charged more than $495,000 in reservation cancellation or change fees, the most of any airline except for Delta (DAL), which charged more than $766,000. By contrast, Alaska Airlines (ALK) -- which has ranked highest in JD Power's customer satisfaction survey for the past four years -- charged a mere $10,598 in change and cancellation fees in 2011.

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Mix It Up

Careful planning is the best way to avoid pricey change fees and nab the cheapest one-way fares. You can minimize your risk with a combination of restricted and unrestricted tickets.

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First, consider your entire journey: Note which legs of the trip are set (e.g., a confirmed business meeting) and which might change (e.g., a multiple-stop/layover family journey). Start by booking your set travel dates.

Remember, there's no need to book everything at once. As your plans solidify, you can book legs of the trip at separate times.

Whatever your trip's specifics, travelers have more options than ever to create an itinerary tailored to their needs. If all goes well, you'll have all the flexibility you need at an affordable price.

Molly McCluskey does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Follow her travel and finance tweets on Twitter at @MollyEMcCluskey.

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