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When is a “free” one-way not free?

View of the beach in Puerto Rico

View of the beach in Puerto Rico

My wife and I have been planning a getaway trip to Europe for this fall for awhile.  We arranged with a friend to barter babysitting in exchange for airline miles, which we also used for our recent getaway to Puerto Rico.

(SEE ALSO: Old San Juan Puerto Rico – a review)

(SEE ALSO: San Juan expenses: How much did my “free” trip cost?)

We have the miles to make the trip, but after planning our 2015 trips, we realized that to prepare for future redemptions, it might make sense to split up our itinerary (i.e. fly United / star alliance outbound and American / oneworld on the way back).  We had the airline miles to make the roundtrip on either airline, but splitting it up left us more flexibility for future planned trips.

(SEE ALSO: Introduction to Air alliances)

Initially though, I was reluctant to do our trip as 2 one-way flights, because that would give up the possibility of a “free one-way”.  For awhile last month, I thought I wouldn’t even have to worry about it, since I booked us with 2 tickets on the United “Great Dane” mistake fare, but then (not surprisingly), United chose not to honor those tickets and the US DOT declined to press the issue.  So we’re back to booking both legs with miles!

The concept of the “free” one-way

Not all airlines offer it, but on a round-trip international award ticket, many airlines will let you book a trip with a stopover in your home city, which lets you book a “free” one-way

(SEE ALSO: Stopover, layover, open-jaw? What are they and what’s the difference?)

Let’s say that you live in New York, and you’re planning a trip to London in June and then also want to go to California for Christmas.

JFK-LHR (roundtrip) plus a "free" one-way from JFK-LAX

JFK-LHR (roundtrip) plus a “free” one-way from JFK-LAX

June 1: JFK-LHR (outbound leg of award ticket)
June 5: LHR-JFK (stopover)
December 21: JFK-LAX (final destination)

Of course, you may not want to fly out of London since you’ll get charged the UK Air Passenger Duty!  But setting up your award ticket like this gets you half of your California Christmas trip for free!

(SEE ALSO: 4 ways to not pay UK Air Passenger Duty (APD))

Of course this works best when you live in (or have access to) an airline hub city, but it can work otherwise as well.  You can read how As the Joe Flies for how he took advantage of this on a recent trip.

So when is a free one-way not free?

unitedlogoWell, we were looking at taking our free one-way on United.  A roundtrip business class ticket with United miles costs 115,000 miles (unless you book it on a partner, in which case it is 140,000 miles).

My first inclincation was to do the roundtrip on United, and take advantage of the free one-way to take a later trip for a few months from now.  Since United, like most airlines, has a zone-based award chart, my first thought was Alaska, since that was the furthest I could go for the same miles.  It was only then while doing research for this that I found out how deceptive United’s award chart for Alaska is – even though it’s in the “Continental US, Alaska and Canada” zone, it still costs 10,000 additional miles to go from the Continental US to Alaska

freeSo I scaled back to Seattle or California, but then I started adding things up.

  • 1 roundtrip ticket to Europe + one-way from Cincinnati to California = 115,000 miles on United
  • Compare that to flying on American
    • 1 roundtrip ticket to Europe in business class = 100,000 miles
    • 1 one-way ticket from Cincinnati to California = 12,500 miles (that’s in economy, but for a 4 hour flight I’m okay in economy class)

It’s actually FEWER miles to NOT take my “free” one-way?!?!

Even better, because I have the Southwest Companion Pass, my wife would fly free if we flew on Southwest, cutting down the miles we spent even more!

So in the end, I decided to just book one way with United miles and the return leg with American miles.  Even better, this lets me save some of my valuable Chase miles to transfer to Amtrak for my $6500 train trip!

(SEE ALSO: Chase Ultimate Rewards: 5 reasons I think they’re the best miles out there)

Ever used a free one-way?  Let me know your experience in the comments

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