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One-way flight more expensive than round trip: myth or reality?

While the vast majority of travelers book a round-trip airline ticket, there are cases where only a one-way ticket is required.

This is our case as a digital nomad, we are constantly traveling around the world taking only one way trips.

There is a myth that one-way tickets are more expensive than round trips, which seems surprising.

Let’s take the example of a one-way Paris – New York, non-stop, on February 15, 2020.

Search for a one-way ticket with a price comparator

By using a flight comparator such as Skyscanner and sorting the results by increasing price, we’ll get there.

The cheapest result offers the low cost airline Norwegian with a fare of 341 €. The next two results are those of American Airlines and Iberia with identical fares of… 1 813 € ! More than 5 times more expensive!

Obviously, it is out of the question to pay such a high price for a Paris – New York.

But next to that, Norwegian is a low cost company on the verge of bankruptcy with very bad reviews: delays are very frequent, no service on board is included in the basic price (no meals or drinks, even blankets are charged in addition!).

Unless I’m looking for the cheapest option, I don’t necessarily want to travel more than 8 hours in such conditions.

Searching for a round trip on company sites

So let’s take a chance and compare the one-way and round-trip fares on the sites of the different companies. For the return trip, I arbitrarily chose the date of March 15, 2020, one month after the outward journey. For the return flight (which does not really interest us), I allow myself to select flights with stopovers.

Here are the results

One way ticketReturn trip
United2 140 €426 €
Norwegian298 €448 €
Air France2 258 €479 €
Delta Airlines2 252 €405 €
Iberia2 246 €424 €

Wow! The results are impressive! With the exception of our low cost Norwegian airline, all the other companies offer a one-way ticket about 5 times more expensive than a round trip!

By adding a hundred euros to Norwegian’s one-way fare, I can treat myself to a round-trip on Delta Airlines with a more reputable airline and benefit from incomparable in-flight service.

Why are one-way flights more expensive than round trips?

Frankly, it’s quite complicated to explain. On Twitter, I asked Air France for explanations and they kicked it to the sidelines.

Some attempts to explain this are that the objective of airlines is to maximize the load factor of their aircraft and therefore offer very high fares to discourage one-way trips

But this explanation does not stand up to scrutiny.

In my case where I only need a one-way ticket from Paris to New York, I have two choices:

  • Take the ticket at Norwegian which is 5 times cheaper than the others: a sellout for other companies.
  • Take a return ticket at Delta Airlines and use only the outward ticket. So I’m going to monopolize a seat for the New York – Paris flight that they could perhaps have sold to someone for a more interesting fare for the company.

I would fully understand that they strongly encourage people to take the return trip by offering, for example, the one-way ticket at €350 and the return at €400

But a one-way ticket more expensive than a round-trip remains incomprehensible to me, if you have any explanations, I’ll take it.

Can I book a round trip and only use the outbound flight?

Yes and no.

Airlines protect themselves against this type of practice in their general conditions by stating that the fare for a round trip is only valid if it is used in full, under penalty of penalties.

But this type of clause is considered legally abusive and… you can totally miss your return flight! A waking up failure happens so quickly.

It happened to Anh for a round trip Thailand – Laos, she missed her return flight and in this case, we can even get a refund of airport taxes which can represent a nice sum for long distance flights.

Attention you can use this technique only by “missing” the return flight. If you don’t use the outbound flight, it will be a no-show and the company may cancel your return ticket.

What conclusions can be drawn from this?

Booking only one-way tickets since the beginning of our round-the-world tour 4 years ago, I was often surprised to see some companies, like Air France, never competitive with overpriced fares. In order to have one-way flights at correct fares, the choice of company is generally limited to low cost companies.

I have now understood that I must systematically do a double search: one search with a one-way ticket, another with a return ticket

By playing on the return dates (which finally do not interest us since we won’t take it), we can end up with nice surprises (cheaper tickets) or decide to pay a few dozen euros more to travel in better conditions with a more reputable company. All the more so as we will be able to recover part of the amount by “missing” the return flight

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