One-Way Tickets vs. Round-Trip or Return Tickets: Which are Cheaper

Ever find yourself needing a one-way ticket? It can happen. You might be called away for an emergency and not sure how long you’ll be there. Or maybe there’s a great deal from an airport far from you which allows a return to your city for a reasonable price but you still must fly to the departing airport. Whatever. If you need a one-way ticket there are things you should know.

LISTEN: Travel expert Rick Seaney adds useful tips.

Prices: One-Way Tickets vs. Round-Trip/Return

There’s a common misconception that a one-way ticket is half the price of a round-trip or return ticket. On some airlines, unfortunately, a one-way ticket can be close in price to the round-trip or return.

Here’s a good rule of thumb:

  • Discount carriers (such as Frontier, Spirit, Ryanair): One-way tickets on these airlines are usually half the price of round-trips or returns
  • Legacy carriers (such as American, United, British Airways): One-way tickets on these airlines can be a little or a lot more than half the price of a round-trip or return

Here are some examples found on websites of large airlines:

  • American: Los Angeles to New York
    Round-trip: $409
    One-way: $218
    Price difference: One-way ticket is $27 more than half the round-trip/return fare
  • United: Los Angeles to Cincinnati
    Round-trip: $424
    One-way: $580
    Price difference: The one-way ticket is a staggering $156 more than the round-trip/return fare.
  • British Airways: New York to London
    Round-trip: $1030
    One-way: $1917
    Price difference: $800+ more than the round-trip/return fare.

Now some examples from the cheaper discounters (also known as low cost carriers):

  • Spirit: Baltimore to Chicago
    Round-trip: $68.20
    One-way: $34.10
    Price difference: One-way is exactly half the round-trip/return fare
  • Ryanair: Dublin to London
    Round-trip: 39.98 euros
    One-way: 19.99 euros
    Price difference: Again, the one-way fare is precisely half the round-trip/return rate

Important note: Prices shown were found in March 2016 for travel in April but fares can change radically – one-ways and round-trips both – depending on when you buy and when you fly. You may find better one-way prices on some of the larger airlines, and worse ones on some of the smaller ones. As travel expert and FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney always says, no matter where or when you fly, you must compare fares every time you shop.

What to Do If Itinerary is Uncertain

Many airlines around the world charge a change fee to cancel any part of a flight (unless you purchase the significantly more expensive refundable fare). In the U.S., change fees range up to $200. If you’re not sure you need a one-way or round-trip ticket, some things to consider:

  • The change-your-mind rule: If your travel plans will firm up within 24 hours, U.S. airlines allow a 24 hour grace period in which you can cancel a flight without financial penalty (exception: American Airlines allows you to hold tickets for 24 hours, and cancel the reservation without penalty).
  • Southwest’s no change fee: If you need to cancel tickets or any part of a fare, Southwest is the lone U.S. carrier that does not charge a change fee.
  • Book one-way on discount carriers: As we’ve noted, it won’t always be half the price of a round-trip ticket so check to be sure before you book. Again, always compare fares.

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Updated: April 6, 2016