Can I skip out on a return leg of an airline ticket?
March 28, 2005 2:48 PM   Subscribe

One-way airfare is expensive -- it can be up to five times as expensive as a normal round-trip flight during certain times of the year. What I'd like to know is this: can I skip the return flight on one of these cheaper round-trip tickets, or would that be asking for a visit from the friendly folks of the TSA?

Over the past several months I've been moving to Europe. I've flown back and forth a few times now visiting, transporting personal items and taking care of affairs, and while I don't mind the travel (I love flying) at some point I'm going to have stop making these trips and live a normal life.

The ticket I am here on currently only cost me $80 in taxes and fees because I purchased with air miles, so it would be especially sweet if I could just skip the return trip this May and just stay here in Germany. Otherwise I'm looking at $1600+ minimum (which is actually cheap compared to what the one-way prices were in January at $2500+).
posted by moonbiter to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total)
i've done it, post-TSA and experienced no hassle b/c of the one time i skipped my return flight.

i fly at least once every six weeks within the continental united states. on one trip, i took an unplanned side trip to NYC and caught a one-way on a discount airline home to chicago, instead of using my return trip from DC. i have had no additional screenings, or delays, or anything since that skipped flight. i've even flown on a ticket purchased with someone else's credit card, post-TSA, after the skipped flight. of course, i'm a white woman in my early 30's who always travels in business attire.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:56 PM on March 28, 2005

No problem. In fact, some airlines let you pay a penalty to change the date of the return. You might be able to postpone it several times until you actually want to come back for a visit. Enjoy Germany!
posted by ori at 2:59 PM on March 28, 2005

No problem in this case, but the airlines will get mad if you do other funny things, like rejigger your tickets for a flight you take often in order to escape the stay-over-the-weekend problems experienced by many business travelers. For example, you might buy a ticket going out on a Monday and returning a week from that Friday, then buy another ticket going back to your home on Friday and returning to your destination on Monday. In this way, you get two tickets that stay over the weekend and avoid having to pay the higher fares for business travelers that leave on a Monday and return on a Friday.
posted by lackutrol at 3:36 PM on March 28, 2005

Some of the fare conditions specify you'll pay the one way fare if you don't take the return flight and don't reschedule. How much luck they will have getting the money from you is obviously a different matter but they do take their yield management seriously.

It's no wonder companies like JetBlue and SouthWest are kicking their asses. Doesn't do you a lot of good on intercontinental flights, I realize.
posted by phearlez at 3:44 PM on March 28, 2005

the airlines will get mad if you do other funny things

What would "getting mad" entail in the example you cite? What could/would an airline do?
posted by mediareport at 4:12 PM on March 28, 2005

i've done this without encountering problems. it worked out a lot less expensive to get a 'round the world' ticket when i was moving to the us from singapore last year, and allowed me to visit friends along the way.

we went singapore -> australia -> china -> europe -> usa. my final usa to singapore leg remains unused.
posted by netsirk at 4:12 PM on March 28, 2005

This is not a TSA problem, but if you make a habit of this behavior some airlines will refuse future business from you. On a flight or two I wouldn't worry.
posted by caddis at 5:16 PM on March 28, 2005

I've done it in Europe with no problem (BA) and I have done it in the US with no problem - but in the US I did call and say to cancel my reservation.

The opposite can cause problems though: missing a leg of a connecting flight either way on a return ticket:
I've known people who wanted to go from, say, Dallas to LA - and if there was a big fare sale on - they might see that a ticket from Dallas to San Francisco connecting in LA is half as much as the Dallas-LA flight. So they would get off in LA and skip the last leg, which has resulted in the airline cancelling their entire return reservation and no refunds on the ticket.
posted by sixdifferentways at 5:19 PM on March 28, 2005

My experience is consistent with "sixdifferentways"--terminating a flight on a stop before your final destination will result in a forfeiture of the balance of ticket--failure to complete a return trip (only) should not be a problem
posted by rmhsinc at 5:38 PM on March 28, 2005

I think the bottom line is you're not supposed to, but lots of people do anyway. I've done it countless times, particularly during extended travel breaks. The first few times I was uncertain enough to call ahead and let them know I needed to make "other arrangements", but then I just stopped bothering. I've probably done it at least a dozen times now with no comeback at all.
posted by Decani at 5:38 PM on March 28, 2005

Yeah I've skipped return flights a few times, often because I was driving the leg back with someone's car or taking the bus/train. Of course the last time I did this was actually on 9/11 when my flight to the East Coast was cancelled in San Francisco and American Airlines was pretty okay about giving me all my money back. Usually on major airlines in the US if you call ahead of time to cancel you can keep some small amount of "flight credit" which is usually whatever half your flight would have cost minus some elaborately high fee. Even if you don't call at all you're usually not going to get in any kind of trouble, based on what I know.
posted by jessamyn at 5:51 PM on March 28, 2005

Funny things they do when they get mad?

