One-Way Tickets vs. Round Trip Tickets: Which Are Cheaper?

If you are a savvy traveler, you know there are guidelines for finding the cheapest airfare to a given destination. One of those is the one-way versus round trip ticket rule.

Traditional travel rules dictate that whenever you are booking a flight, buying a round trip ticket is cheaper than booking two one-way tickets – after all, airlines reward people for booking seats early.

But for some folks who are heading to a destination for an undecided period of time – say, you have a sick relative out of state, or you are a student studying abroad – committing to a return date is not possible.

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Sure, you could go ahead and buy a round trip ticket, but then when you inevitably need to change your return flight, you will most likely be hit by a fee that can range anywhere from $50 to $150 – potentially negating the savings you made by booking a round trip ticket in the first place.

So what’s an indecisive traveler to do?

Comparing One-Way and Round Trip Ticket Prices
We compared the ticket prices from several different airlines for an economy seat on flights from Baltimore to Chicago and from Denver to Los Angeles in early December.

What we found was a little surprising. For both trips, it appeared that most airlines charged the same per leg of the flight as they did for a round trip ticket (meaning you could basically divide the round trip ticket fare by two and get the price for a one-way seat). In fact, for the Denver-to-Los Angeles flights, every airline we looked at (except for JetBlue, which does not fly that route) charged exactly the same ticket price: $148 round trip and $74 one way.

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Given this scenario, there’s no real savings in buying a round trip ticket. It would definitely make sense for you to purchase the one-way ticket, to avoid being charged a change fee later on.

Below are the base fare prices (without taxes and fees) for the Baltimore-Chicago scenario:

American
Round trip BWI to ORD: $252
One way BWI to ORD: $126
Change fee: $50

 

Delta
Round trip BWI to ORD: $252
One way BWI to ORD: $126
Change fee: $150

 

JetBlue
Round trip BWI to ORD: $248
One way BWI to ORD: $122
Change fee: $100

 

Southwest
Round trip BWI to ORD: $234
One way BWI to ORD: $126
Change fee: none

 

United
Round trip BWI to ORD: $252
One way BWI to ORD: $126
Change fee: $150

 

US Airways
Round trip BWI to ORD: $234
One way BWI to ORD: $117
Change fee: $150

 

And here are the prices for the Denver-Los Angeles trip:

American
Round trip: $148
One way: $74
Change fee: $50

 

Delta
Round trip: $148
One way: $74
Change fee: $150

 

JetBlue
(no route from DEN to LAX)

 

Southwest
Round trip: $148
One way: $74
Change fee: none

 

United
Round trip: $148
One way: $74
Change fee: $150

 

US Airways
Round trip: $148
One way: $74
Change fee: $150

 

Thinking About Peak Travel Times
If you have any idea when you might want to return home (day of the week, time of the year, etc.), this information could be useful to you when deciding on the type of ticket you purchase.

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For example, airfare increases on busy travel days (Fridays and Sundays), and during busy travel seasons (around the holidays and during the summer). It’s worth it to do a little hypothetical price comparison ahead of time if you anticipate returning during a peak travel period to see if there are any savings that come with booking a round trip flight (even with the potential for change fees).

Other Things to Keep in Mind

  • Consider booking a round trip ticket on an airline that does not charge change fees – like Southwest – which means you get the best of both worlds: flexibility and a potentially lower fare.
  • Be aware that some airlines have a 30-day maximum for round trip tickets. So, if you anticipate being in a destination longer that, your exchange options might be limited – even with the added change fees, according to SmartTravel.com’s Ed Perkins.
  • Remember that ticket prices increase within a two-week window of the flight – so even if you give yourself a little flexibility by buying a one-way ticket, you still don’t want to wait until the last minute to buy your ticket home.
  • Don’t be afraid to shop around for that flight home when you buy a one-way ticket. Just because you flew out on United, doesn’t mean you can?t return on Delta – you have maximum flexibility. Consider signing up for FareCompare’s Fare Alerts, which will let you know when prices drop to your favorite destinations (in this case, home!).

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Updated: November 13, 2014