FRIDAY FRUMP: Booking multi-city airline tickets could be a costly mistake

When planning a trip in 2016 that would include booking a multi-city flight itinerary, I learned of a nefarious twist being employed by major U.S. airlines to wring more dollars out of the traveling public. Recently, I decided to revisit the topic to see if things have changed.

The twist is a change in the pricing practices that surround booking multi-city flight itineraries.

Multi-city flights contain several one-way legs under the same reservation and are popular when visiting three or more destinations. If a traveler is going from Seattle (SEA) to Tucson, Arizona (TUS), then to Sacramento (SMF) and then back to Seattle, it is often less expensive to book a multi-city itinerary than to purchase three separate one-way tickets.

But not always.

Prior to the change, passengers could buy non-refundable tickets for each leg. Non-refundable are generally the lowest priced tickets offered.

According to a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, Anti-Trust Division by Kevin Mitchell, founder of The Business Travel Coalition, the big three U.S. carriers of American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL), United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL), may have "coordinated on a complicated and comprehensive scheme to change airfare rules that have the effect of driving up the price of an airline ticket on unsuspecting consumers by as much as a factor of seven."

The pricing scheme, "[C]ombines the highest fares available on each segment and returns a round-trip single price that is substantially higher than if a consumer purchased separate one-way fares," according to Mitchell. Under those rules, travelers who book a multi-city ticket are shown the fares for fully refundable tickets; non-refundable tickets can no longer be combined on a single itinerary.

"While a knowledgeable travel agent will be cognizant of the policy change, the threshold problem is that most consumers, especially the majority who are infrequent travelers, will not be aware and will pay dearly when booking online at an airline website," Mitchell said.

What does that mean in terms of dollars and cents?

American 737 departs SEA

To find out, I went to and put in a sample itinerary of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Chicago’s O’Hare International (ORD) on Sept. 15, ORD to Dallas-Ft. Worth International (DFW) on Sept. 18, and a return to SEA on Sept. 21. I also selected “economy with restrictions” for my fare choice. The lowest total fare returned for the three-leg itinerary in the Main Cabin: $536.

Then I searched the flight segments as individual, one-way flights. While the difference between the two was considerable in 2016, the difference now is minimal. At least with American.

The lowest fare available for a non-stop SEA-ORD leg under the separate one-way-ticket scenario: $184. The ORD-DFW leg had a non-stop available for $188 and the DFW-SEA leg could be had for as low as $171, for a total of $543, very close to the cost of booking a multi-city itinerary. Of course, costs of flights may vary depending on the actual flight(s) chosen, and more preferential flight times could cost more. returned a different result for a sample itinerary of SEA to Newark’s Liberty Airport (EWR) on Sept. 15, EWR to Denver (DEN) on Sept. 18, then returning to SEA on Sept. 21. Booking a multi-city itinerary and specifying “lowest available fare” that was standard economy (i.e., not "basic economy') and all three being non-stop flights, the trip was priced "from $860." Booking those as separate one-way tickets on the same dates with the same fare restrictions returned prices of $259, $255 and $119, respectively, for a total of $633, or about 26 percent less than the multi-city fare.

For a real-world comparison, the multi-city flight I took on Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA) actually came out $80 less than booking a combination of one-way tickets. As an added bonus, my multi-city booking also allows me to spend a night or two on Honolulu before returning home to Seattle.

The approach of booking several separate one-way tickets instead of a multi-city ticket does have a potential down-side. Should a traveler need to change their itinerary, they could incur three or more change fees – one for each ticket – instead of a single change fee for altering a multi-city itinerary.

The bottom line

As with so many things in today’s extremely complicated air travel environment, it literally pays to do one’s homework. Checking the prices for two airlines for this article took me less than a half-hour. If I was actually planning the sample trip on United, than half-hour’s work could have saved me about $227; an excellent return on the time invested.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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