One of the ways that many airlines and all of the on-line travel agencies fail to serve customers is by presenting airfare choices for round-trips as an either/or proposition.
Choice 1: I want the lowest fare and I’ll give you my first born if necessary to get it.
Choice 2: I need the full fare in case I need to change or cancel the trip altogether.
Usually you make your choice when typing in your flight criteria as in the example below.
If you select the “Refundable” check-box you’ll get full fare prices for both your outbound flight and return flight. Leave it unchecked and you’ll see the lowest prices with the usual restriction of non-refundability, and changes only for payment of a fee, a huge fee.
Yes, in many instances – for leisure travel in particular – passengers can select flights and stick with them.
But often for business travelers and also for some leisure travelers that simply is not the case. Here are real-life examples based on a trip between Sacramento and Salt Lake City.
Business Bob’s situation: He absolutely positively is going on that consulting gig to Salt Lake City, leaving on Monday, 22 June. The only problem is that the return is squishy. The company he’s working at is only expecting to have him on-site through Friday, 26 June, but there is a chance he’ll get done sooner. Conversely if there’s more work left, they will ask him to stay over the weekend to complete it.
Sister Sally’s situation: She’s going to Salt Lake on Monday, 22 June to be with her brother who has surgery the next day. She thinks she’ll be able to return on Friday, 26 June, but if her brother’s recovery is slow she’ll need to stay longer.
As of the writing of this post the least expensive fare on Delta Airlines for the flights I selected (Delta 1208 and Delta 1187) is $319.20 with all taxes and fees. The most expensive fare that is refundable and changeable is $373.20.
In situations like these – and neither one is the least bit uncommon – what better serves the traveler is mixing a restrictive fare on the outbound with the least expensive refundable and changeable fare on the return.
In our Sacramento-Salt Lake City example, that combination would produce a fare of $336.20, a savings of $37 over the full-fare round-trip yet with the flexibility to change the return without being socked with Delta’s $150 “Administrative Service Charge” and paying a difference in fare.
(Or even get a refund on the return if, for example, Sister Sally ended up driving back to Sacramento with Cousin Chris instead of flying.)
To think of it another way, you are paying $17 more than the lowest fare in order to make changes galore on the return without having to pay a nickel. Sounds like a great deal to me.
Trouble is that neither Delta’s website nor outfits such as Orbitz, Expedia, etc., allow you to mix and match like that. For reasons that are way too complicated to explain here, simply creating two separate one-way reservations is not usually a good alternative, not to mention the fact that it would take at least twice the time.
So here’s some good news and bad news about booking “mix-and-match” reservations.
Bad news first.
Yes, you can call the airline and talk with a real, live reservations agent who should be able easily to construct a “mix-and-match” trip like this, however most airlines except Southwest charge a fee for reservations made over the phone with a human being.
The good news.
Some airlines “get it” and make it easy on-line to book “mix-and-match” trips by presenting flights and fares in a grid where you can pick and choose.
Of the major domestic carriers, the airlines that do offer the ability to mix-and-match fares on web bookings include Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air, American, and Southwest.
Below is an example from an Alaska Airlines flight and fare display between Sacramento and Seattle. (Click on the image to see a larger representation.)
Carriers that do not offer “mix-and-match” capability include United, Continental, Delta, and US Airways. You’re stuck paying a fee if you call them to arrange such an itinerary. (You can ask them to waive the fee. Tell them the only reason you’re calling is because their inadequate website – unlike some of its competitors – is not able to create the kind of trip you want. But I wouldn’t hold your breath expecting them to waive the fee.)
My suggestion for these carriers is instead to just call a local travel agency. You’re going to have to pay a fee anyway if you have to call one of these airlines, so why not instead pay the fee to a travel agent. (Yes, travel agents have to charge fees for airline tickets because the airlines haven’t paid them commissions in years.)
So the next time you have a trip that is rock-solid on the outbound but needs to be malleable on the return, look into mixing-and-matching airline fares. You’ll get flexibility and save money.