How To Look For The Cheapest Round Trip Airfare

Searching for domestic round trip airfare is so 2000s. That was the time when you needed to book a round trip ticket to get the best price. One way flights were only for business people and because the bill was going to the expense account, were priced accordingly. But bit by bit, as technology improved, airlines started to price flights by the individual segments, so when you paid for a round trip ticket, you were actually paying for two one way flights on the same reservation number. Knowing this, you can now build an itinerary that best fits your needs and still save some money. I take more trips where I fly on two different carriers instead of ones where all my flights are on the same airline.

How can you search for flights individually instead of a round trip? Turns out, it’s really easy.

I’m always looking to find the best price possible so I’ll start my searches on one or more of the flight search engines like Google Flights, Hipmunk, Skyscanner or Kayak. I also go to Southwest’s website because while their flights will show up on external websites, the prices of their fights will not.

Here’s an example from a hypothetical trip to Chicago from Orlando:

My first search will be for a round trip. This gives me a baseline of what flights will cost and which airlines fly to the city I’m going to. Here’s the first place where you may see that splitting your trip between two airlines is the cheapest option. While one airline might have the cheapest combination of fares, that may be because one of the flights is really cheap and the other flight is the same price or even more expensive than the competition. So why not book the cheapest flight in one direction and then the cheapest flight in the other direction? If the airlines aren’t going to give a discount for flying in both directions on their airline, why should I feel obligated to stay with them for my entire round-trip flight?

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While Frontier has the cheapest flight, the second cheapest is a combination of Frontier and Spirit. Now, while I want a cheap flight, I’m also willing to pay a little extra for a better timed flight. It’s part of being cheap but still being smart about it. Noting which airlines had the best prices for round trip flights, now’s the time where you start looking for individual segments. NOTE: Make sure when searching that you are comparing the same fare types and that you’re not looking at a Basic Economy fare, unless that’s what you want to book. Just make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. 

Change your search from round trip to one way and make sure the cities and date are correct for your outbound flight. You’re now able to see how much the individual flights cost. Some sites like Google Flights will group together all the flight times from the same airline if they have the same airfare while others will list the individual flights. You can narrow the search even more by removing flights you don’t want (early morning, long connections, red eye flights or exclude entire airlines from the search). For this example, I took out airlines we won’t fly with (United & Spirit) and flight times that weren’t preferable. My results changed a lot.

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While Frontier is the cheapest, the time still isn’t great as we’d lose the whole day of travel and we’d have to pay at least an extra $30 (or more) for a bag. So we’re going to be on American. Just need to decide if it’s worth the extra $30 to leave two hours later. Don’t forget to compare the prices to the search you did on Southwest’s website. Fortunately, Southwest always gives you the price of individual segments even when searching for a round trip so there’s no need to do multiple searches.

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Southwest isn’t any cheaper for these flights. OK. So American it is.

Time to go and do the same thing for the return flight. Put the date and cities into the search and repeat. To make things easier, most websites have a set of arrows between the cities and clicking on that will reverse them for you.

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See how a Delta flight now shows up in the search? Just be careful about the $114 rate as that’s Basic Economy. We’ve done that on Delta and don’t plan on doing it again.

Once you’ve found your preferred flights, time to book. While you can book directly through some online travel agencies, other search engines will refer you to either the airlines website or another site to complete the booking.

I prefer to book airfare directly from the airline for several reasons:

  • If there’s a problem or delay, you can deal with the airline directly. If you used an travel agent site like Expedia or Orbitz, you may have to call them, not the airline, to get your flights changed.
  • If I’m going to use the annual travel credits I get from certain credit cards, I need to book directly from the airline website.
  • The American Express Platinum card pays 5x Membership Rewards points for flights booked directly from airlines but not if you book flights on other websites.

I’ll take the flight information I wrote down and find the flights I want. The prices should be the same on the airline website that you found in your searches.

If both flights you want are from the same airline, there’s nothing wrong about booking the flights on the same reservation. If they were on different airlines, you’ll have to go to each website to book your flights.

While booking separate flights gives you more control, there are some drawbacks:

  • If you need to cancel your flight, the cancellation fee is per ticket. So you’d have to pay a fee to cancel both flights. If your ticket is inexpensive, that might mean you’d lose the entire cost of the ticket. For example, If you book two $100 tickets on different airlines, if the cancellation fee for each ticket is $150 you’d be out the entire $200. If you’re on the same airline for both flights booked on the same ticket, you’d be able to get $50 of your original $200 back.
  • Keeping track of flights from different airlines isn’t easy. Here’s where it pays to use a good travel program, like TripIt, to help you keep everything organized.
  • In large cities with multiple airports, make sure you remember which airport you are flying home from. It may not be the same one you flew from when you arrived. This is even more important if you’re renting a car.

Final Thoughts

While you’d think that airlines would give you a better price for booking a round trip, that’s no longer the case. You might prefer one airline over another but don’t lock yourself into thinking you need to fly the same airline for the flight to your destination and your flight home. It may be cheaper or easier for you to split the flights over two different airlines and make the itinerary that’s best for you.

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