Is It Better to Book Round-Trip or 1-Way Award Flights?

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Million Mile Secrets reader Trent emails:

Is it more beneficial to book 1-way versus round-trip flights?
Is It Better To Book Round Trip Or 1 Way Award Flights

Which Is Better, Round-Trip or 1-Way Flights?

Trent is referring to the fact that with some airlines you can book the outbound and return parts of an award flight in the same reservation or as separate 1-way tickets.

So which is better?

The answer is, it depends

Booking Round-Trip Award Flights

Let’s say Trent wants to book an award flight from Washington, DC, to Tokyo using his United Airlines miles.

Is It Better To Book Round Trip Or 1 Way Award Flights

If Trent Thinks He May Make Changes or Cancel His Trip, He Can Save Money on Fees By Booking a Round-Trip Award Flight

Here are the some of the advantages and disadvantages to booking his trip as a round-trip award flight:

Benefits

  • Pay only 1 change or cancellation fee:  United Airlines charges up to $75 to $200 (unless you have United Airlines Premier status) to make changes or cancel award flights.  Since a round-trip flight is 1 reservation you only have to pay 1 fee.
  • Get a free 1-way flight:  United allows a stopover and 2 open-jaws on round-trip tickets, which you can use strategically to book a free 1-way ticket to use towards a 2nd trip.
  • Pay only 1 booking fee:  United Airlines charges $25 (unless you have 1k status) if you need help booking over the phone.  You will only pay this fee once if you book a round-trip flight.

Drawbacks

  • Less flexibility:  With a round-trip ticket, Trent’s only options will be the routings offered by United Airlines and their partner airlines.  He can’t mix and match among alliances.

For example, let’s say Trent finds a flight to Tokyo that works for his schedule but the return flight options all have 3 stops.  If he books a round-trip, he won’t be able to book the outgoing flight with United Airlines and then use his American Airlines miles to book a return trip which offers a more convenient flight.

  • Making changes or canceling could cancel the entire trip:  For instance, if Trent needs to change the date of his outgoing flight, depending upon the airline, he may have to rebook his entire trip.

Booking 1-Way Award Flights

But if Trent can’t find the dates and times he is looking for, he can try booking two 1-way awards instead.  This will give him much more flexibility.

Is It Better To Book Round Trip Or 1 Way Award Flights

Booking Separate 1-Way Tickets Opens Up More Possibilities

Note:   Some airlines, such as Delta and US Airways, do NOT allow 1-way award booking. 

Here are the pros and cons to booking separate 1-way awards:

Benefits

  • Book each segment with a different airline:  If Trent finds a great outgoing flight on United Airlines but the return flights aren’t desirable, he could book the return flight using a different airline’s miles (say, American Airlines), which will give him more options.
  • Book your 1st segment right away: Trent can book his United Airlines flight ~1 year in advance.  Booking right away may give him more options.  But if he books a round-trip flight he would have to wait until booking opens on his return flight to book his entire trip.  And he could lost the seats for the outbound portion of the trip.
  • Book different classes of service: To save some miles, Trent could fly to Tokyo in First Class and return in coach if he books each segment separately. 

Drawbacks

  • Fees:  If Trent needs to make changes or cancel his trip to Tokyo, he will have to pay the fees on the outbound and return ticket!  For example, if Trent needs to cancel his trip, he will have to cancel the outbound and return tickets separately.  So if he wants his miles refunded, he will have to pay a re-deposit fee of up to $400 ($200 fee X 2 tickets)!

Bottom Line

Round-trip and 1-way flights each have their own advantages and disadvantages.  Round-trip flights give you the option of booking a free 1-way flight on some airlines  and could save you a lot of fees if you need to change or cancel your trip.

However, I typically prefer to book 1-way awards because they offer more options and flexibility.  But I wouldn’t book 1-way awards if your travel plans are likely to change because this could end up costing you quite a bit in fees!

Thanks for your question, Trent!

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8 responses to “Is It Better to Book Round-Trip or 1-Way Award Flights?

  1. I booked a round trip for 2 on UA and realized later that I should have added a free one-way. When called to check that, they said I have to pay a change fee per person of $50. How can I add a free one-way for a RT ticket without incurring a fee?

  2. farnorthtrader

    Your last bullet under benefits of one ways “To save some miles, Trent could fly to Tokyo in First Class and return in coach if he books each segment separately. ” is not only a benefit of booking one ways on United. The same is true of booking round trip on United. You can book outbound in first and return in coach and only pay first class miles on the outbound and coach miles on the return.

  3. There is one other con to booking one-way. We booked four tickets on an outbound flight from Boston to Manila on JAL using American miles. We booked the four return tickets as a separate one-way so we could use someone else’s AAdvantage account. When we went to purchase, we were told that American could not accept credit card payment over the phone for flights originating in Manila, and that we had to present ourselves to the AA office in Manila to pay for the tickets. Thanks to a very patient agent, we were able to convert the eight one-way tickets into four round trip tickets, two coming from each account. I don’t know how many originating cities are in the same category as Manila, but it is something to be sensitive to, and one more possible con.

  4. With airlines changing schedules and routing more than ever before, a schedule change could be a huge issue with one ways. Last November I had two RT on AA to Kauai. American changed their routing and schedule and could not get us on a flight causing us to have to change our dates by two weeks (according to AA this was the first available flight they could get us on since most of the routes involved Hawaiian Air as a portion and American refused us any of those flights). Had I booked two one ways, I’d have had a hard time finding a new FF ticket for our return, particularly since I booked with mile saver awards. Plus of course I’d have had to pay a change fee. On every flight I have booked in the last two years, I’ve encountered a schedule change, many simple, some resulting in having to change dates altogether (such as Delta eliminating service to Athens on certain days of the week a few years ago where my schedule was changed eight times after booking my flight).

    I’d love to know what each airline’s policy is on rebooking when there’s a schedule change. Do they only offer you seats available within the same award tier you booked? Any available award? Any available seat?

  5. @Sam – You can cancel your reservation and rebook it. When u cancel your reservation which booked in points, you get all your points back into your account and then you rebook it using the same points and add free one-way/Open Jaws. I did the cancelation and rebooking on Southwest and hoping United works the same way

  6. The cons for 1-way are accurate. I booked a very creative United one way reservation for my daughter and I (Knoxville to Budapest to Prague with one day in London for 30K ea and then Prague to Barcelona with stopover in Vienna for 15Kea) and a separate reservation on the return (Barcelona back to Knox for 30Kea). 150K miles RT for it all. About 6 weeks before the trip, my daughter was running track and got hurt – we couldn’t take the trip. The best solution was to pay $200ea or $800 total to get our miles back and then request a refund by sending in a doc note. There is a $50 fee – not for the entire refund but for each reservation (4x) so the total cost out of pocket was $200. I still like the advantages of booking one way at a time, but do agree if there’s a possibility of cancelation… roundtrips are less costly.

  7. I can’t say that I’m an expert or even well-versed in redeeming miles for award tickets, but when I have done so, I have always found 1-way bookings the best alternative. I have tried to book roundtrip couch seats on United and they wanted 50,000 miles yet when I searched for two 1-way flights they pulled up as 12,500 miles each….so half of what the roundtrip would have been. I also find that when you search for round-trip flights, the Saver Awards are less often available. I’m not sure why this happens but I have seen it several times recently. United also often waits until the last minute to open up flights that depart in “prime time” and have only one connection. They tout that they have the best redemption program but usually the domestic flights are 2-3 stops for the Saver Awards.

  8. Some airlines, such as Delta and US Airways, do NOT allow 1-way award booking. Yes Delta does for approx. a year now.