You Might Be Buying Domestic Airfare All Wrong

The days of needing to buy a round-trip to get the best savings on domestic airline tickets are over. During the last few years, legacy carriers such as American, United, and Delta have ditched the need to buy a full round-trip flight with them to get the best-priced fare. Facing competition from low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue that have always promoted their airfares as one-way; the legacy carriers have had to follow suit. 

Why You Should Consider Buying Separate One-Way Tickets for Your Next Trip

On many domestic routes, major carriers would sell exorbitantly priced one-ways that would almost cost as much as the round-trip total. Out pricing themselves in many markets, “the big three” have found themselves forced to match the low-cost airline's style of one-way fare pricing, benefiting consumers. 

For years now, many customers have been conditioned by the major airlines to buy bundled round-trip tickets, and it's a difficult habit to break. If you do, you'll find that there are much more flexible flight options and savings available by piecing together two one-way tickets and creating a tailored roundtrip itinerary.

Split-Ticketing Put into Action

Earlier this year, I was helping my parents purchase flights from Boston (BOS) to Austin (AUS) to visit my grandmother on her 95th birthday. From Boston, there are only three nonstop flight options to Austin, either on JetBlue, Southwest, or Delta and most of the time all three match prices on the route. For their particular departure day, they wished to fly out earlier in the morning. Leaving only JetBlue and Southwest as suitable choices since Delta's nonstop departs at close to 8pm, which would get them into Austin just shy of midnight, something they wanted to avoid. With Delta out of the equation, I looked up prices on the other two carriers; both departed in the morning. However, JetBlue's fare was $30 more per one-way ticket, so for the outbound flight, Southwest was the winner.

By purchasing the flights down to Texas as one-ways, it allowed open options for my parents to choose what time of day they could return. As it turns out, JetBlue offers the only afternoon nonstop flight out of Austin, while Delta and Southwest depart in the morning. With all airfare prices being identical, they chose the JetBlue flight giving them some extra quality time to spend with my grandmother and to take the family out for some good ole’ Texas BBQ.

While this may not be the most exciting example, it illustrates a few of the primary benefits of cobbling together two separate one-way tickets for travel. By using the split-ticket strategy in this case, not only did it save $60 on the total ticket price, it allowed the flexibility to pick ideal flight times and avoid being handcuffed to just one airline's departure schedule.  

Multi-Airports Means Multi-Options

For those living in or near cities with two or more airports, using the split-ticketing method is the best way to buy airfare and will stretch your travel options even further. Cities like New York, Dallas, Chicago, and Washington DC, provide multiple avenues for flyers to choose from when booking an itinerary composed of separate one-way tickets. Find a cheap flight on Southwest out of Chicago–Midway (MDW) on a Friday night but the Sunday you want to return is sold out? No problem. Have a look at the one-way returns to Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) and see if you can nab a deal on United, American, or JetBlue.

With split-ticketing, you’ll have the ability to fly from neighboring airports on the same trip, and it will allow more choices in airlines, preferred travel times, and the possibility of cheaper airfare altogether. Again, sticking with the traditional round-trip pricing, you’ll most likely limit yourself to the same departure airport and airline.

What About International Flights?

While the split-ticket model works consistently on domestic routes, you’re unlikely to get the same results with the method on long-haul international flights. Flights to Europe, Asia, etc., still run on the old system of highly priced one-way options, thus booking separate tickets will rarely get you any discount. However, the market is shifting with the introduction of bare-bones one-way tickets from budget carriers like WOW air, Norwegian, and Primera. We’ve already seen traditional carriers introduce basic-economy fares to compete with these low-cost airlines and it may not be far off until they're forced to price match one-ways like the U.S. legacy carriers were domestically. It’s no longer a matter of if this pricing change will happen and more of when.

This situation has already played out with international service in North and Central America where low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit Airlines have an expanded presence. Due to the competition, you’ll find very reasonable one-way flight prices South of the Border and to the Caribbean where there’s service from multiple U.S. based airlines. While the science isn’t as exact as domestic split ticketing due to varying taxes by country causing price disparities (it’s cheaper to fly there, and returns are higher because of imposed taxes), you’ll still be able to tinker around and save by purchasing individual one-ways. 

Avoid Some of the Burn From Change Fees

While I’ve gone over ad nauseam about the extra flight options and the ability to mix airlines on itineraries, there are other benefits of using the separate one-way ticketing. Occasionally, travel plans change and believe me the airlines know that. Why do you think they have such outrageous change and cancellation fees? With a round-trip purchase, you’ll have to pay a change fee plus cost difference (you won’t get money back if the flight goes down in price though, cheeky!) if you decided to move up your departure a day or two. On legacy carriers like Delta, American, and United you can expect to pay a hefty $200 fee on domestic itineraries for that kind of change.

If you’re locked into a round-trip purchased booking, you’ll get stuck paying it or end up losing the return half of your flight if you choose to cancel. Now if you’d bought a one-way ticket for your return flight, you can leave that leg as is and just worry about bumping that departure flight up a few days. With only one leg to rebook, canceling doesn’t sting as much if you eat the cost on the original trip and you’ll avoid paying a steep $200 fee on top of the price differential. Simply rebook a new one-way departure, and you’ll likely save in the long run, because the average one-way flight will unlikely cost as much as the $200 change fee, even if it's a last-minute booking.

Two Tickets, Double the Hassle?

Even though I’ve outlined many of the benefits of buying two separate one-way tickets for a trip, some will see it as a hassle. I agree it requires a few more steps and a little legwork to find out which airlines are offering the best prices on particular days.

Luckily, for those griping about whether the effort is worth it, websites like Google Flights and Kayak are taking out some of that extra work for you now by displaying a “Separate Tickets” tag. While, Kayak likes to use the term “Hacker Fare,” making you seem like a computer savant as opposed to someone who is only trying to find the best deal. Either way, these meta-sites are recreating what most savvy flyers have been doing for years and making it easier for the public to take advantage of this so-called ticketing “hack.” You should beware that these search sites will often pull in ultra-low-cost carriers into many of their results, displaying fares that seem too good to be true. Leading to tickets that can negate any savings once the hidden fees get added up afterward. 

The bottom line is, while these sites are on the right track, you’ll have much better results finding fares on your own and stitching together the split-ticket itinerary that works best for you. Just by spending a couple more minutes searching for one-ways instead of the generic bundled round-trips, you could save hundreds of dollars on a booking for a family of four.

Header image by REDPIXEL.PL via Shutterstock

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