What lackutrol described is called "back to backs" and if the airline detects you doing it one of two things will happen. 1) They will whack the entire itinerary force you to pay for a full-fare seat to complete your journey. 2) If they catch it before you begin the itinerary they will politely insist that you pay full fare for your flight or deny you boarding. This has happened to my old boss twice.

As far as getting your money back on skipping the return, it depends entirely on how the fare was "classed" when you booked it. If it's a non-refundable fare and you don't take it, that's it. The only thing it's good for is a dollar value which can be applied to travel at a future date, usually one year from the time you were supposed to travel.

Again, this is why I pay full fare on Southwest. Fully refundable, changeable, and 1/3 the cost of the major carriers. THAT's the compelling reason to fly SWA.
posted by TeamBilly at 6:04 PM on March 28, 2005

Oh, and one-ways generally flag you as a security risk, too.
posted by TeamBilly at 6:05 PM on March 28, 2005

As with sixdifferentways, I have found that I can skip return legs without any hassle, but I bet the airlines keep a record of it and will start to get snotty if you do it often.

Whatever you do, though, don't try to skip the outbound leg of a return flight to get a good price for the inbound leg. They will cancel the return leg and leave you with no ticket and no refund. Trust me on this.

I don't know that one-way flights flag you as a security risk - here in Australia, anyway. Most discounted flights are sold as one-way tickets and people routinely book one-way flights each way with different airlines depending on flight pricing and availability.
posted by dg at 8:32 PM on March 28, 2005

Piggyback question here - I've never understood why one way flights cost more. You're taking up a seat on one flight instead of a seat on two flights. How in the world is this bad for an airline?
posted by swank6 at 8:47 PM on March 28, 2005

One more vote in the 'I've done it without problems' bin. I've reshuffled business trips many, many times, adding in side destinations and ignoring my original return ticket.

There's no problem with anybody as near as I can tell. I still get through airport security normally and the airlines still book my flights.
posted by mosch at 10:42 PM on March 28, 2005

I think it's because it means they now have an empty inbound seat which is difficult to sell. That and the fact that they like to discourage the practise anyway!
posted by kenchie at 12:02 AM on March 29, 2005

Oh, and one-ways generally flag you as a security risk, too.

I have definitely found this to be the case. Good to know that security is looking out for us on this one, but only screening 5% of checked luggage, or whatever.

What lackutrol described is called "back to backs" and if the airline detects you doing it one of two things will happen. 1) They will whack the entire itinerary force you to pay for a full-fare seat to complete your journey. 2) If they catch it before you begin the itinerary they will politely insist that you pay full fare for your flight or deny you boarding. This has happened to my old boss twice.

An acquaintance of mine used to do this all the time. Once, he handed the ticket agent in Boston the wrong set of tickets at the beginning of his flight (the ones that had his itinerary starting in Detroit the next day with a return flight after the weekend). The ticket agent figured it out immediately, handed him the tickets back and said, "Perhaps you have a different set you want to give me?"
posted by MarkAnd at 6:29 AM on March 29, 2005

Swank6 - it's all about maximizing their total revenue. The subject is yield management and you could make a career of it and only know 2% of what there is to know about it. Wikipedia has an entry on it and you can google the term as well as a somewhat related subject, Just In Time stocking.

The shorter answer is that one ways are more expensive because they can be. People who need them, like people unable to stomach the previously ubiquitous saturday night stay, are business travelers with more stringent needs who are likely not spending their own money. The majors would soak them in order to offset cheaper tickets for leisure travelers and everyone hates it, which is why they're all taking it in the pants and low consistent cost carriers like JetBlue and SWA make money.
posted by phearlez at 10:41 AM on March 29, 2005

I heard that the way to avoid the problem of back to backs is to book the round trips on different airlines.
posted by neuroshred at 5:26 PM on March 29, 2005

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