Why do tickets cost more in one direction than the other? And how to use it to your advantage.

Most of us book return tickets for trips and conventional wisdom says that it’s the cheapest way to go. Usually it is.

But not always.

If you start breaking down return flights into 2 one-way tickets, you’ll start to notice that the cost is rarely split 50/50. The reason is simple. When pricing international tickets, airlines have a good sense for how much different people are willing to pay. They know that somebody from, say, the UK will be willing (and maybe able) to pay more to fly to an exotic Madagascan holiday than a local Madagascan resident is likely to pay to come to the UK. Currency matters and the airlines know how much they can charge to fill a plane.

When you break the tickets down to one-way segments, you will almost always find the flight departing from the ‘more expensive’ country costs a lot more than the return.

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We are currently on holiday in South Africa and our tickets for this trip were a perfect example. We had some air miles to use, but also needed to get busy earning our share of American Airlines miles for the year so decided to split the travel between air miles and paid tickets. For the flights we used air miles for, you can read about how we booked that here. Qatar & Etihad both allow passengers to earn AA miles and were about the cheapest flights available.

Here is why the direction is important to pay attention to.

Here are flights for May from Edinburgh to Johannesburg on Qatar:

EDI-JNBRoughly £665 for a one way ticket.

Now look at flights, on the exact same dates, coming the other direction (Johannesburg to Edinburgh):

JNB-EDI

Coming this way, the flights cost right around R5150 which is about £250 – less than half the cost!

Now when spending air miles for ‘free flights’, aside for small differences in taxes, the cost in miles is always the same regardless of direction. Flights are priced by region or distance, so whether you fly EDI-JNB or JNB-EDI it is the same.

Therefore for this trip, it made a lot more sense to use air miles to fly down (it cost 30k miles and around $25 each in taxes) and then pay to fly home and earn miles at a low cost.

Here’s the route home, actually on Etihad, all for around £250pp. Since Etihad don’t fly from Cape Town, we booked a separate internal flight with BA from CPT-JNB for next to nothing, around £60pp.

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And South Africa – highly recommended!

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Has anyone else succeeded in saving money by booking one-way tickets vs return tickets?

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