How to Find Cheap One Way Airfare

Erin De Santiago
Buying air tickets

Booking one-way airline tickets is not much different from booking a regular round-trip airfare. You have to do a little sleuthing and be patient, but you might just wind up with a much better deal and a far more flexible schedule.

One-Way or Round-Trip Tickets?

It used to be common belief that one-way tickets were almost always more expensive than round-trip tickets. It was thought that the airline was trying to recoup the costs of possibly losing your return ticket back, or that higher one-way fare costs were in place as a deterrent because these fares would affect their ability to schedule out in advance.

Industry experts like Skyscanner note similar reasons, along with the higher prices on international one-way flights to help prevent overstays in a foreign country.

Travel + Leisure recently shared results from ARC (Airlines Reporting Corporation) that show the number of one-way tickets purchased is on the rise, while some markets are seeing a reduction in prices for one-way tickets. Unfortunately, due to airline confidentiality, there is not a definitive list on which destinations have cheaper one-way tickets.

The good news is that there is a noted change in the industry, however, and booking one-way tickets is no longer automatically more expensive than a round-trip ticket.

Finding Cheap One-Way Fares

Discount carriers are often the ones that offer the best one-way fares, but this can require some additional research since many of these don't show up on comparison and third party-booking sites.

Utilize sites like FareCompare to check rates to your intended destination. If you have flexibility on where and when you are flying, they have a cool getaway map search that lets you pick broad details like arrival anywhere for a certain month for under a specified dollar amount. While it's more difficult and time consuming, utilize a variety of sites to compare airfare to ensure you're getting the complete picture on one-way fares available to your intended destination.

Sign up for airline emails to monitor for fare sales. JetBlue is one that offers great flash sales, but be ready to jump quick as some of their flights sell out in an hour. CheapOAir keeps an updated list of one-way fare deals. A number of sites, like Smarter Travel, have published examples that show the research that goes into finding low-cost one-way fares, and how prices can vary widely when compared to round trip options.

One option for travelers who only plan to travel with carry-on baggage might be Skiplagged. Skiplagged is a controversial site that finds "hidden city" airfares that are cheaper by using your intended destination as a layover. This means you get off at your layover and not take the final leg of your flight, which is why you cannot be traveling with checked baggage. While it is legal, this service has angered airline carriers, including United, who filed a lawsuit citing it violates their contract of carriage rules. The lawsuit was thrown out for lack of jurisdiction and was never refiled. If you do intend to use a service like this, it's highly advised you don't link your mileage number to the flight as the airline might invalidate your miles, or even shut down your account.

How to Save on One-Way Tickets

When searching for one-way fares, much of the same advice given for regular round trip airfare searches applies.

  • Factor in the day of the week you plan to book. For example, Tuesday is often cheaper than Friday to search for airfares.
  • The day you plan to fly can obviously alter your flight price as well. According to FareCompare, US domestic flights are often cheaper on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. International flights see lower fares on weekdays versus weekends.
  • Booking further in advance can often save you additional money. Flights under seven days out are likely to see a hefty price hike in most cases. Try to book your flights over 21 days out to get better pricing from many carriers.
  • Sign up for emails on fare sales so you know when there might be a great sale.
  • Many airline booking gurus will tell you that you need to browse for airfares incognito to ensure prices don't go up when you repeatedly search for the same route. Other experts say there is no benefit to shopping incognito at all.

Potential Costs to Factor In

Always look at all applicable fees and baggage allowances. Many low-cost carriers can have additional charges for everything from picking a seat to bringing a carry-on bag. These fees can add up quickly and wind up costing you more than a flight on a legacy carrier.

Remember to see what rules are in place regarding flight changes and cancelation. If you need to change your flight for any reason and you've booked two one-way tickets, you'll have to pay change fees for each flight or buy new legs if the carrier doesn't allow any changes. And, if you've purchased a super-cheap deal far in advance and you're now changing your flight to a couple of days out, it could cost you significantly more. Note: Southwest Airlines is one airline that doesn't charge a change fee.

If you belong to a mileage program, you could be losing out on a lot of status miles to save a few dollars if you opt to go with the cheapest fare, especially if it is a carrier outside of your alliance. Spend the extra time to research alliance carriers to make sure there isn't a very similar fare that gives you status miles and benefits.

Some people opt to buy round-trip tickets and "throw away" the return leg of the flight. Much like the controversy around Skiplagged, some airlines say this violates their contract. If you plan to do this on a regular basis, recognize that some airlines have threatened to ban customers who engage in this practice. Is purchasing a cheaper fare worth being banned from an airline?

Flights to Foreign Countries

In most cases, if you book a one-way ticket into countries other than one(s) you have citizenship in, you may have to show proof of onward travel or residency before they check you in or allow you on the plane. This is even the case in countries that allow you to extend your tourist visa beyond the initial allotted time. Regulations enforced vary by airline so don't mistakenly assume you are in the clear. It's important to show proof of onward travel and a couple of methods to do this include:

  • Lifestyle travel
    Book another ticket using your airline miles and redeposit miles once you've checked in. This is only good if you have status that allows you to redeposit miles without penalty.
  • Buy a fully refundable ticket and cancel it.
  • If you're traveling to a region that has a lot of low-cost carriers that fly in and out, you may be able to snag a super cheap deal (like $20) on carriers like Ryanair or Wizz Air.

Always be prepared to show onward travel plans or you could find yourself stuck at the airport and not allowed on the plane to your intended destination.

Be Patient

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that will easily help you score the lowest one-way airfare. By exercising patience with research and comparing flights, though, the extra time you spend may very well pay off and you could score a great deal on your upcoming trip!

How to Find Cheap One Way Airfare