Two One-Way Flights or One Round-Trip: Which Is Better?

There's little difference in domestic fares, but round-trip is often the right call for international flights.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Published
Edited by Meghan Coyle

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Booking a flight involves navigating a maze of decisions. Is it better to fly with a budget airline or full-service one? How about basic economy versus regular economy? And would you prefer pretzels or a cookie? 

Choosing between a single round-trip or two one-way tickets is the most basic decision and — you might be surprised to learn — one of the more nuanced. 

The cost between the two is usually the same for domestic flights but can vary significantly for international routes (assuming you're booking with cash rather than points and miles).

Given that airfare was 26% more expensive in January 2023 than January 2022, according to the latest consumer price index data, budget travelers need to save every penny they can. 

In general, it can be more convenient to book a round-trip flight for a trip with specific start and end dates, but other considerations, such as cancellation policies and pricing, could make booking one-ways more appealing in some cases. And everything works differently for flights booked with miles. 

Let’s break it down.

Domestic flights

For flights within the United States on the same airline, round-trip tickets almost always cost the same as two one-ways.

There’s one caveat here: Booking two one-way tickets between separate destination or arrival airports can, in some cases, save money (or cost more). 

“Fares don’t have to be booked as returns,” says Laura Lindsay, travel trends expert at SkyScanner, a travel booking platform. “Look at flying out with one airline and back with another, or out of one airport and back into another to save money.”

Many online travel tools will automatically compare prices for these mismatched airline or airport itineraries and automatically include them in search results.

But it might be worth checking manually, especially for plans that involve different local airports or for airlines that don’t appear in search results, such as Southwest.

All that said, for domestic flights, the difference is almost always a wash. 

International flights

For international tickets, the logic changes completely. Round-trip tickets are usually cheaper than one-ways, sometimes significantly so.

NerdWallet compared fares across multiple international routes and found that, typically, buying two one-way tickets costs 20% more than a single roundtrip. 

To determine these differences, we compared routes between four U.S. airports and two airports in each destination region.

The effect is more pronounced when flying to some regions, such as Africa and Asia. That said, for flights between the U.S. and every region we looked at, it costs more to book two one-ways than a single round-trip. 

In some circumstances, such as open-ended trips where you don’t know when you’ll be returning, one-way flights might still make the most sense. But for most international travel, round-trip fares are the clear winner. 

Cards for booking flights with cash

If you plan to pay the cash fare for your ticket, consider booking with a card that will earn you points on travel purchases. Here are some options:

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Chase United Quest Credit Card
United Quest℠ Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Travel booking benefits

• 5 points per dollar spent on travel (including flights) booked through Chase's travel portal.

• 2 points per dollar on other travel (including flights).

Annual fee: $95.

• 10 points per dollar on hotel stays and car rentals purchased through Chase's travel portal.

• 5 points per dollar on air travel purchased through Chase's travel portal.

• 3 points per dollar spent on travel and dining not booked with Chase.

Annual fee: $550.

• 2 miles per $1 on purchases made directly with Delta.

Annual fee: $0 intro for the first year, then $150.

Terms apply.

• 4 miles per $1 spent on United purchases.

Annual fee: $250.

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Are round-trip or one-way flights cheaper if booking with points?

What about the cost difference between one-way and round-trip fares when using points or miles?

Generally, airlines break these fares into one-way sections, meaning there is no meaningful difference between the two, in terms of cost. Yet a few caveats apply: 

  • Taxes on award flights can be higher when booking two one-ways. Delta Air Lines, for example, tends to charge more fees for flights originating in Europe.

  • Some airlines, such as ANA, do not allow one-way award flights, period. 

  • Flights booked with credit card points using a travel portal (i.e. not transferred to an airline partner) follow the same rules as cash fares. 

Good cards for earning toward award flights
The Platinum Card® from American Express
The Platinum Card® from American Express
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Citibank Strata Premier Card
Citi Strata Premier℠ Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Citibank's application

Rates & Fees
American Express® Gold Card
American Express® Gold Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on American Express' website

Rates & Fees
Citibank Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard® Credit Card
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Citibank's application

Rates & Fees
Annual fee

$695.

$95.

$250.

$595.

Earn rates

• 5 points per $1 on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel, on up to $500,000 spent per year.

• 5 points per $1 on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.

• 1 point per $1 on other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

• 10 ThankYou® points per $1 spent on hotels, car rentals and attractions booked through the Citi Travel site.

• 3 points per $1 on air travel and other hotel purchases.

• 3 points per $1 on supermarkets.

• 3 points per $1 on gas stations and EV charging stations.

• 3 points per $1 on restaurants.

• 1 point per $1 on all other purchases.

• 4 points per $1 at restaurant plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.

• 4 points per $1 at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 in purchases per year).

• 3 points per $1 on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.

• 1 point per $1 on other eligible purchases.

Terms apply.

• 10 miles per $1 on eligible car rentals and hotels booked through AA.

• 4 miles per $1 on eligible American Airlines purchases, up to $150,000 spent per calendar year (5 miles per $1 spent thereafter for the remainder of the calendar year).

• 1 mile per $1 on everything else.

• 1 Loyalty Point per 1 eligible AAdvantage® mile earned from purchases.

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Other considerations

It’s also worth considering the impact of changes and cancellations on the two options.

Most airlines have eliminated change fees, making it easier to change and cancel both kinds of tickets. But canceling one leg of a round-trip ticket can sometimes be more complicated than canceling a one-way ticket.

In some cases, you might need to call customer service, instead of canceling online, to make sure the change doesn’t cancel your other flight segments as well.

And finally, there’s the question of simplicity.

Is the simplicity of having a single itinerary, managed by one round-trip confirmation code, worth these other trade-offs? This simplicity, paired with the fact that round-trip tickets are almost never more expensive than two one-ways, means that these fares make sense for most travelers.

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page.
To view rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page.
To view rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, see this page.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2024, including those best for:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

75,000

Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's over $900 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Points
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-5%

Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Cashback

Intro offer

Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more travel cards
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