Airline Fare School # 4 – One-ways and round-trips

In Airline Fare School # 1, 2 and 3, we covered four basic elements including fare displays, rules, routings, and booking the flight in the appropriate inventory for the fare you want.

Here in AFS # 4 you’re going to get acquainted with what a published one-way fare is and what a published round-trip fare is. By the way, round-trip fares, can also be called excursion fares but we’ll stick with the term “round-trip”.

Right away you’re thinking, “Oh, come on. I know the difference.” Well, you might be surprised about that and it’s important to understand the clear distinction before we move on to some other concepts.

Let’s take a look at a fare display for American Airlines between Sacramento (SMF) and Cincinnati (CVG) for departure on 9 November.

676-AFS4 - SMFCVG fares.jpg

Notice how the fare amounts on lines 1, 3, and 5 through 16 all have an “R” after the amount, which designates a round-trip fare. For example, the fare on line 1, the QE21LQNR at $208 is a round-trip fare.

The other fare amounts do not have the “R” after the amount therefore they are for one-way travel.

So what?

A one-way fare has no requirement that you buy it for anything other than to travel one-way. Because it can be used to go just one-way there is obviously no minimum stay requirement. After all, how can you stay over a Saturday night if you’re only going one-way?

One way fares can stand alone. They can be sold in combination with other fares for additional legs of a trip but they do not have to be.

A round-trip fare is different. You get the round-trip price only if you book flights both going to your destination and then returning to your point of origin. Of course, you have to observe any other rules such as minimum stay, specific day/time if required, etc. In the fare display under minimum stay the “SU” means stay until Sunday or in other words over a Saturday night. The Saturday night stay requirement is historically the most common kind of minimum stay for domestic travel (to make it more difficult for business travelers to use) but 1 day, 3 days, and other minimum stay requirements are out there, too.

So if you wanted to fly round-trip from Sacramento to Cincinnati the best possible fare would be $208 (fare basis QE21LQNR).

If you only wanted to go one-way, could you use simply half of this fare?


Why? Because this fare requires round-trip travel.

The best price you could get for a one-way is $124 (fare basis NA21LQNR) because it is purely a one-way fare.

Could you double a one-way and use it for round-trip travel? You bet, provided of course that you meet the rules of the fare both directions.

In this instance you might think it’s not that big a deal; the difference between the round-trip fare of $208 and double the lowest one-way fare ($242) is only $34. Many times, however, the difference can be staggering and result in anomalies where the lowest round-trip fare is less expensive than the best one-way fare.

As you might expect, when that happens people will sometimes buy round-trip tickets and not use the return.

With the growth of new carriers such as jetBlue, Airtran, Spirit, Virgin America, and so on, plus the best known low-cost carrier of all, Southwest, the domestic round-trip fare is less common because these carriers typically use a purely one-way fare structure. (The so-called legacy carriers have largely followed suit.) What that means is that for domestic travel in many markets (plus Canada and Mexico) the lowest fares are now typically sold as purely one-way fares.

In general, you benefit from this because 1) when you are only traveling one-way you can still get a great price, 2) when you are traveling round-trip but can’t get the best fare both directions on one airline you still may be able to get a low price by using one carrier on the outbound and another on the return, and 3) because the fares are one-way in nature there isn’t any minimum stay requirement even though your journey is in fact round-trip.

Because one-way fares are not contingent on round-trip purchase you can mix and match different one-way fares to put together a trip that works for you, even one that in essence is round-trip in nature. If you didn’t already read it, then take a look at this post I wrote recently about mixing restricted fares on the outbound part of a trip with full/unrestricted fares on the return when you need flexibility. ALL business travelers should read this post as well as any leisure traveler who has had to change a return flight due to a change of plans or may need to in the future.

Now that you know a little more about airline fares, let’s look at a display of one-way fares (all that are published – there are no round-trip fares) between Chico (CIC) and Los Angeles (LAX) on United Airlines to better understand this concept of mixing restricted and unrestricted one-way fares into what amounts to a round-trip journey.

675-AFS4 - CICLAX fares.jpg

The non-refundable fares range from a low of $79 one-way up to $153.

The refundable/changeable fares range from $173 to $691 depending on the availability of discounted inventory. But it’s worth pointing out that all of the refundable fares are booked out of inventories that sit high atop the food-chain, meaning that any of them are much more likely to be available on short-notice than the non-refundable fares.

Now here’s the kicker. The change fee for any of the non-refundable fares is $150! If you book a non-refundable fare for the return, but then have to make to make a change, the total you’ll spend will almost certainly end up being more than if you had simply booked one of the refundable/changeable fares to start with.

It bears repeating – for all business travelers and for those leisure travelers who will likely have to change their return flights – that you should compare the difference between using a non-refundable fare both ways on a round-trip journey vs. using the non-refundable fare outbound combined with the best refundable/changeable price on the return,

Let’s bring this back to kinds of fares.

In addition to one-way and round-trip fares, there are some other products to be aware of. They won’t be the subject of Airline Fare School scrutiny but are worth noting here.

Zonal- and pass-type fares such as Circle Pacific fares are not published between specific cities but instead allow you to reserve travel within a region, subject to time limits, number of stopovers, and use of specified carriers along routings.

Another kind of specialized fare that works in a similar manner is the Around the World fare. These are organized by multiple airlines or airline alliances (Star Alliance, oneworld, Skyteam) to permit trips that circle the globe at prices usually less than if you used “normal” fares. There are travel agencies that specialize in selling tickets like these.

And as I am composing this post, jetBlue announced the “All-You-Can-Jet Pass” good for unlimited travel during a slow time for them between 8 September and 8 October.

Clever marketing people work up all sorts of attractive deals but one-ways and round-trips have been and will continue to be the workhorses of airline fares.

Let’s conclude on a murky note that is intentionally meant to string you along for a couple more chapters of Airline Fare School.

Discount round-trip fares can be used in ways that are not truly round-trip. Care to know more? Well, you’ll just have to come back.

Our next installment will add four more fundamental (and interconnected) concepts to your growing understanding of how airline fares are really put together.

– Connections
– Stopovers
– Through fares
– Point-to-Point fares

Don’t miss Airline Fare School # 5!

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2 Responses to Airline Fare School # 4 – One-ways and round-trips

  1. Celia says:

    Loving this series, Greg!

  2. Binita Sangraula says:

    This chapter refreshes my experience.

    Thank you.

Comments are closed.