Earlier I shared the list of the next 14 first & business class products I’d like to review. Whenever possible I try to redeem miles for flights, though some of the airlines I want to review don’t partner with major loyalty programs, so that’s not an option. In those cases I typically try to score the best deal on premium tickets using one of two methods:
- Booking the ticket out of cheap markets that are known for low fares (Cairo, Colombo, etc.)
- Booking a mixed cabin ticket, with the outbound in first or business class, and the return in economy
Sometimes I’m able to use a combination of both, which is the best of both worlds. While I often just want a one-way in business class because I’m looking to review an airline, there are plenty of other reasons this could be useful. Some people want to fly first or business class in one direction but not the other, yet airlines make it surprisingly hard to book mixed cabin itineraries. In this post I wanted to look at how you can do that.
An example of a mixed cabin booking
I think it’s easiest to explain this in the form of an example. Let’s say I really want to fly Air Italy from Milan to Miami on July 9 in business class. The one-way fare is $1,988. Ouch, that’s expensive.
Meanwhile a roundtrip business class ticket would cost $2,047, which is just $60 more. In this case it would be a no brainer to book a roundtrip.
However, what if you wanted to fly outbound in business class and return in economy, or otherwise just book a one-way in business class? That’s possible — you can book Milan to Miami in business class (and pay half of the cheapest roundtrip business class cost) and then Miami to Milan in economy class (and pay half of the cheapest roundtrip economy class cost), for a total of $1,268. As you can see, you’re paying about $250 more than the lowest one-way business class cost, which accounts for the cost of the return in economy.
How is this possible?
The idea is simple — airlines publish different one-way fares than roundtrip fares. The logic is that they think they can generally get away with charging more for those who are traveling just one-way.
For example, between Milan and Miami, the cheapest roundtrip business class fare is $1,771, while the cheapest one-way business class fare is $1,653 (which is before carrier imposed surcharges).
The great thing is that you don’t actually have to book a roundtrip in business class to get that business class fare. Instead you can typically score that price as long as you travel roundtrip, even if you’re mixing cabins. In other words, if you’re flying in one direction in business class and one direction in economy, you’ll pay half of the cheapest business class fare on the outbound, and half of the cheapest economy fare on the return. This allows you to take advantage of the roundtrip business class pricing without actually flying business class in both directions.
When you look at the fare breakdown of that itinerary, you’ll see that you’re being charged $826 of base airfare for the outbound (roughly half of the $1,653 roundtrip price) and $47 of base airfare for the return (roughly half of the $130 roundtrip price for the “U” fare class).
Note that this won’t always work:
- Some airlines don’t let you combine fares in this way
- Some airlines publish one-way fares that are roughly half the cost of a roundtrip, in which case there are no cost savings to be had
How can you look up these fares?
For these types of fares, my favorite tool is ITA Matrix. My strategy is to first find the cheapest roundtrip business class fare around my dates, then I look up the one-way ticket cost in business class, and then I try to combine an outbound in business class with a return in economy.
In this case I’ll basically be “showing my work” for the itineraries above. My first step in this process is to find the cheapest roundtrip business class fare. In this case we’ll say we’re looking at Air Italy from Milan to Miami. I entered the airport codes and then selected “IG” as the airline (the two letter code for Air Italy), and then searched over a flexible period in July.
The cheapest fare is $2,048, which would be for the flights in the above section.
I then searched the cost of a one-way business class ticket.
This costs $1,989, as expected.
This is where the magic happens, where we price out a mixed cabin ticket. Now instead of searching for “Business Class” as the cabin we search for “Cheapest Available.” The trick is what goes in that “Departing from” field. See how to the right of the airline code I entered “f bc=i” in that box? This is the trick to making it work.
To search the mixed cabin itinerary you’d search “f bc=[whatever booking class you want]” which in this case is “I.” I know that because for the cheapest roundtrip business class ticket, that’s what the fare booked into in both directions.
That’s how you end up with this search result:
How do you actually book?
ITA Matrix lets you search flights, but you can’t actually book through ITA. So there are three potential ways to book:
- Some airlines let you book mixed cabin itineraries on their website, in which case that’s the best option
- Some OTAs let you search mixed cabin itineraries (I find Kayak is generally the best for this — just use their multi-city feature)
- You can use bookwithmatrix.com to see what websites will price the ticket; note that this doesn’t always work
- You may have to go through a traditional travel agent, though once you find one, this should be easy enough for them to book
Can you just not take the return?
The primary intention here is for someone looking to fly outbound in business or first class, and return in economy. For the most part, airlines don’t make it easy to book these kinds of mixed cabin itineraries, even though they’re allowed.
What happens if you just want to fly one-way in business class, though, and don’t plan on taking the return?
This isn’t like hidden city ticketing, where you’re booking a flight from Point A to Point B to Point C and getting off at Point B because the fare is cheaper that way. You’re traveling the entire one-way journey.
There’s nothing illegal about not taking the return, though many airline contracts of carriage require that you have the intent to take the flights you book (proving that is a different story). Everyone has to decide on their own comfort level.
If I were to throw away the return portion of a ticket, I’d generally only do so on an airline with which I don’t have a lot of miles. For an airline you’re booking as a one-off, I tend to think this is pretty low risk, though everyone has to decide on their own comfort level.
I’m surprised airlines don’t make it easier to book mixed cabin tickets, since there are lots of instances where people might want to splurge on business class in one direction and not the other.
Hopefully the above is a good outline of how to search these types of fares on ITA Matrix, as the site does make it easy. The bad news is that you can’t actually book through ITA, so after you’ve found the fare you’ll want, you’ll have to figure out the best way to book it.