Reduce Delta one-way award cost by adding a throw-away return

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I usually have good luck booking Delta awards at low mileage rates, especially when my flight dates and times are flexible.  For an recent trip, though, I had to fly one-way on a specific date and within a specific time window.  For this short flight (which Delta sometimes offers for as low as 8,000 miles one-way), they wanted 51,000 miles.  The cash ticket price for this flight was $557, so I’d still get slightly over 1 cent per mile from my SkyMiles, but come on… 51,000 miles is too much for a short domestic flight.

United was the only other carrier offering a flight that met my needs.  They wanted 32,500 miles plus $75 for their close-in booking fee (the price shows $80.60 because it also includes the $5.60 TSA fee).  That’s better than Delta, but still far from a bargain (United’s cash price was also $557 by the way).

Round trip for less with a throw-away return

Luckily for me, Delta often charges less for round trip flights.  This is true for both cash prices and mile prices.  The exact flight I wanted was available for 28,000 miles round-trip.  Even though I didn’t need the return, this was a better deal.  By adding this throw-away return leg, I could save 23,000 miles (but I would have to pay an extra $5.60 in TSA fees).

throw-away return

This does not work with AA, Southwest, or United.  They price each direction of a round-trip award separately.

Multi-city for less with a throw-away return to somewhere else

Next, I used Google Flights to figure out which routes Delta routinely sells cheaply from my destination city.  Then, I ran one-way searches on Delta.com to find dates where Delta offered cheap awards to those cities (cheap awards don’t always line up with cheap prices identified by Google Flights).  I then went to Delta’s Multi-City search and plugged in my desired flight info under “Flight 1” and a return flight to a different city under “Flight 2” (note: sometimes works with a completely different set of from/to airports under “Flight 2”).  After playing with a number of different dates and destinations, I was able to drop the overall price to 23,000 miles.  I’ve done even better with this trick in the past, but it’s time consuming so I called it a day and booked it.

multi-city throw-away return

Add a Leg Instead

A similar option for making one-way flights cheaper with cash or miles is to find a cheaper destination beyond the airport you want to fly to, make sure there’s a layover at your destination, and then simply do not fly the last segment.  This is referred to as “hidden city ticketing” or skiplagging.  In my recent example, I couldn’t find any good skiplag options, so I went with the multi-city round-trip instead.

Skiplagging can be a fantastic way to save cash or miles, but it also has more potential gotchas then a throw-away return ticket.  For full details please see: Skiplagging for the best flights at the best price.

Practical and ethical considerations of the throw-away return

Airlines don’t like it when people book round-trip flights to save money or miles, but there’s nothing illegal about it.  And I have yet to find any case where an airline has penalized a flyer in any real way because of it.  The main issue I see is that this approach takes away seat availability on the return trip which you don’t intend to fly.

I can think of a few steps you can take to reduce the harm here:

  • Book the return further into the future.
  • Select the least desirable return departure time (e.g. 5am, 11pm)
  • Cancel the rest of your ticket after you fly the desired one-way

By following the above advice, it’s unlikely that anyone will be inconvenienced by your shenanigans.

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