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Why I (almost) always book one-way flights

Sept. 26, 2021
9 min read
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Editor's Note

This story has been updated with the latest information.

Airline pricing is complicated. But instead of digging into the nitty-gritty nuances of airfare algorithms, here’s a real-world application.

When I’m booking a flight, I care about the lowest price and maximum flexibility, among other factors. Sometimes I want to pay in cash but often if I have miles to spare or want to fly in a premium cabin, I’ll redeem miles. By strategically booking one-way flights, I have been able to maintain half the cost of a round-trip ticket and still give myself options to pay how I want.

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In fact, I almost always book one-way flights. And it makes even more sense to do so now during the pandemic. Here’s why I book one-way flights — and why you should consider the same when planning your next trip.

It can be cheaper

Fly two airlines instead of one. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

When traveling within the U.S., airlines typically price one-way flights at exactly half the cost of a round-trip. There certainly are exceptions, especially for those that fly out of smaller, regional airports.

However, with my home base in New York City being a major hub, I can’t recall the last time I saw a one-way at more than half the cost of a round-trip when flying domestically.

Booking a one-way vs. a round-trip

When paying with cash, my first rule of thumb is to always search and compare the costs for both a round-trip flight and the one-way flight segments. I typically do this with a simple Google Flights search. There have been many cases where booking two one-way flights — with two different airlines — is less expensive than booking a round-trip with a single airline.

Related: How to book ‘reverse’ tickets to save on airfare

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I get maximum booking flexibility

Whenever I search for flights, sometimes I use points and miles, sometimes I pay with cash and sometimes I do both. Booking one-way flights allow me to have the most flexible options when it comes to my method of payment.

If I want to use airline miles for a flight, there often may only be availability or a low-mileage option for just one portion of an itinerary. This is often the case for holiday periods or long weekends.

A one-way, flexible booking example

If I planned to leave from my home in New York to head to Miami on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I could use 10,500 American Airlines AAdvantage miles for the flight.

(Screenshot courtesy of AA)

However, if I wanted to return back to New York on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a peak travel day, it could cost up to 51,000 AAdvantage miles for the flight home.

(Screenshot courtesy of AA)

I wouldn’t spend a whopping 51,000 miles on this return flight (which TPG considers to be worth $714), so would explore three other options instead:

This is where the power of booking a one-way flight comes into play. It provides you maximum flexibility to mix and match the flights of your choosing using a variety of payment methods.

To continue with this hypothetical Thanksgiving weekend trip example, I found a one-way JetBlue flight for $221 from Miami to New York. I’d much rather pay this cash fare than redeem 51,000 AAdvantage miles.

(Screenshot courtesy of Google)

And lo and behold, now I have two one-way flights between New York and Miami — one using miles on American and one using cash on JetBlue.

It works for some international flights, too

What I’ve discussed so far only applies to domestic flights. What about international flying? Many airlines will price international one-way tickets more than a round-trip ticket (or close to it) even though you’re flying half the amount.

As an extreme example, here’s a one-way business class ticket between New York and London on American for $5,119.

Photo courtesy of Google
Photo courtesy of Google

Now, let’s take that same outbound flight to London and add in a return flight to New York. It’s still far from cheap but a round-trip only slightly increases the total cost.

Photo courtesy of Google
Photo courtesy of Google

This is a very common practice and is often found on premium cabin tickets. One of the main reasons that one-way tickets can be so expensive for international flying is because they’re often purchased by business travelers who have rigid date and time requirements and are generally less sensitive to price.

Low-cost international airlines

However, low-cost airlines will not impose these types of pricing practices. Booking a one-way between the U.S. and Europe on a low-cost carrier will almost always be half the cost of a round-trip.

This not only applies to trans-Atlantic flights but also to international flights within a region. In my travels, I have often attached one-way flights on low-cost airlines to existing itineraries when flying within Europe (i.e. Ryanair) or within Asia (i.e. Air Asia).

I'm a huge fan of low-cost carrier AirAsia. (Photo courtesy of Airbus)
I’m a huge fan of low-cost carrier AirAsia. (Photo courtesy of Airbus)

Therefore, by piecing together one-way, low-cost international flights on a low-cost airline and using points and miles for the rest of the flights, I have been able to make trips happen at a fraction of what they would have cost with a round-trip or multicity cash booking.

It’s a good time to book a one way

With airline bookings still down from 2019, airlines have been offering some assurance in the way of free changes and cancellations to future reservations. However, some airlines may only offer a one-time change per reservation. By booking two one-way tickets that are on two different reservations — instead of a single round-trip, — you may get more flexibility when it comes to taking advantage of change policies.

Related: Complete guide to changing and canceling award tickets

Exceptions to my one-way rule

(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

There’s one exception to my personal one-way flight booking rule: flight deals. If I come across an incredible round-trip fare — either in cash or miles — I wouldn’t hesitate to book it just because it is a round-trip.

For instance, airlines such as Delta often only offer low SkyMiles award redemptions when booking a round-trip. Or there might be a round-trip international flight deal in first class that’s just too good to pass up, and it’s not offered as a one-way.

Another reason why you may want to book a round-trip

Besides saving money or miles, you might also want to book a round-trip for a simple reason — it’s easier to manage. Instead of multiple itineraries and airlines, a round-trip may just make your life easier if you don’t want to deal with more than one reservation at a time.

In addition, two different reservations could become a hassle if one flight delay or cancellation on the outbound forces you to cancel or change the return trip. Because these are booked on two different reservations (sometimes on different airlines), you may be restricted in making alterations.

Best cards for booking flights

Don’t forget to use a card that earns additional points on airfare purchases, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express (5x on airfare booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel, on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), the Citi Premier® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve (both 3x on travel), American Express® Gold Card (3x on airfare when booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel) or Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x on travel, which rises to 5x when booked through the Ultimate Rewards Travel portal).

Bottom line

Over the last several months, I've finally taken to the skies once again.

I’m looking forward to the several trips that I have sketched out for the months ahead. I will continue to try to book one-way flights — and recommend doing so for maximum flexibility. But know that there are caveats too. With some airlines currently offering one change fee waiver per booking, now is an even better time to do so.

Featured image by (Photo by The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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Rewards

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Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

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Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
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TPG Exclusive Offer
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 150,000 points
    120,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.