Ask Airfare Watchdog: Open-Ended Return Dates

Q: My mom wants to go to Phoenix in the fall, but isn't sure when she wants to come back home. What's the best way for her to purchase her ticket? Is there still such a thing as an open-ended return date or is there a more cost-effective way to do this?

A: She could always buy a fully refundable return ticket, but they're expensive. Normally, airlines charge around $150 to change a domestic fare. However, if she's flying to Phoenix on Southwest Airlines, she could change her return date without paying a fee. The only downside is that if the fare has gone up, she'll pay the fare difference (on the other hand, if the fare has gone down, she will get a voucher for the fare difference). If there are low one-way fares on the route she's flying, she could, of course, just buy a one-way ticket going out and then buy a second one-way fare on the return flight when she's ready to come home. On many routes, airlines such as Southwest and Airtran sell one-way fares for just half price of the lowest available round-trip fare.

Q: I don't know how early to purchase air tickets or whether to go through the airline directly or a website, such as Hotwire. The prices are the same. I have a trip coming up in October. My question: When should I book the flight, now or later? Also, if prices are the same on a discount ticket website and through the airline's website, which should I use?

A: It's impossible to predict when a fare on a given route will go up or down. There are always "flash" unadvertised sales. October is traditionally an inexpensive time to fly, since summer is over and the holidays are far off. My best advice is to sign up for free airfare alerts. Just do a web search for the term "airfare alert" and sign up for various alert services. You're correct that usually third-party web sites such as Hotwire and Expedia often have the same fares as you'll find on the airline sites, and they no longer charge a fee for booking air tickets; however it could be that you'll save money by flying out on one airline and returning on another airline. Usually, an airline web site won't tell you this (preferring, of course, to keep you on their airline in both directions), but a site like Expedia will combine airlines to save you money.