The one-way pricing systems being used by many of the fast-growing discount airlines may be changing the way travelers hunt for and book airline tickets.
Most travelers have been conditioned to believe that bundling one-way fares from various airlines would be more expensive than going round trip on the same airline, but that's not necessarily true anymore with the rise of discount airlines and their simplified pricing structures.
Discount airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, Song, Independence Air, and Air Tran price all their flights on a one-way basis, which means someone looking for the best deal may want to compare one-way as well as round-trip fares.
I stumbled across this phenomenon by accident recently when searching for a cheap round-trip fare from Boston to Orlando next March.
My standard approach to finding a good fare is to run a search on one of the main online travel agencies like Orbitz, Travelocity, or Expedia, which triggers a simultaneous search on Sidestep.com, a travel search engine that's installed on my browser.
Sidestep's chief advantage is that it carries the pricing information of discount airlines like Southwest and JetBlue, which are not listed on the online travel agencies. Other fare search engines include Mobissimo.com and FareChase.com.
My initial search on Orbitz and Sidestep indicated the lowest round-trip price from Boston to Orlando was $178 on United Airlines. The fare was good, but the flight times were bad (most had departures at 8 a.m. or earlier) and they all required one stop in Washington.
Out of curiosity, I checked the websites for JetBlue and Song, the latter operated by
The JetBlue and Song round-trip fares were actually the total of one-way fares to Orlando and back. I noticed JetBlue was charging $87 for the Boston-to-Orlando leg and $144 for the return flight, while Song was doing just the opposite, charging $144 for the flight to Orlando and $87 to return to Boston.
By booking JetBlue for the trip down to Orlando and Song for the return flight to Boston, I was able to get a nonstop round-trip fare at good times for $174, slightly less than the lowest round-trip fare listed on either Orbitz or Sidestep.
Unless my flights to and from Orlando in March were an anomaly, my experience indicates it may be worthwhile for travelers to check not only round-trip fares but also one-way fares to and from their destinations.
Kendra Thornton, a spokeswoman for Orbitz, said she thought one-way searches would be a waste of time. She said she doubted my mix-and-match approach would yield a lower fare often and added that most travelers aren't interested in doing that much work to find out.
"It really causes more work for them," Thornton said.
Officials at JetBlue and Song couldn't explain why their pricing approaches differed so dramatically on flights between Boston and Orlando in March. I checked other time periods and, while the prices of the two airlines differed, they didn't differ by as much and their prices were more similar on both legs of the trip.
Gareth Edmondson-Jones, a spokesman for JetBlue, said his airline often has greater demand for flights returning from Florida and thus prices those tickets higher. A Song spokeswoman said she thought the pricing disparity I found was unusual.
However, Russell Winter, vice president of business development at Sidestep, said he thought such differences were fairly commonplace.
"It's certainly not an odd occurrence," Winter said. "The odds of that happening are pretty good if you're prepared to do the work."
He said the odds of finding a lower fare by booking one-way fares on two airlines was perhaps the greatest on relatively short point-to-point flights, like those operating between the Northeast and Florida, where lots of discount airlines operate. He said Sidestep is developing technology that may help consumers track down the best fare to their destination without relying exclusively on round-trip fares offered by individual airlines.
Winter also cautioned that travelers need to be careful when using various carriers. He said different airlines often operate out of different terminals and sometimes out of different airports in the same city, which can affect connections and the renting of cars.
Bruce Mohl can be reached at email@example.com.