One-way may be the way to fly

Southwest Airlines was a trend-setter, allowing customers to buy a one-way ticket at half the rate of a round-trip fare, for cash or airline points. Other carriers have adopted that pricing model.

If you haven’t shopped for a good airfare deal lately, you may be surprised by the options airlines are offering. Some actually can help consumers.

To be sure, many of the changes seen in air travel recently have been annoying, expensive or both. Paying to check bags on some airlines, getting squeezed into ever-smaller seats — then being asked to pay for extra legroom — and seeing traveling companions separated unless they pay extra for seat assignments.

On the frequent-flier side, airlines have been slowly but steadily requiring more points or miles for free tickets, devaluing the “currency” of frequent-flier programs.

So, what’s the good news? Most airlines have dropped the old “round-trip purchase required” rules, opening the door to reasonably priced one-way tickets, which can be very helpful for some travel plans. Those who fly with Southwest Airlines will recognize these pricing systems, where departing flights and return flights can be purchased together, as a round-trip, or you can just buy a one-way ticket with no markup in the price.

For example, if you wanted to fly Southwest from Charleston International to Baltimore/Washington International, July 15-July 22, you could get a ticket for $128 each way, or $256 round-trip. If you just wanted to fly one-way, it’s $128. Other major airlines have adopted such pricing policies in recent years.

Here’s why that can be a good thing:

Now, it’s easier and cheaper to fly in to one airport and return from another. That’s known as an “open jaw” trip, and such tickets were often more expensive and were often excluded from sale fares and mileage redemptions. Say you planned to visit Portland and Seattle, or Philadelphia and New York. Now it’s easier to book a flight to the city where you’re starting your trip, and a return flight from the city where your trip ends. You could even use different airlines.

Sometimes, it may cost less to fly in to one airport and out of another. That was my experience last year when I flew to San Francisco and returned from Oakland. But a rental car may cost more if you drop it off in a location other than the one where you picked it up.

For people with airline loyalty program points or miles, the ability to book a one-way ticket opens up many possibilities. That’s because one-way tickets generally require half as many points or miles as a round-trip.

The way it used to work was, you might need to earn 25,000 frequent-flier miles for a round-trip ticket, and if you had fewer miles, there wasn’t much you could do with them.

These days, a one-way ticket on United Airlines can be had for as little as 10,000 miles (for distances of no more than 700 miles). With American and US Airways, which have merged, a one-way, off-peak (Oct. 15-May 15) ticket to Europe requires just 20,000 miles.

So, you might not have the miles required for a round-trip ticket, but you might have enough to use miles for half the trip. Previously, if you had 10,000 or 15,000 miles each with two different airlines, that wouldn’t get you anywhere, but now you can mix and match airlines and one-way tickets.

The ability to book one-way tickets makes it easier to book the most convenient flights.

Maybe one airline has the best options for your outbound flight, but only inconvenient options for the return trip. It may not cost more to find a preferable return flight on a different airline, and book both flights as one-way tickets.